September 4, 2015
HAVEN’T WE SEEN THIS BEFORE?
Some years ago, as a congressional staffer, one of my duties was to liaise with the House Ethics Committee, to get their judgment as to whether a contemplated trip or district project was a permissible use of official funds. *
Most often the Ethics Committee counsel’s response was that the proposed use was well within the rules. The question, rather, was whether the congressman would be comfortable with the trip or project being reported in his home-town paper. It might be legal, in other words, but how would it look? Might it require awkward explanation that would distract constituents or the media on his public policy views and actions?
Hillary Clinton does not seem to have had such a conversation about her email account or about the employment status of Huma Abedin. Re the email account: Is there anyone who doesn’t know that, while serving as secretary of state, instead of using a State Department email account like everyone else, Clinton set up a private email domain for both personal and official use? Huma Abedin is a longtime retainer who worked for Clinton while simultaneously on drawing paychecks from the State Department, the Clinton Foundation, a consulting firm, and Clinton’s own personal funds.
Both matters seem fundamentally trivial: Who cares about the details of email or payroll arrangements? For such things she jeopardized an almost certain presidential nomination?
The email imbroglio appears likely to have been legal, at least in the sense that there appears to have been no law that exactly prohibited it. And the Abedin arrangement, according to the Washington Post, was “allowed by a special government designation [Abedin] held permitting outside employment.”
But is there, perhaps, something else she’d like to be doing with her public appearances and political capital other than endlessly explaining, rationalizing and defending these unusual arrangements? Wasn’t it foreseeable–jeez, wasn’t it almost certain?–that all this would come to light and could eclipse what she wanted to say and do with her campaign?
And what was the point? What was to be gained? To avoid carrying two phones—her explanation—one each for official and personal communications? Please.
To thwart congressional committees that would find it harder to snoop into her affairs if her emails were held privately held instead of in federal archives? How has that turned out for her?
(A third possibility is suggested by a remark made, half in jest, by a public TV producer at a meeting with a funder. Why, the production company executive was asked, did his organization present its budget in the unorthodox and idiosyncratic format it used, instead of like everyone else? Because then, replied the executive good-naturedly, we’d be like everyone else.)
The pattern isn’t new. Look at the six-figure speaking fees that both Clintons continued to rake in even after they were rich as Croesus. Look at the overlap between Clinton Foundation donors and countries and companies with interests before Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Look, for that matter, at the Whitewater scandal which started as a real estate scheme (a subject about which the Clintons knew nothing) that they hoped would supplement their meager salaries in public office and legal practice. It led to monetary losses, which led to subpoenas, which led to Kenneth Starr, which led to Monica Lewinski, which led to impeachment. All were, at their inception, tangential to the main stream of the Clintons’ public ambitions and aspirations. All culminated in political disaster.
The Clintons are among the smartest people in public life. Have they not learned that nothing stays secret? Do they and the super-smart denizens of Hillaryland and Friends of Bill ever look down the road of these schemes and ask: What’s the point? What could go wrong? What could an aggressive Republican chair and staff of the House Oversight Committee do with it?
Doesn’t anybody ask them—don’t they ask themselves–what it would look like on the front page?