Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was supposed to be a central argument for her forthcoming run for president. Her globe-trotting record as the nation’s chief diplomat, her role championing women’s empowerment and gay rights, and her experience on tough national security issues were all supposed to confer credentials that none of her possible GOP opponents would possess.
But over the past two weeks, with back-to-back revelations that she was working with foreign countries that gave millions of dollars to her family’s charitable foundation and that she set up and exclusively used a private e-mail system, that argument has been put in peril.
Instead of a fresh chapter in which Clinton came into her own, her time as the country’s top diplomat now threatens to remind voters of what some people dislike about her — a tendency toward secrecy and defensiveness, along with the whiff of scandal that clouded the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton.
That side of Hillary Clinton also plays directly into the main Republican argument against her, that she is a candidate of “yesterday” — as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida recently put it — who comes with decades of baggage the country no longer need carry.
“Part of the reason the story is gaining traction is that it reminds people of what the Clinton White House was like,” said American University political science professor Jennifer Lawless. “It reminds people of the scandals, the secrecy and the lack of transparency that were often associated with Bill Clinton’s eight years in Washington.”
Clinton was already certain to face sharp questions during a presidential campaign about her handling of the deadly attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. She has never been shown to have any direct role in events leading up to the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, but an inquiry that Democrats call a fishing expedition has been given new life by the revelation that her e-mails were not immediately given to Congress.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chairs a special congressional committee on Benghazi, has subpoenaed Clinton’s e-mails and plans to call her as a witness once his investigation is further along. That will mean a showdown in the middle of a presidential campaign in which she will be trying to reintroduce herself to voters.
“You do not need a law degree to have an understanding of how troubling this is,” Gowdy said in a news conference last week.
Clinton has said nothing about the e-mail controversy beyond a tweet promising to seek to make the messages public. On Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Clinton needs to talk in more detail about the issue. “From this point on, the silence is going to hurt her,” Feinstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Clinton’s problems at the State Department also make it easier for Republicans to connect her to what they see as President Obama’s shaky foreign policy and his broken promise to operate the most transparent administration in history.
Even the smallest things are being looked at anew. The iconic image of her at the State Department, which she chose as her Twitter avatar, shows her seated aboard a military transport plane, reading something — perhaps e-mail — on her BlackBerry.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is weighing a 2016 bid, cast her reliance on private e-mail as a serious security risk. “It’s a little baffling, to be honest with you, that didn’t come up in Secretary Clinton’s thought process,” the Republican said in a Friday radio interview.
And while Clinton remains the overwhelming favorite for her party’s nomination, some Democrats last week were more open about their misgivings about her candidacy. On Friday night in New Hampshire, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who might run against her, for the first time broke his silence on her use of the private e-mail account, saying that “openness and transparency are required of governing in the modern age.”
For Clinton, the State Department years were a kind of protective cocoon from partisan politics, even though she was a visible member of a Democratic administration that was doing regular battle with congressional Republicans.
She was rarely called upon to take public positions on partisan issues. Her history as a politically active first lady, senator and failed Democratic candidate for president were rarely mentioned in day-to-day news coverage of her trips and priorities as secretary.
Clinton’s busy pace — she visited a record 112 countries — made it easy to deflect questions about the common assumption that she would make another run for the White House when her time at the State Department was over.
After leaving office, she wrote a memoir of her time at the State Department that was published last year. The book, “Hard Choices,” marked her unmistakable entry into the 2016 presidential race and amounted to a virtual campaign manifesto.
“We have to use all of America’s strengths to build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries, more shared responsibility and fewer conflicts, more good jobs and less poverty, more broadly based prosperity with less damage to our environment,” Clinton wrote.
Clinton posted a Twitter message Wednesday night — two days into the e-mail controversy — saying she wants the public “to see my e-mails.” She said she has asked the State Department to review them for release.
That review could also establish whether she broke any rules about the handling of sensitive information.
The e-mail arrangement meant that Clinton’s work e-mails were being routed through a private server in her Chappaqua, N.Y., home and were not being archived by the government as now required. She handed over 55,000 pages of e-mails upon the State Department’s request last year, more than a year after she left her post.
She has not explained the reason for the unorthodox arrangement, and her husband declined to weigh in on Sunday. “I’m not the one to judge that. I have an opinion, but I have a bias,” Bill Clinton said in response to a reporter’s question during a Florida appearance, according to Bloomberg Politics. He added: “I shouldn’t be making news on this.”
The White House has distanced itself from the growing controversy. Obama said in an interview with CBS on Saturday that he did not know about Hillary Clinton’s use of private e-mail until reading news reports last week.
“The president does have the expectation that everybody in his administration takes the steps that are necessary to be in compliance with the Federal Records Act and with the Presidential Records Act,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. “And again, that means using, as often as possible, using your official government e-mail when you’re conducting official government business.”
White House officials communicated with Clinton on her private account, and it is not clear that any White House official flagged the practice as a potential problem.
The e-mail revelation came after the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation acknowledged in February that it had accepted a foreign-government donation in 2010 without submitting it for an ethics review, as required in a 2008 agreement with the Obama administration.
The 2008 agreement had been reached to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state. Under the agreement, the foundation was to submit any donation from a foreign government that had not previously given money to the foundation.
The goal was to allow ethics officers to analyze whether it might appear that the government was trying to influence U.S. policy with a donation to a charity so closely linked to the nation’s top diplomat.
The foundation told The Washington Post that it had failed to follow that process in the case of an unsolicited $500,000 donation from the government of Algeria to assist in earthquake relief in Haiti. The donation coincided with a spike in lobbying by Algeria, which was defending its human rights record to U.S. officials.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the donation did not pose a problem because U.S. support for rebuilding efforts in Haiti was well known before the Algerian donation came in.
Prominent Clinton backers have dismissed the recent controversies as minor distractions unimportant to voters and blamed the e-mail flap on a Republican attack machine.
But other Democrats expressed exasperation at what they called a slow and ham-handed response to the e-mail controversy by her small group of advisers. There is no in-house, campaign-grade rapid-response operation, and outside defenders had little notice that a problem was brewing.
“I’d be surprised to find a lot of Democrats who think this is going to have a lot of legs,” said one senior Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Clinton is not yet a candidate. “But there is a level of angst and annoyance about how badly the thing has been mishandled.”
Several Democrats said the controversy is being blown out of proportion and questioned whether Republicans are being subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said that Clinton has been aboveboard and that the controversy will quickly fade.
“She’s not trying to hide anything,” Sanchez said.