Anthony: From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer
More than half of the people outside the government with whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met were also donors to the Clinton Foundation.
DAVID A. GRAHAM AUG 23, 2016
Here’s the case against the Clinton Foundation, in a nutshell: If Bill and Chelsea Clinton are leading a powerful private philanthropy while Hillary Clinton holds a high-ranking government post, it is guaranteed to create at least the appearance of donations to the foundation in return for access to the government.
Conscious of this danger, the Obama administration extracted an agreement from the foundation to disclose its donors, as a prerequisite for Hillary Clinton becoming secretary of state. That disclosure does not seem to have prevented potential conflicts of interest—but it does undergird two important stories Tuesday.
The Washington Post, using emails revealed as part of a lawsuit by the conservative accountability group Judicial Watch, traces the paths from foundation donors to State Department supplicants. Often, the requests seem to have come through Doug Band, a foundation official and close aide to Bill Clinton, and arrived with Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department. (At the end of her time at the State Department, Abedin received a special classification allowing her to also work for Teneo, Band’s consultancy.)
The requests highlighted by the Post run the gamut. Bono, a frequent Clinton Foundation presence, wanted help streaming U2 concerts to the International Space Station. (Neither Abedin nor Band any ideas.) A Los Angeles sports executive who gave $5 to $10 million to the foundation sought help getting a visa for a British soccer player with a criminal record. (“Makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask,” Abedin wrote to Band. “then dont,” he replied.) An activist who gave between $100,00 and $250,000 wanted to set up a meeting between Clinton and an executive at Peabody Coal. “Huma, I need your help now to intervene please,” she wrote. “We need this meeting with Secretary Clinton, who has been there now for nearly six months. This is, by the way, my first request.”
Others of those involved seem unusual. The crown prince of Bahrain, an American ally in the gulf, got a meeting, though he requested it both through official channels and through the Clinton Foundation side channel. Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace laureate whose Grameen Bank gave six figures, met with Clinton to discuss his persecution by the Bangladeshi government.
In total, the Associated Press calculates:
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money—either personally or through companies or groups—to the Clinton Foundation…. At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.
As questions about the Clinton Foundation mount, the organization announced last week that it would not accept foreign or corporate donations if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. (On Monday, Donald Trump called for a special prosecutor to look into the foundation.) But these stories show why that measure probably should have been taken before Clinton became secretary of state, and why it’s insufficient if she’s president.
Even if every one of the meetings that Secretary Clinton had with foundation donors was a meeting she would have had anyway, the impression that one can pay to play means that there’s no tidy way to wall the two off. If the Clinton Foundation hadn’t existed and been taking these donations, no one would look askance at Secretary Clinton meeting with many of the principals. Barring corporate and foreign donors, while important, seems incomplete if Clinton is president, in charge of not only foreign but domestic policy. Does anyone believe wealthy executives can’t figure out how to give a personal donation and then try to leverage that for corporate aid? This is why there’s an increasing drumbeat for the Clintons to shut down the foundation entirely, or perhaps to mothball it. Any future findings that suggest pay-for-access will only magnify those calls—and hurt Clinton politically.
And not nearly all of Clinton’s State Department emails have been made public. On Monday, the Post reported that during the course of its recent investigation, the FBI found nearly 15,000 new and unreleased documents that Clinton did not turn over to the State Department. It’s not yet clear what’s in those emails, like how many are personal and how any are work-related and must be made public. In a court hearing on Monday, a federal judge deemed the State Department’s timeline for sorting them and determining that too slow, and demanded a faster plan.
There’s been a fresh development in the controversies covered here almost daily for the last week. On Friday, a federal judge ruled that Clinton would have to testify in writing about her email system (though in a victory for her she will not be deposed in person). Also last week, the FBI handed over documents from its investigation of the email system to Congress, as Republican members tried to cajole the Justice Department into charging Clinton with perjury. The week before that, another set of emails revealed by Judicial Watch showed Band and Abedin communicating about business that crossed the Clinton Foundation-State barrier.
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 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.
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? 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. 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.” GOP members of Congress are questioning the FBI’s decision, and have tried to convince the Justice Department to charge Clinton with perjury for answers she gave them in October 2015.
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 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 August, the FBI reported that it had found some 15,000 documents during the course of its investigation that Clinton did not turn over to the State Department. State is now negotiating how and when to release those materials.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.