As a rule, these are words no politician wants to be speaking in the days leading up to the launch of a major campaign:
“What I did was to direct, you know, my counsel to conduct a thorough investigation …”
“I fully complied with every rule that I was governed by.”
“They were personal and private, about matters that I believed were in the scope of my personal privacy.”
As a rule, a candidate wants to take flight on outstretched wings of hope, not scramble in the dirt on the crabbed limbs of legal compliance. Every day spent saying “Trust me, my lawyer’s O.K. with it” is a bad day–and worse if she appears to be reading from lawyer-vetted notes.
As a rule, these would be dire, perhaps fatal, markers of a campaign crashing on takeoff. But in this case the politician was Hillary Clinton, whose carefully laid plans to unveil her latest presidential bid hit turbulence on March 10 as she fumbled her way through an awkward press conference in a corridor at the U.N. At issue: Clinton’s decision to ignore White House guidance as Secretary of State and instead conduct government business through a private email account hosted on her family’s personal server.
The Clintons play by their own set of rules. And in this case, the former Secretary of State explained, those rules bless her decision to erase some 30,000 emails from the family server despite knowing that the emails had become a subject of intense interest to congressional investigators. These were merely “private personal emails,” Clinton averred, “emails about planning Chelsea’s wedding or my mother’s funeral arrangements, condolence notes to friends as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes.” After she finished taking questions, Clinton’s staff disclosed that no one actually read through those 30,000-odd documents before she “chose not to keep” them.
Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the Republican who is leading a congressional select committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S.’s diplomatic outpost in Libya, fumed that “regrettably we are left with more questions than answers.” He announced plans to haul Clinton in front of his committee twice: once to be grilled about her email and again to be interrogated anew on Benghazi.
Off message? Definitely. Clinton’s script for the month of March envisioned a series of events highlighting her long career as an advocate for the rights of women and girls. This was to culminate in her official announcement–perhaps as soon as early April–that she was again running to be America’s first female President. But if awkward press conferences could bring down a Clinton, the political supercouple might never have left Little Rock.
Along with her husband–the 42nd President of the United States–Hillary Clinton is the co-creator of a soap-operatic political universe in which documents vanish, words like is take on multiple meanings and foes almost always overplay their hand. Impeachment can be a route to higher approval ratings; the occasional (and rare) defeat merely marks the start of the next campaign. Whatever rules may apply to them, the law of gravity is not one.
Still, Clinton’s failure to defuse the email issue, along with a growing list of questions about the family’s relentless fundraising and her husband’s choice of companions, has revived hopes among erstwhile rivals in the Democratic Party that the Hillary dreadnought might actually be sinkable. Backbiting inside the Clinton campaign–a hallmark of her failed 2008 presidential effort–has begun to leak into the political press. Republicans who were morose over their presidential chances mere months ago have a spring in their step.
The story of the Clinton rule book is a long and Gothic yarn, with its roots in the loam of human nature: lust, money, ambition, idealism. The mix of those last two–ambition and idealism–put the young Bill and Hillary Clinton on the path of politics a half-century ago. The first two–lust and money–posed significant obstacles in their way.
It’s news to no one who lived through the late 1990s that Bill Clinton can be sexually reckless. But for a politician who grew up in the years of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, when sexual recklessness was the presidential norm, only to find himself in the chastened age of Gary Hart, Clinton’s lifestyle required that he and his wife become good secret keepers.
Likewise, it’s news to no one at all that winning public office costs far more money than the job will ever pay in salary. Because the Clintons did not have wealth of their own to fund their ambitions, they had to become adept at coaxing it from others. Indeed, they may be the most adept in American history, having coaxed billions of dollars from a multitude of donors–which requires a degree of flexibility in one’s choice of benefactors. As the saying goes: Beggars can’t be choosers.
So the twin drivers of the Clinton soap opera have been their penchant for secrecy and their menagerie of rich associates. The drumbeat of scandals, real and puffed up, that marked Bill Clinton’s presidency involved one or both elements. For example, Filegate, Troopergate and the Paula Jones lawsuit that led to Clinton’s impeachment all had to do with secrets. Overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom for megadonors and the controversial last-minute pardon for the fugitive financier Marc Rich had to do with money.
Fast-forward to now. Having weathered all those real and imagined scandals through a mixture of insouciance, indignation, stonewalling and counterattack–only to see their popularity rise as a result–the Clintons have little reason to change their MO now. Even the whirlwind campaign of Barack Obama, who upset Hillary’s 2008 presidential bid by promising a fresh tomorrow instead of a return to yesteryear, was not enough to make the Clintons tear up their rule book.
In her press conference, Hillary Clinton described the private email account on the server inside their New York home as a matter of convenience only. “I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two,” she said. “Looking back, it would’ve been better if I’d simply used a second email account and carried a second phone, but at the time, this didn’t seem like an issue.”
That explanation was not exactly robust. The Q&A had hardly ended before Clinton’s critics unearthed an interview Hillary had given a few weeks earlier with Re/code co-founder Kara Swisher. “I have an iPad, a mini iPad, an iPhone and a BlackBerry,” Clinton said. So much for simplicity. Others remarked on a matter of timing: Clinton did not carry out her business on an existing personal email account. She specifically set up a new private address–firstname.lastname@example.org–instead of using a government account. This happened on the very day the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its first hearing on her nomination as Secretary of State.
As for why this might “seem like an issue,” the answer is not complicated. All federal employees have a legal obligation to preserve their work-related email–and the White House advises appointees to accomplish this by using official government addresses. Email sent to and from .gov accounts is generally archived. In this way, a consistent level of security is maintained. The nation’s history is preserved. Open-records laws are honored. And transparency gets a leg up on “Trust me.”
All this once made sense to Clinton. As a candidate for President in 2008, she included “secret White House email accounts” as part of her critique of the Bush Administration’s “stunning record of secrecy and corruption.” Now, however, Clinton is leaning heavily on “Trust me.” For more than a year after she left office in 2013, she did not transfer work-related email from her private account to the State Department. She commissioned a review of the 62,320 messages in her account only after the department–spurred by the congressional investigation–asked her to do so. And this review did not involve opening and reading each email; instead, Clinton’s lawyers created a list of names and keywords related to her work and searched for those. Slightly more than half the total cache–31,830 emails–did not contain any of the search terms, according to Clinton’s staff, so they were deemed to be “private, personal records.”
This strikes experts as a haphazard way of analyzing documents. Jason R. Baron, a former lawyer at the National Archives and Records Administration who is now an attorney in the Washington office of Drinker Biddle & Reath, says, “I would question why lawyers for Secretary Clinton would use keyword searching, a method known to be fraught with limitations, to determine which of the emails with a non-.gov address pertained to government business. Any and all State Department activities–not just communications involving the keywords Benghazi or Libya–would potentially make an email a federal record. Given the high stakes involved, I would have imagined staff could have simply conducted a manual review of every document. Using keywords as a shortcut unfortunately leaves the process open to being second-guessed.”
Money and Influence
Some of that second-guessing will focus on the family charity now known as the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which has raised an estimated $2 billion for such causes as HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa and the fight against climate change in the years since President Clinton left office. The risk that foreign governments and superrich foreign citizens might donate to the foundation as a way of currying favor with the Secretary of State worried both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Hillary Clinton was first named Obama’s top diplomat. And while the White House forced the foundation to sign a point-by-point agreement in 2008 about what it could and could not do while Hillary Clinton ran the State Department, there really is no separating the globe-trotting Clintons from the heady atmosphere of money and influence.
Among the questions she skirted at her U.N. press conference was one from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. Given Clinton’s record on women’s rights, Mitchell asked, was she uncomfortable about donations to the foundation from, say, Saudi Arabia, where oppression of women is a matter of law? Mitchell could have gone further if given more time. Recent news reports have documented tens of millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments, including such incubators of Islamic extremism as Qatar and Algeria. One accounting, by the Wall Street Journal, totaled nearly $50 million in foreign donations–not during Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, but before she took office and again after she stepped down.
“I’m very proud of the hundreds of thousands of people who support the work of the foundation and the results that have been achieved for people here at home and around the world,” Clinton answered Mitchell. But that is not entirely the point. After the foundation collects those millions, it partners with other charities, governments and companies–thus winning and potentially enriching more friends. The New York Times documented one example: Bill Clinton used his entrée in 2005 to connect a major foundation donor, Canadian mining billionaire Frank Giustra, with the leader of Kazakhstan. Two days later, Giustra signed a preliminary deal to mine uranium in Kazakhstan.
And Still They Rise
Hillary and Bill Clinton have always been a team–and never more than when the chips are down. That doesn’t mean they are interchangeable, though. As she once put it to a diary-keeping friend: “He can make things happen. And anyway what I really love is policy … I’d be happy in a little office somewhere thinking up policies.”
This streak of introversion makes her fiercely protective of her privacy, even to the point that it causes her trouble. She laughs and grieves behind closed doors among a tiny group of trusted friends, while in public–as her political consultant Mandy Grunwald once noted in a 1999 memo that became public record–she must work to be “real” in public settings. As First Lady, she would sometimes slip out of the White House in disguise, just to get away, walking in dark glasses up Connecticut Avenue to the zoo, accompanied by a lone Secret Service agent.
The extroverted Bill still hungers for an audience; his postpresidential life has been a moveable feast of movie stars and moguls, playboys and potentates. If some of his associates are less than seemly–like the billionaire Stewart Rahr, who reportedly emailed his friends a sexually explicit video he shot of three women in the back of a limousine–they are testament to the ever expanding universe known as Friends of Bill.
Is there–or was there–an email somewhere amid the yoga routines and vacation plans that might have shed an unflattering light on the shadowed places where the sundry parts of the Clintons’ lives converge: yin and yang, official and unofficial? Hillary Clinton, in pursuit of privacy, has drawn a shade over that question. History suggests that she will not willingly back down.
Though members of Congress are calling for her to turn over the email server for forensic examination, they would be wise to proceed cautiously. A key page in the Clinton rule book is the one that reads: When in doubt, drive your enemies crazy–then sit back and watch them implode.
What doesn’t kill Team Clinton only makes it stronger. Will that be the lesson again? Hillary Clinton has a vast lead over any potential challenger for the Democratic nomination, and 86% of Democrats are ready to support her, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Though her poor handling of the email issue has left party insiders unsure whether she learned anything from her slow-footed and wooden 2008 campaign, insiders don’t control elections. Voters do.
The veteran New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, is unsure. “These stories will reach critical mass and coverage as she gets closer to any announcement date,” says Sheinkopf, “and they will damage her because they offer a portrayal of someone who plays fast and loose with rules.” But Clinton stories have reached critical mass so many times before. And still, to borrow from Maya Angelou, they rise.
If sticking to their old rule book poses a danger to Hillary Clinton’s chances, it probably won’t be a matter of scandal fatigue. Instead, it will be the feeling of déjà vu. Can voters look at Clinton as she appeared at her press conference–once more scrambling to explain the unexplainable–and see more future than past? After all, as the Clintons understood so well back at the beginning of their road, winning campaigns are about the future and start in that place called hope.
— With reporting by Alex Altman, Michael Duffy, Zeke J. Miller and Michael Scherer / Washington; Sam Frizell / United Nations
This appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of TIME.