From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer
In a letter on Sunday, FBI Director James Comey wrote that newly discovered emails do not change the FBI’s prior conclusion that Hillary Clinton should not be charged with a crime.
Oops, never mind!
That’s FBI Director James Comey’s new message to Congress and, by extension, the American public on Sunday. A little over a week ago, Comey shook the presidential election with a letter to the chairs of several congressional committees, announcing that the FBI had found a new tranche of emails pertinent to its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. The emails came from an unrelated case, he said—since widely reported to be an investigation into alleged sexts to a teenager from Anthony Weiner, whose estranged wife is a top Clinton aide—and there was no timeline for finishing the review.
The revelation gave new life to the struggling Donald Trump campaign, which seized on the matter as proof of Clinton’s bad judgment. Her poll numbers, as well as her favorability figures and Democratic enthusiasm, sagged. New leaks began dripping out of the FBI on a daily basis, along with allegations that the bureau was trying to tip the election toward Trump. The Clinton campaign demanded that Comey say more, but no information was forthcoming.
But in a new letter on Sunday, Comey revealed that FBI agents had been working “around the clock” to look at the emails.
“During that process, we reviewed all of the communications that were to or from Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State,” Comey wrote. “Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton.”
In other words, it was all much ado about nothing. Comey’s recommended in July was that although Clinton had been “extremely careless” with classified information, there was no grounds for charging her with a crime. Put more bluntly, the FBI altered the course of the presidential campaign for what amounts to a fire drill.
This doesn’t mean the email story is gone entirely. On Friday, a new release showed that in at least one case Clinton forwarded emails to her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, that the government now labels classified.
The chain in question was released on November 4, as part of the ongoing release of Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state. The messages appeared to be related to climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, although they were redacted so that it is impossible to tell. They were sent to an email address that Chelsea Clinton used under an alias, “Diane Reynolds.” It was not marked classified at the time.
The emails and the private server through which they operated have been a defining story of the Clinton campaign. In March 2015, The New York Times first reported on Clinton’s use of a private email address and a private server during her time at Foggy Bottom. The story has dogged Clinton ever since, raising questions about her judgment and trustworthiness.
While polls showed Clinton’s lead over Trump narrowing slightly before Comey’s first letter, on October 28, the news brought on near panic among Democrats. Clinton’s polling fell further, and her favorability tumbled, and so did enthusiasm among Democrats. Clinton’s struggles to generate enthusiasm among her voters, and to bring up her favorability, have contributed to a still-tight race over a rival, Donald Trump, who has committed multiple errors that would have been lethal for practically any other candidacy.
The emails represent something of a classic Clinton scandal. 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 the Democratic nominee 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? Very 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. On October 28, the FBI announced is it reviewing a new tranche of emails that turned up in an unrelated investigation, but it did not offer any other details on the scope. In any case, 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. You can read the FBI report here.
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. While the contents of emails revealed so far has been more eyerolly than scandalous, the bigger problem is the revelation that dozens of email chains contained information that was classified at some level. In one case, Clinton forwarded information to her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, that while not marked classified at the time, is now considered to be. 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.
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. The August revelation of up to 30 new, unreleased emails suggested some new information, but it turned out there was only one truly new message, a flattering personal note from an ambassador.
What? Before becoming Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills worked for Clinton on an unpaid basis for four months 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. Judicial Watch released documents that show Doug Band, a Foundation official, trying to put a donor in touch with a State Department expert on Lebanon and to get someone a job at Foggy Bottom.
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 has 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 reached its intended recipients, 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 Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI was probing the investigation, though it’s unclear what its status is.
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.