Viewpoints

Andres Oppenheimer: Clinton needs to open up, put Trump on defensive about transparency

As one of the many victims of Hillary Clinton’s aversion to the media, I was not surprised by her campaign’s failure to reveal that she was diagnosed with pneumonia until two days later, and only after she was caught on tape nearly collapsing as she was trying to get into her vehicle.

The Democratic presidential candidate’s penchant for silence has long been an open secret among journalists, as much as her reluctance to give press conferences. She gave her first formal press conference in more than nine months on Sept. 8, and it lasted less than 20 minutes.

What’s much harder to understand is why the Clinton campaign has failed to convince her to open up and put an end to Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories. Amazingly, the Clinton camp has allowed Trump to portray himself as a champion of openness, when in fact he is much less transparent than Clinton. I'll come back to this in a moment.

Shortly after the belated disclosure of Clinton’s pneumonia, former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod tweeted, “Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What’s the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?” He couldn’t have said it better.

It’s hard to understand why Clinton is so press-averse. Like many of my colleagues, I have been unsuccessfully requesting an interview with Clinton for more than a year. By this time in the 2008 campaign, President Obama had given me two one-on-one interviews. He later granted me a third one as president in 2011.

Asked about it, Clinton campaign spokesman Jorge Silva told me that Clinton has given more than 300 interviews this year, and that “the campaign’s strategy has been to focus on local media.” He added that people are more interested in long-standing local issues rather than in those that dominate the 24-hour news cycle.

Maybe so, but that doesn’t explain Clinton’s reluctance to talk about larger issues. It can’t be fear of being asked about complex national security issues: After eight years in the White House as first lady, four years as a U.S. senator, and another four years as U.S. secretary of state, there is probably no presidential candidate in U.S. history who has known more about domestic and foreign affairs.

So what’s behind Clinton’s aversion? It may be that Clinton is a lawyer, and lawyers are trained to say as little as possible about their cases. Or it may be that that the 1990s Whitewater investigation and other scandals during the Clinton administration convinced her that sometimes it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Whatever the reason, Clinton’s silence has hurt her badly in recent days. It has allowed Trump to step up his attacks on her alleged lack of transparency with her State Department e-mails, the Clinton Foundation and her health.

Incredibly, very few are talking about Trump’s much larger lack of transparency and conflict of interest issues.

Trump is the first presidential candidate in nearly four decades who has not released his tax returns. He has based his campaign narrative on his claim that he is a successful billionaire who has built a $10 billion fortune, but there is no way to know whether that’s true.

Several of Trump’s companies have gone bankrupt, and news media have concluded that his fortune is much smaller than what he claims.

Furthermore, Trump has disclosed very little about his Trump Foundation, now under investigation by New York’s attorney general, or about his reported debts to the Bank of China, or of his business interests in 22 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China.

More importantly, he has rejected suggestions that he create a blind trust for his holdings if elected, saying instead that he would turn over his businesses to his children. “This is a shocking conflict of interest,” said political scientist Norman Ornstein.

My opinion: It’s time for Clinton to open up, and to put Trump on the defensive on questions of transparency, secrecy and honesty. If we are all talking about Clinton’s penchant for secrecy in the wake of “pneumonia-gate,” it’s her fault. And it’s something that she could easily turn into a powerful weapon against Trump.

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald, aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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