As Hillary Clinton left the Capitol after Friday’s inauguration, she was accompanied by a familiar figure, her longtime aide and confidante and the vice-chair of her presidential campaign, Huma Abedin. The campaign, and almost certainly Clinton’s political career, had ended months earlier, but it was not surprising to see Abedin, who has worked for the former first lady since joining her White House staff as a 19-year-old college intern, still at her side. Whatever you think of the competence of Clinton’s staff, there is no questioning the loyalty of the men and (mostly) women in her inner circle. They will be with her, to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, until the last dog dies.
And it has been an article of faith in political circles that this loyalty is one of the great strengths of the Clinton political operation. Surrounding yourself with battle-tested confidants minimizes the risk of self-serving leaks or staff infighting spilling into the media, which can derail a political operation. Indeed, just two days later, the world got a glimpse of the opposite, in the form of a Washington Post account of a “visibly enraged” President Trump demanding, over the reservations of his staff, that his spokesman, Sean Spicer, push a demonstrably false assertion about the size of his inaugural crowds. The article, based on “interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants,” also gave a vivid description of infighting in the Trump White House, including son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “efforts to elbow aside anyone he perceives as a possible threat to his role as Trump’s chief consigliere.”
That was par for the course for the Trump campaign, transition and administration so far. Trump went through three campaign managers in 2016, and a rumored romance between two key staffers erupted into a messy public scandal during the transition. His combative aide Kellyanne Conway mounted a public Twitter campaign to derail Mitt Romney’s possible nomination as secretary of state. Never having held public office, Trump doesn’t have a cadre of longtime aides to draw upon, so his inner circle is heavy on family members, including Kushner, and veterans of his real-estate business. Many of his close aides — like Conway, who joined the campaign after working on behalf of Trump’s rival Ted Cruz through most of the primaries — are relative newcomers, who make up in ferocity and sycophancy for their lack of deep personal connections to him. Many observers remarked that Spicer looked uncomfortable delivering his blustery pronouncement Saturday afternoon, forced to defend his boss’s obsessions to the detriment of his own professional reputation with the media.
It is hard to imagine that happening in a Hillary Clinton administration. Not because there was no dissent among her advisers: As we now know thanks to the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, Clinton’s staffers argued heatedly among themselves about campaign tactics and questioned Clinton’s judgment and her reluctance to apologize for mistakes. To what extent these disagreements reached Clinton’s ears, we don’t know, but thanks to the loyalty of her people, almost none of it was made public at the time. Conducting internal arguments through leaks to the media is almost always disruptive and demoralizing to a well-run campaign. On the other hand, it’s possible that reading about it in the New York Times or the Washington Post might have brought home the magnitude of the problem to Clinton herself, and moved her to fix it. That, indeed, is one reason staffers sometimes resort to a quiet meeting over drinks with a reporter in just these situations.
Unlike many politicians, for whom loyalty is a one-way street, Clinton is loyal in return. And one of the lessons of her catastrophic defeat is the potential downside of loyalty. Clinton stuck by her husband through years of humiliating sexual scandals. She is sticking by him still, although a case could be made that his decision to stroll across the Phoenix airport for a chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch effectively cost his wife the election, not only by reinforcing the public perception of the Clintons as inveterate string-pullers and corner-cutters, but by setting in motion the chain of events that led to FBI Director James Comey’s intervention in the campaign.
And through the series of scandals involving Abedin’s husband, touched off by his habit of sending sexually suggestive pictures to strange women, Clinton stuck by her aide. In retrospect it was all too predictable that this association would blow up eventually, as it did when the FBI examined a laptop used by both Abedin and her husband, Anthony Weiner, and discovered a trove of emails to and from Clinton. If anyone on her campaign staff foresaw the potential for this kind of disaster, they evidently didn’t bring it up to Clinton, or if they did, she didn’t act on it. Cutting ties with Abedin in the midst of that ghastly embarrassment would have been emotionally wrenching for Clinton, who has described Abedin as like a second daughter. It would have been cruel to Abedin, and it would have been, above all, disloyal. But it might have saved the election.
Clinton’s insistence on loyalty and discretion was shaped, no doubt, by her early experience in politics, in the 1970s and ’80s, when she was a lightning rod for her husband’s opponents, frequently on the defensive about imaginary scandals and invented conspiracy theories. The lesson of those years is that you minimize trouble by surrounding yourself with people who know how to keep their mouths shut. But that’s not how the world works now. You can build a wall around your headquarters, and hackers will penetrate it with ease; you can pen journalists inside a rope corral, but anyone with a smartphone can tweet a photo out to the world in seconds. You can’t control the news cycle any longer, so your best hope is to use all the tools of social and electronic media in a 24-hour race to get ahead of it. For all its vaunted expertise, the Clinton campaign never seemed to grasp that. And for all its internal chaos, the Trump team — or Trump himself — evidently did.
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