Friday, June 3, 2016

From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer

A new report from the State Department’s inspector general reportedly blasts Clinton’s use of private email—the latest headache for the Democratic front-runner.

David A. Graham, May 25, 2016

A State Department inspector general’s report will reportedly blast Hillary Clinton for her handling of her email while secretary of state.

Rather than use the State Department’s system, Clinton set up her own email system, for herself and top aides, using a server at her home in New York. The revelation of that system has prompted several inquiries. An investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department has received the most attention, in large part because it could theoretically result in Clinton being indicted. The IG’s report does not carry the same threat of sanction. The report has not been published, but several outlets—beginning with Politico—have obtained copies, and those reports paint a damning picture.

The IG finds that Clinton did not seek appropriate approval for her email workaround at the start of her tenure, and that had she done so, she would have been denied because of security concerns. Later, in 2010, Clinton’s team was warned about misgivings about whether the system would preserve public records. That warning was dismissed by a Clinton aide who cited a legal review that had cleared its use, but the IG could not find any evidence of that review, according to The Washington Post.

Clinton’s failures did not end with her departure from Foggy Bottom. In order to comply with public-records laws, Clinton should have either saved and printed all of her emails or else turned them all over when she left the department in 2013. Instead, she only handed them nearly two years later. Politico quotes the report:

Therefore, Secretary Clinton should have preserved any Federal records she created and received on her personal account by printing and filing those records with the related files in the Office of the Secretary. At a minimum, Secretary Clinton should have surrendered all emails dealing with Department business before leaving government service and, because she did not do so, she did not comply with the Department’s policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act.

In one exchange captured by the IG, Clinton’s right-hand woman Huma Abedin pointed out that the private email system was causing problems with the State Department’s own email system, which was apparently sending the secretary’s messages to spam. Abedin suggested moving Clinton to the official system, but Clinton objected citing concerns about the privacy of her personal emails—a problem that she, of course, had created by establishing the private system in the first place.

Clinton was hardly the only offender, the IG noted: Colin Powell was also delinquent in his compliance with public-records laws, using a personal laptop to send messages. Other secretaries, both at State and in other Cabinet-level positions, have also reportedly used private email. That points to a broader problem in the government, but it’s hardly exculpatory for Clinton, who also happens to be the only former secretary who is running for president.

Clinton and her aides did not cooperate with the IG’s inquiry, though she has said they will cooperate with the FBI and Department of Justice, and some aides have already spoken with investigators. It’s unclear when that inquiry might conclude. Clinton and her team insist she did not break any laws, and the most recent reports suggest that so far the investigation has not turned up any evidence of malicious wrongdoing that might lead to an indictment. The prospect of Clinton facing prosecution as the general election ramps up is a nightmare scenario for Democrats, who are already rattled by Donald Trump’s prowess in polling against her.

The emails have become a classic Clinton scandal. Even though investigations have found no wrongdoing on her part with respect to the Benghazi attacks themselves, Clinton’s private-email use and concerns about whether she sent classified information have become huge stories unto themselves. This is a pattern with the Clinton family, which has been in the public spotlight since Bill Clinton’s first run for office, in 1974: Something that appears potentially scandalous on its face turns out to be innocuous, but an investigation into it reveals different questionable behavior. The canonical case is Whitewater, a failed real-estate investment Bill and Hillary Clinton made in 1978. Although no inquiry ever produced evidence of wrongdoing, investigations ultimately led to President Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice.

With Hillary Clinton leading the field for the Democratic nomination for president, every Clinton scandal—from Whitewater to the State Department emails—will be under the microscope. (No other American politicians—even ones as corrupt as Richard Nixon, or as hated by partisans as George W. Bush—have fostered the creation of a permanent multimillion-dollar cottage industry devoted to attacking them.) Keeping track of each controversy, where it came from, and how serious it is, is no small task, so here’s a primer. We’ll update it as new information emerges.

Clinton’s State Department Emails

What? Setting aside the question of the Clintons’ private email server, what’s actually in the emails that Clinton did turn over to State? While some of the emails related to Benghazi have been released, there are plenty of others covered by public-records laws that haven’t.

When? 2009-2013

How serious is it? Serious. Initially, it seemed that the interest in the emails would stem from damaging things that Clinton or other aides had said: cover-ups, misrepresentations, who knows? But so far, other than some cringeworthy moments of sucking up and some eye-rolly emails from contacts like Sidney Blumenthal, the emails have been remarkably boring. The main focus now is on classification. Sixty-five emails contain information that is now classified. The question is whether any of it, and how much of it, was classified at the time it was sent. Clinton has said she didn’t knowingly send or receive classified material on the account. The State Department and Intelligence Community have disagreed about that. In addition, the Intelligence Community’s inspector general wrote in a January letter that Clinton’s server contained information marked “special access program,” a further restricted type of information. Some emails that Clinton didn’t turn over have also since surfaced. A May report from the State Department inspector general is harshly critical of Clinton’s email approach.


What? On September 11, 2012, attackers overran a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Since then, Republicans have charged that Hillary Clinton failed to adequately protect U.S. installations or that she attempted to spin the attacks as spontaneous when she knew they were planned terrorist operations. She testifies for the first time on October 22.

When? September 11, 2012-present

How serious is it? Benghazi has gradually turned into a classic “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup” scenario. Only the fringes argue, at this point, that Clinton deliberately withheld aid. A House committee continues to investigate the killings and aftermath, but Clinton’s marathon appearance before the committee in October was widely considered a win for her. However, it was through the Benghazi investigations that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server became public—a controversy that remains potent.

Conflicts of Interest in Foggy Bottom

What? Before becoming Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills worked for Clinton on an unpaid basis for four month while also working for New York University, in which capacity she negotiated on the school’s behalf with the government of Abu Dhabi, where it was building a campus. In June 2012, Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin’s status at State changed to “special government employee,” allowing her to also work for Teneo, a consulting firm run by Bill Clinton’s former right-hand man. She also earned money from the Clinton Foundation and was paid directly by Hillary Clinton.

Who? Both Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin are among Clinton’s longest-serving and closest aides. Abedin remains involved in her campaign (and she’s also married to Anthony Weiner).

When? January 2009-February 2013

How serious is it? This is arcane stuff, to be sure. There are questions about conflict of interest—such as whether Teneo clients might have benefited from special treatment by the State Department while Abedin worked for both. To a great extent, this is just an extension of the tangle of conflicts presented by the Clinton Foundation and the many overlapping roles of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The Clintons’ Private Email Server

What? During the course of the Benghazi investigation, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt learned Clinton had used a personal email account while secretary of state. It turned out she had also been using a private server, located at a house in New York. The result was that Clinton and her staff decided which emails to turn over to the State Department as public records and which to withhold; they say they then destroyed the ones they had designated as personal.

When? 2009-2013, during Clinton’s term as secretary.

Who? Hillary Clinton; Bill Clinton; top aides including Huma Abedin

How serious is it? The biggest question right now appears to be whether the server was hacked, which could have exposed classified or otherwise sensitive information. Even if not, there’s the question of whether using the serve was appropriate. The rules governing use of personal emails are murky, and Clinton aides insist she followed the rules. There’s no dispositive evidence otherwise so far. Politically, there are questions about how she selected the emails she turned over and what was in the ones she deleted. The FBI has reportedly managed to recover some of the deleted correspondence.

Sidney Blumenthal

What? A former journalist, Blumenthal was a top aide in the second term of the Bill Clinton administration and helped on messaging during the bad old days. He served as an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and when she took over the State Department, she sought to hire Blumenthal. Obama aides, apparently still smarting over his role in attacks on candidate Obama, refused the request, so Clinton just sought out his counsel informally. At the same time, Blumenthal was drawing a check from the Clinton Foundation.

When? 2009-2013

How serious is it? Some of the damage is already done. Blumenthal was apparently the source of the idea that the Benghazi attacks were spontaneous, a notion that proved incorrect and provided a political bludgeon against Clinton and Obama. He also advised the secretary on a wide range of other issues, from Northern Ireland to China, and passed along analysis from his son Max, a staunch critic of the Israeli government (and conservative bête noire). But emails released so far show even Clinton’s top foreign-policy guru, Jake Sullivan, rejecting Blumenthal’s analysis, raising questions about her judgment in trusting him.

The Speeches

What? Since Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001, both Clintons have made millions of dollars for giving speeches.

When? 2001-present

Who? Hillary Clinton; Bill Clinton; Chelsea Clinton

How serious is it? Intermittently dangerous. It has a tendency to flare up, then die down. Senator Bernie Sanders made it a useful attack against her in early 2016, suggesting that by speaking to banks like Goldman Sachs, she was compromised. There have been calls for Clinton to release the transcripts of her speeches, which she was declined to do, saying if every other candidate does, she will too. For the Clintons, who left the White House up to their ears in legal debt, lucrative speeches—mostly by the former president—proved to be an effective way of rebuilding wealth. They have also been an effective magnet for prying questions. Where did Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton speak? How did they decide how much to charge? What did they say? How did they decide which speeches would be given on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, with fees going to the charity, and which would be treated as personal income? Are there cases of conflicts of interest or quid pro quos—for example, speaking gigs for Bill Clinton on behalf of clients who had business before the State Department?

The Clinton Foundation

What? Bill Clinton’s foundation was actually established in 1997, but after leaving the White House it became his primary vehicle for … well, everything. With projects ranging from public health to elephant-poaching protection and small-business assistance to child development, the foundation is a huge global player with several prominent offshoots. In 2013, following Hillary Clinton’s departure as secretary of State, it was renamed the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

When? 1997-present

Who? Bill Clinton; Hillary Clinton; Chelsea Clinton, etc.

How serious is it? If the Clinton Foundation’s strength is President Clinton’s endless intellectual omnivorousness, its weakness is the distractibility and lack of interest in detail that sometimes come with it. On a philanthropic level, the foundation gets decent ratings from outside review groups, though critics charge that it’s too diffuse to do much good, that the money has not always achieved what it was intended to, and that in some cases the money doesn’t seem to have achieved its intended purpose. The foundation made errors in its tax returns it has to correct. Overall, however, the essential questions about the Clinton Foundation come down to two, related issues. The first is the seemingly unavoidable conflicts of interest: How did the Clintons’ charitable work intersect with their for-profit speeches? How did their speeches intersect with Hillary Clinton’s work at the State Department? Were there quid-pro-quos involving U.S. policy? Did the foundation steer money improperly to for-profit companies owned by friends? The second, connected question is about disclosure. When Clinton became secretary, she agreed that the foundation would make certain disclosures, which it’s now clear it didn’t always do. And the looming questions about Clinton’s State Department emails make it harder to answer those questions.

The Bad Old Days

What is it? Since the Clintons have a long history of controversies, there are any number of past scandals that continue to float around, especially in conservative media: Whitewater. Troopergate. Paula Jones. Monica Lewinsky. Travelgate. Vince Foster’s suicide. Juanita Broaddrick.

When? 1975-2001

Who? Bill Clinton; Hillary Clinton; a brigade of supporting characters

How serious is it? The conventional wisdom is that they’re not terribly dangerous. Some are wholly spurious (Foster). Others (Lewinsky, Whitewater) have been so exhaustively investigated it’s hard to imagine them doing much further damage to Hillary Clinton’s standing. In fact, the Lewinsky scandal famously boosted her public approval ratings. But the January 2016 resurfacing of Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegations offers a test case to see whether the conventional wisdom is truly wise—or just conventional. On May 23, Donald Trump released a video prominently highlighting Broaddrick’s accusation.

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