Whenever some new piece of information emerges about Hillary Clinton or people close to her, we’re told that it “raises questions” of some kind, which means it’s being shoehorned into a larger narrative that says something fundamental about her: That she’s tainted by scandal, or corrupt, or just sinister in ways people can never quite put their finger on.
Yet somehow, stories about Donald Trump that don’t have to do with the latest appalling thing that came out of his mouth don’t “raise questions” in the same way. They’re here and then they’re gone, obliterated by his own behavior without going deep into question-raising territory.
To see what I mean, let’s look at a couple of stories that have come out in the last 24 hours. We’ll start with the one about Clinton. You may have heard recently about Judicial Watch, which is an organization established in the 1990s to destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, a mission it continues to this day. Through lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests, they try to obtain information that can be used against the Clintons, and they’re going to be a vital player in Washington politics should Hillary become president. The group’s latest “revelation” can be found in email exchanges between Doug Band, an executive at the Clinton Foundation, and Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin, when Clinton was secretary of state.
Here’s how the New York Times reported this story, under the headline “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation Ties to State Department“:
A top aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department agreed to try to obtain a special diplomatic passport for an adviser to former President Bill Clinton in 2009, according to emails released Thursday, raising new questions about whether people tied to the Clinton Foundation received special access at the department.
The request by the adviser, Douglas J. Band, who started one arm of the Clintons’ charitable foundation, was unusual, and the State Department never issued the passport. Only department employees and others with diplomatic status are eligible for the special passports, which help envoys facilitate travel, officials said.
Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign said that there was nothing untoward about the request and that it related to an emergency trip that Mr. Clinton took to North Korea in 2009 to negotiate the release of two American journalists. Mrs. Clinton has long denied that donors had any special influence at the State Department.
The first sentence of that story is questionable at best. The top aide, Huma Abedin, did not “agree to try to obtain a special diplomatic passport” for Band. He emailed her asking for it, and she replied, “OK will figure it out.” It’s hard to say whether that constitutes agreeing to anything, and at any rate, Band and the other two Clinton aides who were going to accompany the former president on this mission to North Korea didn’t actually need diplomatic passports for the trip and wouldn’t be allowed to get them anyway, nothing happened. You might have missed it, but there in the second paragraph the story notes that no diplomatic passports were ever issued.
To sum up: An executive at the Clinton Foundation made a request of Hillary Clinton’s aide, and didn’t get what he was asking for. Now maybe there is some real evidence somewhere of corruption at the State Department during Clinton’s time there, but that sure as heck isn’t it.
If you as a journalist are going to say that something “raises questions,” and if you know the answer to those questions, you have to say that, too. So in this case, the question the Band email raises is, “Did an aide to Bill Clinton get a diplomatic passport from Hillary Clinton’s staff when she was Secretary of State, something he was not entitled to?” The answer is — and pay attention to make sure you grasp this answer in all its complexity — No. (If you want a fairer version of this story, here’s the Post’s.)
Now let me point you to another story, one you probably haven’t heard about. Yesterday we learned that Donald Trump paid the IRS a $2,500 penalty over a contribution his foundation made to a PAC affiliated with Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, whom you might remember from the Republican convention, where she gave a rousing speech endorsing Trump. Does this story “raise questions”? Does it ever.
Here’s the quick summary: In 2013, Bondi’s office received multiple complaints from Floridians who said they had been cheated out of thousands of dollars by a fraudulent operation called Trump University. While Bondi’s office was looking into the claims to determine if they should join New York State’s lawsuit against Trump University, Bondi called Donald Trump and asked him for a contribution to her PAC.
Now let’s pause for a moment to savor the idea that Bondi, the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the state, would solicit a contribution from someone her office was in the process of investigating. She did solicit that contribution, and Donald Trump came through with $25,000.
Or actually, his foundation paid Bondi’s PAC the $25,000, which is an illegal contribution. Trump’s people say this was just a clerical error, and Trump himself reimbursed the foundation — that’s what the IRS fine was about. But days before getting the check, Bondi’s office announced that they were considering whether to go after Trump University, and not long after the check was cashed, they decided to drop the whole thing.
Here are a few questions this story raises: How many Floridians were scammed by Trump University? When Bondi and Trump spoke, did Trump University come up? What was the basis on which Bondi decided not to join New York’s lawsuit? Why didn’t she recuse herself from the decision? Are there any other attorneys general Trump has given money to, and had any of them received complaints about Trump University, the Trump Institute, the Trump Network, or any of Trump’s other get-rich-quick scams that were so successful in separating ordinary people from their money?
Those kinds of questions are what spur more digging and allow news organizations to not just write one story about an issue like this and then consider it done, but return to it again and again. If they decided to, they could get at least as much material out of the issue of Trump’s scams as they do out of Clinton’s alleged corruption at the State Department. But I’m guessing they won’t. Some stories “raise questions,” and others don’t.