Contrition is Hillary Clinton's latest tactic to escape the deepening mire of yet another duplicity scandal of the sort that has dogged the Democratic Party's best-known couple for decades and now threatens to drag down her presidential bid.
"I'm sorry about it, and I take full responsibility," Ms. Clinton said this week, after insisting for months that no apology was necessary.
The former First Lady, seeking to return to the Oval Office as president, still insists she was only unthinking, not wrong, when she chose to use a private e-mail server in the basement of her Chappaqua, N.Y., mansion rather than secure government systems during her four years as secretary of state.
But the Clintons' hand-picked technology specialist, Bryan Pagliano, the man they paid privately to run the server and wipe clean its hard drive, apparently isn't so sure that everything was lawful.
Mr. Pagliano "took the Fifth" on Thursday, rather than answer questions by a congressional select committee on Benghazi probing Ms. Clinton's actions in the hours before and after of the killing of a U.S. diplomat in Libya. "Taking the Fifth" refers to the constitutional right a witness can invoke to refuse to answer questions that could criminally implicate him.
For her part, Ms. Clinton remains adamant that the basement e-mail server didn't compromise national security, that no official e-mails have gone missing and that no laws were broken. But after refusing for months to apologize, she has now done so as the damage control shifts into contrition phase.
The ongoing e-mail mess, however, shows no signs of going away – to the undisguised delight of Republicans – and continues to hurt Ms. Clinton's bid to become the first woman president.
Her credibility has taken a huge hit. "Liar," "dishonest" and "untrustworthy" were the top three words voters said sprang to mind when asked about Ms. Clinton by Quinnipiac University in a national poll released late last month. Ms. Clinton also posted her lowest personal score ever for honesty.
Even among Democrats, Ms. Clinton's once-commanding support is sagging. Instead of the supposed-to-be firm grip on her party's nomination, Ms. Clinton has fallen behind the populist left-winger Senator Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire and, in one recent poll, Iowa – the first two states on next year's primary calendar.
Ms. Clinton will testify Oct. 22 before the special Benghazi committee. There she will surely face some of the same questions about which e-mails were destroyed, who authorized the Clinton hard drive to be wiped clean, and whether highly classified documents should ever have been on a non-government server. Some committee members are already talking about granting Mr. Pagliano immunity from prosecution if he will return and testify.
Representative Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican chairing the special committee, has made little secret of his assessment of Mr. Pagliano. "He has a right to not answer questions that he thinks may incriminate him – and you have a right to glean whatever inference you want from the fact that he has," Mr. Gowdy said.
Mr. Pagliano worked for Ms. Clinton's failed 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination. She then found him a job at the State Department, but the Clintons also paid him privately in connection with their basement e-mail server. "With respect to personal services that he provided to me and my family, we obviously paid for those services and did so because, during a period of time, we continued to need his technical assistance," Ms. Clinton said.
What's not clear – although it will be part of an ongoing Federal Bureau of Investigation effort to recover e-mail and other data wiped from the server's hard disk – is whether Mr. Pagliano set up the security system on the Clinton's e-mail server and whether he did the purging of files at Ms. Clinton's direction.
Mr. Pagliano is just the latest in a long line of colourful characters who have "taken the Fifth" rather than reveal the whole truth to a congressional committee.
They include Mark McGwire, the juiced home-run slugger, who refused to answer questions about steroid use; Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the social gadflies who crashed a White House state dinner; Oliver North, who played a key role in the nefarious Iran-Contra affair; and Webster Hubbell, a former Clinton confidant who refused to testify during the Whitewater investigation into the Clintons' role in murky real-estate dealings. Although criminal convictions followed, the Clintons were never prosecuted.
The e-mail brouhaha erupted earlier this year when it emerged that only when asked, and 21 months after quitting as secretary of state, did Ms. Clinton turn over more than 55,000 printed pages of e-mails as required by federal law for archival preservation. She said she ordered another 30,000 e-mails to be destroyed; the latter, she says, were all personal e-mails, such as missives from her dying mother or notes to Chelsea Clinton about her wedding.
"And I'm trying to be as transparent as I possibly can," Ms. Clinton said in her latest e-mail to supporters.
"It's important for you to know a few key facts," she wrote: "My use of a personal email account was above-board and allowed under the State Department's rules."
While previous cabinet secretaries have maintained private e-mail addresses, none has kept an e-mail server at their private residence entirely outside government control and security systems.
Critics suggest far too few key facts are known and the pattern of denial, then defiant accusations and later contrition, is right out of the well-thumbed Clinton damage-control playbook that was used in Whitewater and the former president's sex-with-a-White-House-intern scandal.
But some, especially on the right, see a pattern of slippery duplicity – the so-called Clinton Rules.
"The real story here is that none of this is a surprise," the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial, after the e-mail issue erupted and in the wake of revelations that the Clintons' foundation had been taking big donations from foreign governments. "This is how the Clintons roll. They're a political version of the old Peanuts cartoon character who was always surrounded by a cloud of dirt. Ethical shortcuts and controversies are standard operating procedure."