Hillary Clinton is out of the frying pan and into the fire. On July 6, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for her use of a private email server at the State Department. But the following day, with that criminal investigation closed, the State Department reopened its own probe into the emails, the AP reported.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told the AP that it would be looking at potential mishandling of classified information by Hillary Clinton and her top aides. Former officials could face administrative sanctions, including a loss of their security clearances—a step that would be both politically embarrassing for Clinton, and complicate efforts to staff a national-security team should she prevail in November.
It’s a reminder that although the result of the criminal investigation was more or less a foregone conclusion after FBI Director James Comey’s July 5 recommendation that Clinton not be charged with any crimes over her use of a private email server while secretary of state, it didn’t deliver the absolution Clinton might have liked. Comey had harsh words for her conduct. “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey said. Contrary to her claim that she never sent or received information that was classified at the time, the FBI found 110 emails to have contained classified information when sent or received. While Comey said there was no direct evidence that Clinton’s emails had been hacked, he said, “Any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position ... should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”
These statements are damning commentaries on Clinton’s judgment, and they contradict her assertions about the account. While Comey said there was not evidence to support a prosecution, Republicans have reacted with outrage to the announcement. Comey and Lynch have both been called to appear before House committees. Speaker Paul Ryan has asked that Clinton be denied classified briefings. In the season of Trump, it’s provided the rarest of things: a moment for Republicans to rally around a shared cause. And for Clinton, a candidate who already struggles with high unfavorability and low marks for trustworthiness, the results compound her troubles. Some have portrayed this as an example of the old axiom that it’s not the crime but the cover-up, and it’s true that Clinton’s insistence that she didn’t send classified info will not serve her well, but the damage was done with the server—even if there was no crime committed.
Still, as bad as Comey’s remarks were for Clinton, let’s not overstate the matter. The worst outcome for Clinton, however remote most experts believed it to be, would have been a recommendation that Clinton be charged. Even if Lynch had rejected the suggestion, it could have been fatal to Clinton’s campaign. That’s the second good break for Clinton in two weeks. On June 28, the House committee investigating the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, released its report, which was critical of American preparedness but found no evidence of negligence by Clinton herself on the night of the attacks.
Taken together, the results of these two investigations remove two of the most acute dangers dangling over Clinton’s head. The Benghazi investigation, and the email scandal that grew out of it, were the two live scandals that seemed most likely to imperil her campaign. What remains for her to grapple with now is the chronic pain that comes from an accretion of decades of scandals that have led many Americans to distrust both Clinton and her husband Bill. Even though many of the controversies have involved far more smoke than fire—and sometimes no fire at all—the damage is real.
Although the House investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on her part with respect to the attacks themselves, it was during that inquiry that her private-email use became public. 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.
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? Serious, but slightly less serious. A May report from the State Department inspector general is harshly critical of Clinton’s email approach, but Loretta Lynch announced on July 6 that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges, removing the threat of an indictment that could be fatal to her campaign. But the scandal will remain a millstone around her neck forever. Comey’s damning comments about her conduct—“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information”—will reverberate throughout the campaign. Also unresolved is the question of whether Clinton’s server was hacked. Comey said the FBI did not find any proof, but he also said that “we would be unlikely to see such direct evidence.” Meanwhile, a recently released deposition shows Abedin expressing her frustration with the unwieldy setup, which she called “not a good system.”
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 are still in the process of being vetted for release.
How serious is it? Serious, but not as serious as it was. While political operatives hoped for embarrassing statements in the emails—and there were some cringeworthy moments of sucking up and some eye-rolly emails from contacts like Sidney Blumenthal—they were, for the most part, boring. More damaging is the fact that 110 emails included classified information at the time they were sent or received, even though Clinton had insisted she did not send or receive anything classified. Meanwhile, some emails remain to be seen. The State Department, under court order, is slowly releasing the emails she turned over, but there are other emails that she didn’t turn over, which have surfaced through court battles. In particular, roughly 160 emails that Clinton did not turn over have now surfaced through lawsuits by the conservative group Judicial Watch, raising questions about how and why they were withheld. In one, she even wondered about how her messages would be handled: “I have just realized I have no idea how my papers are treated at State. Who manages both my personal and official files?”
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? With the June 28 release of the House committee investigating Benghazi, this issue is receding. That report criticized security preparations at the American facility in Benghazi as well as stations elsewhere, but it produced no smoking guns or new accusations about things Clinton could have done the night of the attacks. Although some conservatives will likely continue to assail her, the biggest damage is likely to be iterative—the highly damaging private-email story was revealed during the course of the House inquiry.
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. In a separate case, ABC News reports that a top Clinton Foundation donor named Rajiv Fernando was placed on State’s International Security Advisory Board. Fernando appeared significantly less qualified than many of his colleagues, and was appointed at the behest of the secretary’s office. Internal emails show that State staff first sought to cover for Clinton, and then Fernando resigned two days after ABC’s inquiries.
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.
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.
How serious is it? Only mildly. 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.
What? Since Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001, both Clintons have made millions of dollars for giving speeches.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.