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Can Hillary Clinton convince voters that she’s honest and trustworthy?

June 30, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
From Whitewater to Benghazi and her secret speeches to Wall Streeters, Hillary Clinton has a trust problem, polls find. She admitted Monday that she has to do more to change the perception. Political director Lisa Desjardins reports and Judy Woodruff talks with Anne Gearan of The Washington Post; Peter D. Hart, founder of Hart Research Associates; and longtime Clinton supporter Ann Lewis.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the 2016 campaign for the White House, as we get closer to the national party conventions.

Impressions of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have begun to take hold in the minds of more and more voters, some positive and some less so.

In our ongoing effort to look at not only the candidates’ positions on the issues, but also at their personalities and character traits, we take a look tonight at voters’ perceptions of Clinton.

The “NewsHour”‘s Lisa Desjardins begins our report.

LISA DESJARDINS: This past Monday, Hillary Clinton directly confronted a perception that has dogged her.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Presumptive Presidential Nominee: A lot of people tell pollsters they don’t trust me. Now, I don’t like hearing that, and I have thought a lot about what is behind it.

LISA DESJARDINS: It’s something even Democratic voters have expressed, as from this Sanders supporters in New York back in April.

WILLIAM MARSHALL, New York City Resident: First of all, she’s lying about Benghazi. She’s lying about her e-mails.

LISA DESJARDINS: Recent polls such as this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal survey back up the anecdotes; 69 percent of those polled said they’re concerned by criticism that Clinton has a — quote — “record of being dishonest.” Just 28 percent said that wasn’t a concern for them.

Enter the Republican nominee-to-be, Donald Trump. He has his own polling negatives, but he’s pouncing on the Clinton trust gap.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presumptive Presidential Nominee: Most people know she’s a world-class liar. Just look at her pathetic e-mail server statements.

LISA DESJARDINS: Some point to her time in the White House and the investigation into both Clintons’ investments in Arkansas property known as Whitewater as the origin of questions about her trustworthiness.

But Clinton defenders say this is pure politics, the drawback of a nearly four-decade-long career, this from one Iowa voter in January.

BEN SCHRAG, Iowa Resident: I think you can’t be a candidate who has been in the public eye for as long as Hillary has, and not have something that can be sort of picked apart.

LISA DESJARDINS: The candidate insists she is a victim of politics and misunderstanding. She says she’s ready to confront the issue.

HILLARY CLINTON: You can’t just talk someone into trusting you. You have got to earn it.

LISA DESJARDINS: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We explore this question of trust with Anne Gearan. She covers the Clinton campaign for The Washington Post. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, founder of Hart Research. And strategist Ann Lewis, she’s a Hillary Clinton supporter who has known the candidate for more than two decades.

Welcome, all three of you, back to the program.

ANNE GEARAN, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anne Gearan, to you first.

You do follow the Clinton campaign very closely. How serious do they view this issue, this question of trustworthiness?

ANNE GEARAN: Well, I think you get a measure of how serious and persistent an issue, a problem this is for Clinton by the fact that she took time out of an otherwise unrelated event earlier this week to address it, which was, you know, on Monday at an otherwise civil rights-themed event, she kind of made an aside to say, before a friendly audience, that she understood that people have questions and doubts about her trustworthiness, and that she’s trying to work to address those.

She’s trying to neutralize it and cauterize that the best she can at the start of the general election campaign, because it’s something that stuck with her throughout the primary and appears to be primed to be a major topic during the general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Peter Hart, based on the polling you have done over the years, especially this year, talking to voters, what do you see?

PETER HART, Founder, Hart Research Associates: It’s a big problem. I mean, this is our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and we asked people to use their own words when they hear the word President Hillary Clinton. What comes to mind?

And you can see the biggest word there is trustworthy, liar, and all of this. There are lots of good things to say about her, but the biggest problem and challenge that she has is, how do you overcome the integrity problem?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is unprompted or prompted?

PETER HART: Unprompted. In other words, this — they can choose any word. People say, I want to select a woman. They like that very much. They think she’s competent. But the biggest hurdle for her is integrity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Lewis, again, as somebody who has known Hillary Clinton for a very long time, why do you think — how — it’s a recurring issue. Why is that? How do you see it?

ANN LEWIS, Hillary Clinton Supporter: Well, as Hillary has said, she knows it. She doesn’t like it. She knows it. She knows she has to work harder to earn people’s trust.

But, look, Judy, it is not a coincidence that we’re having this conversation the day after the Benghazi committee report comes out. We have had 25 years of partisan attacks on Hillary. Every one of them eventually is disproved, it’s discharged. But they leave a residue.

So, the Benghazi report, which was the seventh, looking at this tragedy where people had died, and yet it’s being used for partisan purposes, really to bludgeon her. The report comes out and says, no, no wrongdoing, front page, right, cleared of any wrongdoing, and yet her opponents are using it again as a way to attack her.

So, yes, she has work to do, as she has said. She knows she’s made some mistakes, but the most important thing she can do is tell people, I’m going to work hard on your behalf. You can count on me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter, what do you see, again, in the research and the focus groups that’s at the source of this? What’s causing people to have this lack of trust?

PETER HART: Well, what’s fascinating is exactly what Ann says. It’s not a single event.

It’s not as though Hillary Clinton can go to the nation and say, I want to direct and — address this directly. The problem is there are a host of things that go back over 25 years. So, there’s not necessarily…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Like what? I mean, what…

(CROSSTALK)

PETER HART: Well, you can go back to Whitewater that they talk about. They can talk about all of the elements, whether it’s Benghazi, whether it’s the speaking fees at Wall Street.

All of those things become challenges, and they build upon one another. So, as Ann said, maybe she’s answered each and every one of these things, but there’s not a sense of transparency. There’s not a sense of she’s opened all the books and done all those things. So that’s what’s hanging out there. It’s not a single specific.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anne Gearan, you have also talked to voters. You don’t just talk to people in the campaign. What do you see coming through voters and what is at the source of this?

ANNE GEARAN: Well, it’s interesting that you mention the speaking fee issue.

This is something that we heard an awful lot about throughout the primary, and it wasn’t a partisan attack, in the sense that it didn’t come from Republicans primarily. It came from Democrats. It came from Bernie supporters. It came from liberal Democrats concerned that Clinton was revealing that she was too close to Wall Street, point one, and that she felt — it seemed to them that she had something to hide by not releasing the transcripts of those conversations and not being willing to talk in great detail about what she had said in those closed-door sessions.

So that — it’s the two things. It’s that she, you know, has made decisions that people disagree with, going back decades, and, in this case, not that long ago, and whether she’s being truthful and forthcoming in the aftermath in describing those.

That particular incident was of great interest to us, because it showed that she, even at a time when it was pretty obvious that she was going to run for president, made decisions that in — really pretty clearly were going to make her look as if she could potentially, you know, have something to hide, that there was a political — there was going to be a political cost to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Lewis, basically, your point is that it’s not fair, it’s just the accumulation of a number of negative stories.

But, having said that, does Hillary Clinton, do the people around her understand or — I mean, how do they think they turn this around? How do they deal with it?

ANN LEWIS: Let me be clear, life may not be fair, but you deal with what’s there.

And Hillary says and knows she has — she has to work hard in this campaign, again, to earn people’s trust, to say to them, here’s my record of what I have done. You can count on me. You can count on me to fight for you.

Look, nobody I know would say, honey, who could you count on to fight for children? Well, look at Hillary Clinton’s record, and here is what she will do. So, this isn’t something you address with rhetoric.

You do it with action. You do it with commitment, and you do it in Hillary’s case by pointing out what she has done throughout her life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Peter Hart, again, as somebody who has looked at a lot of different campaigns, is this something that a candidate can turn around? Is this one of those things that you can go out there and make the opposite argument? What are the options for Hillary Clinton?

PETER HART: Well, I think the options are to get back to — Hillary Clinton, I see as sort of a great antique desk that has been painted over a million times, and if you could just strip away all of that, she’d have a much better chance.

And I don’t think it’s on integrity. I think it is on being easygoing and likable, her friendships, her depth, all of those things. People think of her as competent. They don’t trust her. But they don’t like her at this stage of the game. That’s the thing that she needs to deal with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how does she — is this the kind of thing a candidate can change?

PETER HART: Of course they can. I mean, it just is, as much as anything, all of her friendships. Those things need to get across.

Somehow, she needs to be able to have that nice interchange, which she can do so well. Everything is too much of a platform. You don’t get that easygoing qualities that you can see. And if you create that, then I think integrity becomes a subpart, instead of the major part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anne Gearan, in talking to the campaign, do you sense they have a strategy, that they recognize — as we pointed out, Hillary Clinton herself addressed this, this week, but what do they do going forward about it?

ANNE GEARAN: Well, I mean, the strategy appears to be two main things, talk about it, confront it, acknowledge it. It is a problem, she’s saying, and here’s what I’m going to do about it. I’m going to try to work hard and earn your trust.

That’s point one she’s doing. The other thing, I think — I have been surprised we haven’t talked about yet, which is, yes, people don’t like her. Yes, people say she is untrustworthy, but in the same polling, people say they don’t like Donald Trump more.

And the second part of that strategy is to play on people’s dislike and distrust of Donald Trump, and to try to flesh that out with data points from his business background, which you see not only Clinton and her campaign doing, but all of the arrayed super PACs doing on her behalf right now, rolling out people who were victimized — say they were victimized by Trump, trying to show where he stiffed contractors at his Atlantic City hotels and all the rest.

That is a different way of getting at the question of trustworthiness and, you know, believability, and that’s how they’re going to try to advance her, by attacking him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Compared to what?

(LAUGHTER)

ANNE GEARAN: Right. Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we have got four-and-a-half months to go. And we will continue to watch this unfold.

Anne Gearan.

ANNE GEARAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Hart, Ann Lewis, thank you all. Appreciate it.

ANN LEWIS: Thank you.

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