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Opinion The latest Clinton email story just isn’t a scandal

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the origins of a donation to the Clinton Foundation. The Country of Bahrain, and not the crown prince, donated to the foundation. The earlier version also stated incorrectly that the Clinton Foundation runs a scholarship program funded by Bahrain. The version below has been corrected.

There’s a new round of “revelations” concerning Hillary Clinton’s time at the State Department today, and since it involves some people sending emails to other people, it gets wrapped up with that other story about Clinton. Are you ready for the shocking news, the scandalous details, the mind-blowing malfeasance? Well hold on to your hat, because here it is:

When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, many people wanted to speak with her.

Astonishing, I know.

Here’s the truth: every development in any story having to do with anything involving email and Hillary Clinton is going to get trumpeted on the front page as though it were scandalous, no matter what the substance of it actually is. I’ll discuss some reasons why in a moment, but we could have no better evidence than the treatment of this particular story.

The State Department says it is reviewing nearly 15,000 previously undisclosed emails recovered as part of an investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of email. (Video: AP)

Let’s briefly summarize what’s so earth-shaking that it gets front-page treatment on both the New York Times and the Washington Post today, not to mention untold hours of breathless cable news discussion. There are actually two stories in one.

The first is that a federal judge has ordered the State Department to speed up its review of approximately 15,000 previously undisclosed emails that the FBI retrieved off of Clinton’s server. We have no idea what’s in them. It could be something horrifying, or it could be utterly banal. My money’s on the latter, but it’ll be a while before we know.

The second story is that Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

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The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Let’s look at that story. It mentions three specific requests sent to Clinton aide Huma Abedin by Doug Band, an executive at the Clinton Foundation, on behalf of people who had contributed to the Foundation:

  • A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
  • Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
  • The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

And that’s it. If there were anything more scandalous there, have no doubt that Judicial Watch would have brought it to reporters’ eager attention. So: Nobody got special favors and nobody got “access,” except for the second-highest-ranking official of an important U.S. ally in the Middle East (Bahrain is, among other things, the site of an American naval base that is home to the 5th Fleet and the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command). While the crown prince has attended at least one Clinton Global Initiative event, where he committed to fund a scholarship program for Bahraini students, it’s safe to say that the crown prince meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State is not an unusual occurrence.

Here I’ll insert my usual caveat, which is that Clinton was wrong to use a private system for email while she was at the State Department. Among other things, it was a violation of departmental policy. It will also be remembered as one of the most colossal political screw-ups in modern times. In an effort to save herself the hassle of endless FOIA requests and lawsuits from the likes of Judicial Watch (I don’t believe her assertion that she wanted to use a private system for the sake of convenience), she created monumental political trouble for herself, to the point that it’s the one thing that might keep her from winning the White House.

But that doesn’t mean that any story touching on her emails deserves screaming headlines and dark insinuations, and this one certainly doesn’t. So why isn’t it on page A14 where it belongs? The most important reason is the oldest one: the “Clinton Rules,” which state that any allegation about Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, no matter how outlandish and no matter how thin the evidence for it, should be treated as serious and worthy of extended attention and unrestrained speculation. In 2016, that’s even more true for anything involving anybody’s emails.

And it means that the most common habits and occurrences will often be cast in sinister terms, even when there’s nothing out of the ordinary about them. Do powerful people, organizations, and countries donate money to the Clinton Foundation so they can rub shoulders with Bill Clinton? You bet they do. That’s the whole model: exploit Clinton’s celebrity to raise money which can then be used to make progress on important issues like climate change and global health. It’s also the model every celebrity uses when they try to raise money for their pet causes, whether it’s George Clooney or Peyton Manning or even Donald Trump. 

Likewise, a healthy portion of Huma Abedin’s job as Clinton’s closest aide seems to have consisted of fielding requests from people who wanted to get her boss’s time and attention. That’s the way it is with many powerful people, in politics or any other realm. If we were able to see all the emails from the office of any senator, Democrat or Republican, we’d see the same thing: a steady stream of people asking, on their own behalf or someone else’s, for the senator’s time. Donors, businesspeople, advocates, constituents, they all want to talk to the person whose picture is on all the walls.

If we find cases where someone actually received some favor or consideration they didn’t deserve, then depending on the details it might actually be scandalous. But an email discussion of Bono’s wacky idea to send U2 concerts to the International Space Station is not a scandal.