WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — For months, Hillary Clinton’s supporters have griped that she’s held to a higher, harder standard than Donald Trump. After Wednesday night’s forum on national security, those complaints became a rallying cry.
In the opening segment of the made-for-TV event, moderator Matt Lauer interrupted Clinton’s answer to his first question, about what it takes to be commander in chief, to set up 10 minutes of questions about her use of a private email system and her vote for the Iraq war.
Trump seemed to skate by a half hour later as he repeated — unchallenged — the false claim that he was against the war, even though he voiced support for it in a 2002 interview. When Lauer introduced a question about how the Republican nominee is boning up on issues, he told Trump, “nobody would expect you” to have delved deeply into foreign policy.
The forum underscored a debate that’s rapidly becoming a focal point in the race: Is the first female presidential nominee of a major U.S. party being judged fairly? Clinton’s answer, unsurprisingly, is no.
“I don’t understand the reason for it,” Clinton said Thursday. “I find it frustrating, but it’s just part of the landscape that we live in and we just keep forging ahead.”
Throughout his White House campaign, Trump has repeatedly defied the conventional rules of politics, winning his party’s nomination despite a history of corporate bankruptcies and lawsuits that would have sunk a more traditional candidate. With impunity, he repeats statements debunked by fact checkers.
Two months before Election Day, Trump’s policies remain largely unformed. In some cases, as with his plans to defeat the Islamic State group, Trump says they’re purposefully shrouded in secrecy. At the forum, he said the best way to address sexual assault inside the armed services would be to “set up a court system within the military” — something that has existed since the Revolutionary War.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign this week published a 250-page book detailing her various policy plans.
Trump has refused to release his tax returns, while she’s disclosed decades of filings.
And while she’s apologized for a long list of past policy ideas and personal choices, including her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state, he’s acknowledged just once that there are statements “I do regret.” He’s never specified what, exactly, he was sorry about.
Clinton’s campaign acknowledges that some of her liabilities stem from self-imposed errors, including her difficulty explaining the decision to install a private email server in her New York home.
Republican opponents have no shortage of examples which they say demonstrate that it’s Clinton who expects deferential treatment. Even some Clinton supporters will admit that she has mishandled — and often completely avoided — questions about her email and her family’s charitable foundation, fueling scrutiny of both.
But they also believe her missteps have been given far more weight than those of Trump.
“He’s displayed a reckless level of ignorance and intolerance and that needs to be called out,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. “He should be held to the same standard of truthfulness of his statements.”
As part of their effort, Clinton and her team have begun tip-toeing into a topic they’ve often tried to avoid: sexism.
After Wednesday’s forum ended, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted a critique of Clinton’s performance as “angry + defensive the entire time – no smile and uncomfortable.”
“People. Reince actually said HRC needed to smile more. This is real,” tweeted Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri. Stuart Stevens, a vocal Trump critic and senior strategist to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, tweeted: “In front of a weather map, smiling a lot might be a job requirement. In the Oval Office, it’s not.”
In a Facebook post published on the page Humans of New York on Thursday, Clinton recounted taking a law school admissions test at Harvard University in 1969 and being harassed by male students.
“I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off,'” she wrote in the post. “If I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional.”
Some of the pushback is clearly strategic. A fundraising email sent out by the Clinton campaign on Thursday used Lauer’s failure to “fact-check Trump” to rally supporters.
With the first debate scheduled for later this month, Clinton’s campaign is trying to ensure that Trump is positioned for a tough evaluation, recognizing that expectations can matter even more than actual performance. Aides fear a scenario in which a single misstep by Clinton gets a tougher assessment than repeated mistakes by Trump.
In the Republican primaries, Trump’s opponents were repeatedly frustrated by his ability to dominate the news cycle with provocative comments and his failure to suffer any consequences for his words. Republican strategists say Clinton should have been more prepared for that to happen in the general election.
“Trump has an ability to manipulate situations like that to his advantage, which we saw over and over in the primary,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, the former campaign manager for Republican candidate Carly Fiorina. “She can complain about the rules of the game, but she also knows the rules of the campaign.”
Lerer reported from Washington.