PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — It was a very busy, very lucrative weekend for Hillary Clinton in the summer playground of the East Coast’s moneyed elite.
She brunched with wealthy backers at a seaside estate in Nantucket, snacking on shrimp dumplings and crabcakes. A few hours later, she and her husband dined with an intimate party of thirty at a secluded Martha’s Vineyard estate. And on Sunday afternoon, she joined the singer Cher at a “LGBT summer celebration” on the far reaches of Cape Cod.
By Sunday evening, Clinton had spoken to more than 2,200 campaign donors. But what she told the crowds remains a mystery.
Clinton has refused to open her fundraisers to journalists, reversing nearly a decade of greater transparency in presidential campaigns and leaving the public guessing at what she’s saying to some of her most powerful supporters.
It’s an approach that differs from the Democratic president she hopes to succeed. Since his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama has allowed reporters traveling with him into the backyards and homes of wealthy donors to witness his some of his remarks.
While reporters are escorted out of Obama’s events before the start of the juicier Q&A, the president’s approach offers at least a limited measure of accountability that some fear may disappear when Clinton or Republican nominee Donald Trump moves into the White House.
“Unfortunately these things have a tendency to ratchet down,” said Larry Noble, the general counsel of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “As the bar gets lower, it’s hard to raise it again.”
Clinton’s campaign does release limited details about her events, naming the hosts, how many people attended and how much they gave. That’s more than Trump, whose far fewer fundraisers are held entirely away from the media, with no details provided.
Even some Democrats privately acknowledge that Clinton’s penchant for secrecy is a liability, given voters’ continued doubts about her honesty.
While Clinton will occasionally take questions from reporters at campaign stops, she has not held a full-fledged news conference in more than 260 days — nearly nine months. Trump has held several news conferences.
Clinton refuses to release the transcripts of dozens of closed-door speeches she delivered to companies and business associations after leaving the State Department in 2013, despite significant bipartisan criticism.
And since announcing her presidential bid in April 2015, Clinton has held around 300 fundraising events — only around five have been open to any kind of news coverage.
“It does feed this rap about being secretive and being suspicious,” said GOP strategist Whit Ayers.
Clinton’s aides have promised for weeks that greater access to her events will be coming soon. But Trump’s lack of disclosure about his fundraisers has given her political cover to keep the doors closed, particularly as she conducts a period of intense fundraising before the final sprint to Election Day.
While Clinton is expected to make only two public appearances before the end of August, she and her top backers will mingle with donors at no fewer than 54 events, according to a fundraising schedule obtained by The Associated Press.
Reporters covering these events wait outside, in vans, parking lots and vacant guesthouses — even at homes they’ve entered with Obama at previous events. In Provincetown on Sunday, five reporters crowded into the corner of a parking lot, clinging to a chain link fence as they tried to catch Clinton’s speech to a crowd of about 1,000 supporters.
None of her remarks seemed particularly remarkable: The candidate could faintly be heard running through her standard stump speech.
During a Saturday fundraiser at a stately Martha’s Vineyard estate, faint cheers could be heard as Clinton addressed 700 donors on a green lawn overlooking the water. Staffers instructed drivers to roll up the windows of vans where reporters waited before being ushered into a nearby guesthouse.
What a candidate tells his or her rich donors has long been a subject of intense speculation in American politics, in part because the message can be different than what they offer to voters.
Obama is still haunted by a comment he made at a 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco, calling voters in small-town Pennsylvania “bitter” and saying they cling to “guns or religion.” He learned a lesson: At events during his 2012 campaign, staffers set up a table where guests were expected to check their cellphones before entering. Clinton has tried to ban tweeting, Instagram and other forms of social media at some of her events.
Four years ago, a waiter recorded and leaked remarks GOP nominee Mitt Romney made about the “47 percent” of voters who are “dependent on government and would vote for Obama “no matter what” at a closed Florida fundraiser. After his convention, Romney started opening his fundraisers to the media to grab headlines, especially on days when he had no other public appearances.
His former aides say that’s not a problem for Clinton.
“Quite frankly, if I’m her, it may not be a bad thing to let Donald Trump be the only candidate making news on any given day,” said former Romney campaign aide Ryan Williams. “She can stay dark for five straight days and let Trump trip all over himself.”