Phil Houston is CEO of QVerity, a training and consulting company specializing in detecting deception by employing a model he developed while at the Central Intelligence Agency. He has conducted thousands of interviews and interrogations for the CIA and other federal agencies. His colleague Don Tennant contributed to this report.
When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer last week, the email controversy that has dogged the former Secretary of State became a rather uncomfortable topic of discussion. The topic became even more uncomfortable two days later, when President Obama was challenged by Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace about the political ramifications of the controversy, and any special treatment Clinton might receive. The behaviors we observed in these interviews suggest that this discomfort could stem from the specter of a presidential pardon having entered the equation.
To understand how we arrived at this conclusion, the first step is to recognize what we view as deceptive behavior that Clinton exhibited in the interview with Lauer. Consider the fact that despite Clinton’s initial denials that there was classified information on her personal email server, it has been established that over 2,000 of her emails reportedly contained classified material, including 22 emails that contained Top Secret information. (Though Clinton contends the emails were not classified at the time) Now, consider it in the context of former CIA Director John Deutch’s career-ending decision 10 years ago to put classified information on several of his laptop computers. As serious as that transgression was, Deutch never suffered any serious consequences. The reason: He was pardoned by President Bill Clinton on Clinton’s last day in office.
That history may help to explain Hillary Clinton’s reaction when Lauer raised the notion of how pleased the Republicans would be if they were to see her in handcuffs. Before Lauer even finished the statement, Clinton burst out laughing. And then she went into attack mode.
“Well, Matt, I know they live in that world of fantasy and hope,” she said, “because they’ve got a mess on their hands on the Republican side.”
That attack was followed by an extraordinarily definitive statement.
“That is not going to happen,” Clinton said. “There is not even the remotest chance that is going to happen.”
(Skip to around 5:50 to hear her comments on the FBI ‘security review’):
We’re forced to ask ourselves what’s driving that extraordinary strength of conviction, and we’re left to conclude that what we’re seeing is either a false or contrived sense of confidence, or a genuine, substantiated sense of confidence. It’s helpful to address both scenarios.
It certainly may be the case that Clinton’s sense of confidence was false or contrived. Her flippant, dismissive behavior was, in fact, consistent with the behavior we often see in the criminal world, when a person is arrested on suspicion of committing a serious crime. As an example, we routinely see people who are arrested actually fall asleep soon after the cell door clangs shut, even in the middle of the day. In contrast to a truthful person, whose level of concern would likely lead to several sleepless nights, a deceptive person tends to be dismissive of the circumstances.
Now, if it’s the case that what we’re seeing from Clinton is genuine, substantiated confidence, to what can we attribute her seeming certainty that she has nothing to worry about? We can only surmise that there is at least a possibility that she has received some sort of assurance to that effect. And if the Deutch case demonstrated anything, it’s that if any such assurance has been given, it may have taken the form of a promise of a pardon.
Our hypothesis regarding a potential pardon assurance was dramatically bolstered on Sunday, when Chris Wallace’s interview of President Obama was aired. What initially struck us in this interview was the way in which the President minimized the seriousness of Clinton’s transgression.
“What I also know, because I handle a lot of classified information, is that there’s classified, and then there’s classified,” President Obama said, chuckling. “There’s stuff that is really Top Secret Top Secret, and there’s stuff that’s being presented to the President or the Secretary of State that you might not want on the transom or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you can get in open source.”
What could possibly compel the President of the United States to discuss the handling of classified information in such a wantonly cavalier manner? Clearly, if some form of assurance of a pardon had been given, the President has a decidedly strong incentive to minimize the seriousness of the issue.
In the interview, Wallace subsequently noted that some people are concerned that the matter will be handled on political grounds rather than on legal grounds, and he asked the President if he could provide a guarantee to the American people that Clinton would not be in any way protected, and if he could direct the Justice Department to proceed accordingly.
“I can guarantee that, not because I give Attorney General Lynch a directive,” the President said. “That is institutionally how we have always operated. I do not talk to the Attorney General about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line, and always have maintained it with previous presidents.”
It was at that point in the interview that we saw a particularly troubling red flag. When Wallace tried to ask a follow-up question with the introduction, “Just to button this up,” the President cut him off.
“I guarantee it,” he said. “I guarantee that there is no political influence in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department or the FBI, not just in this case, but in any case.”
The interruption, in the form of an overly-specific response, failed to address the entirety of the options available to the President, and Wallace likely recognized that. So he gave it another shot.
“And she will be treated …” he persisted, only to be cut off again by the President.
“Full stop. Period,” the President said
Wallace persevered. “And she will be treated no differently …” he began. But once again, he was abruptly, forcefully cut off.
“Guaranteed, full stop,” President Obama said. “Nobody gets treated differently when it comes to the Justice Department, because nobody is above the law.”
Again, the President’s interruption was overly-specific. “Nobody gets treated differently when it comes to the Justice Department.” Of course, we don’t know whether Wallace was hoping to address the possibility of a pardon, or whether President Obama kept cutting Wallace off because he was concerned Wallace would raise the issue. What we do know is that if Wallace was trying to raise the issue, his effort was repeatedly stymied.
Still, Wallace didn’t give up easily. He asked the President if what he was saying would still be the case, even if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee. That drew a stern reprimand.
“How many times do I have to say it, Chris? Guaranteed,” the President said.
The abrupt interruptions, combined with the “how many times do I have to say it” rebuke, constitute aggression behavior that demonstrate how eager President Obama appeared to be to get Wallace to back off. What drove that behavior is yet to play out. When it does, an outcome that yields a pardon for Hillary Clinton would be unsurprising—especially if she becomes the Democratic nominee.