The Cable

Hillary’s Long Road to Saying ‘I’m Sorry’

She took a long time getting there.

MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 5: Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Reception for New Hampshire Organized Labor Community and Allies event September 5, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Clinton attended a Women for Hillary event at Portsmouth High School earlier in the day and received an endorsement from U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 5: Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Reception for New Hampshire Organized Labor Community and Allies event September 5, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Clinton attended a Women for Hillary event at Portsmouth High School earlier in the day and received an endorsement from U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

After months of equivocating, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton used an interview Tuesday to finally say the two words supporters and critics have waited for as the scandal over the private email server she used while secretary of state erupted and metastasized: “I’m sorry.”

She took a long time getting there. Just Monday, she said she wasn’t sorry because “what I did was allowed.” She has called the email debacle a “distraction” and brushed aside claims that she avoided using a government address in a calculated bid to avoid scrutiny under freedom-of-information laws.

Clinton never used an official state.gov email address while she was running Foggy Bottom. She has referred to the private server she used instead as a matter of convenience, although she would have likely found it easier to use a default work email address, like every other office worker and federal employee. Under pressure, Clinton eventually turned over roughly 55,000 pages of emails, which are being examined by intelligence and State Department officials looking to see if they contain classified materials. Last month, she turned over both a thumb drive containing the emails and the server itself — something she had vowed never to do — to Justice Department investigators probing whether sensitive documents were properly protected. Clinton herself is not the subject of the investigation and has promised to testify on Capitol Hill about the emails later this year.

In Tuesday’s interview on ABC, she said, “That was a mistake. I’m sorry” — the first time she has admitted wrongdoing in the affair.

Last month, she was still making humorless jokes when prodded on the issue. On wiping the server: “What? Like with a cloth or something?” she asked. “I don’t know how it works digitally at all.”

If her poll numbers mean anything, playing dumb hasn’t played well with voters. Recent polls have shown her favorability ratings falling while increasing numbers of voters say they doubt whether she can be trusted. As of Sunday, her primary challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, showed a 9-point lead in New Hampshire and gains in other key states, including Iowa.

Clinton followed a long and winding road to Tuesday’s apology that was at times defensive, dismissive, and strikingly legalistic.

“The facts are pretty clear,” she said in July. “I did not send or receive anything that was classified at the time.”

That’s almost certainly true; even many of her critics acknowledge that some of the emails were deemed classified long after she’d received and read them. But the defense misses the broader impression among some voters that she was playing fast and loose with the rules.

Before March, she had never even addressed the controversy.

At a press conference at the United Nations, when she first brought up the issue in public, she conceded that it “would’ve been better” to have used an official account, but stopped at that.

Half a year down the line, she probably didn’t expect she’d still be talking about the emails, let alone finally having to admit her mistake. But that’s where she finds herself.

Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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