Thursday, March 03, 2016

From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer

Esam Al-Fetori / Brian Snyder / Gary Cameron / Jim Young / Reuters / Brennan Linsley / Susan Walsh / AP / razihusin / Shutterstock Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

David A. Graham

 11:50 AM ET


All of Hillary Clinton’s emails are out there. Now, how bad will the fallout be?

On Monday, the State Department released the last batch of Clinton’s messages when she was secretary of state—a total of around 30,000. And late Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department has granted immunity to a former Clinton staffer to work with investigators, an indication of progress in the criminal case over the emails. Bryan Pagliano, the staffer, helped Clinton set up a server in her home in New York, which she used for her emails while running the State Department. Pagliano previously invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify by congressional committees. A spokesman said the Clinton campaign was “pleased” that Pagliano was cooperating, though what else are they going to say?

Clinton herself is likely to be questioned by the FBI sometime in the next few weeks. The Post reports:
As the FBI looks to wrap up its investigation in the coming months, agents will likely want to interview Clinton and her senior aides about the decision to use a private server, how it was set up, and whether any of the participants knew they were sending classified information in emails, current and former officials said.

Obviously this is not good news for Clinton. The question is just how bad it is.

Clinton is effectively fighting a two-front war. On one side, she’s running a political campaign for president. On the other, she’s working to defend herself against charges of wrongdoing in the email investigation, since criminal charges could effectively doom her campaign. The latest developments in the email case come just as things were starting to look good on the political side—Clinton has hit her stride in recent primaries and seems to have a solid edge over Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic nomination.

What isn’t clear yet is who might face criminal charges: Clinton? Other aides? No one at all? There’s not yet any evidence of a grand jury being convened to handle the investigation.

The case of David Petraeus, the former CIA director who it was one speculated might run against Clinton, looms over the case, and its impact is unclear. The Post reports that Petraeus’s wrongdoing is seen as worse, and since he got off with a light sentence of two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine, officials felt it would be hard to go after Clinton. But Petraeus’s escape angered some in the Justice Department and FBI who alleged political interference, adding to the scrutiny in this case and the pressure for an independent process. The final decision rests with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The fact that Clinton was using a private server for her work email emerged in the course of the investigation into the September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, which killed four Americans. None of the content of the emails so far has been especially damning about Benghazi or anything else—though there are some embarrassing moments, including Clinton’s seeming technological ignorance and the flattery of friends like Sidney Blumenthal. But a total of 65 emails were not released because they contain information classified “secret.” Clinton and her aides insist she did not send any classified information, and that anything that is now secret had its classification changed later. Others, including the inspector general for the Intelligence Community, have disagreed.

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. While 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

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her phone on board a plane from Malta to Tripoli, Libya. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

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,” higher even than top secret. Some emails that Clinton didn’t turn over have also since surfaced.


A man celebrates as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi burns on September 11, 2012. (Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

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

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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

Jim Young / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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? It looks more serious all the time. 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. The greater political problem for Clinton is it raises 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. Could the server have been hacked? Some of the emails she received on her personal account are marked sensitive. Plus there’s a entirely different set of questions about Clinton’s State Department emails. The FBI is investigating the security of the server as well as the safety of a thumb drive belonging to her lawyer that contains copies of her emails. And the AP reports that the setup may have made the server vulnerable to hacking. Given the shabby state of State Department cybersecurity, she might not have been any better off using the official system.

Sidney Blumenthal

Blumenthal takes a lunch break while being deposed in private session of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

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

Keith Bedford / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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

A brooch for sale at the Clinton Museum Store in Little Rock, Arkansas (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

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? 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

Supporter Dick Furinash holds up cardboard cut-outs of Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Jim Young / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

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. Vince Foster. 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.


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