For those who have worried that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign would be a repeat of the chaotic operation she ran eight years ago, her advisers have often pointed to her time in between at the State Department — which by comparison was an archetype of crisp managerial efficiency.
But a trove of newly released e-mails suggests that one of Clinton’s tendencies persisted during her time as secretary of state — an inability to separate her longtime loyalties from the business at hand.
The e-mails from her private account reveal that she passed along no fewer than 25 memos about Libya from friend and political ally Sidney Blumenthal. Blumenthal had business interests in Libya but no diplomatic expertise there.
Moreover, she did so after the White House had blocked her from hiring Blumenthal at the State Department. The president’s team considered him untrustworthy and prone to starting rumors.
Hers has never been a world that lends itself to an organizational chart. In addition to those who work for Clinton, she maintains a vast network of political allies.
That is not a bad thing in itself. Nor is Clinton the first public official to rely on a kitchen cabinet of advisers, defenders and loyalists.
But as her earlier presidential campaign showed, the environment she creates is one in which lines of authority and decision-making can be undermined by second-guessers and meddlers.
Her back-channel communication with Blumenthal has come to the attention of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. It has subpoenaed Blumenthal to testify in its politically charged investigation of the September 2012 attacks in Libya in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
In the memos, Blumenthal — who was identified to lower-level State Department officials only as “HRC friend” — said the information was “intel,” gathered from sources he described in such breathless terms as “an extremely sensitive source” or “an extremely well-placed individual.”
In many cases, it was met with skepticism by government officials who were experts in the region.
One official who received some of the missives said “the secret source” was known to be close to the secretary and “seemed to have some knowledge” of North Africa “but not much.”
The official described reading the Blumenthal e-mails carefully to ensure that Clinton was not “taking as fact” reports that were largely political gossip.
In addition to the memos regarding Libya, Blumenthal also sent Clinton e-mails regarding the situation in Egypt, another problem area for U.S. policy, officials said.
Asked by reporters about the e-mails, which were first reported by the New York Times, Clinton noted that she has “many, many old friends.” She added, “When you’re in the public eye, when you’re in an official position, I think you do have to work to ensure that you’re not caught in a bubble. I hear from a certain small group of people and I’m going to continue to talk to my old friends, whoever they are.”
The Clinton campaign tried to put distance between the former secretary of state and the unreliable advisories that she had passed along.
“Sid provided unsolicited thoughts and suggestions to the secretary on a variety of topics. He was not a U.S. government employee nor asked by the secretary to do so,” said her spokesman, Brian Fallon.
Blumenthal also played down the significance of his extensive private communication with the secretary of state.
“From time to time, as a private citizen and friend, I provided Secretary Clinton with material on a variety of topics that I thought she might find interesting or helpful,” he said in a statement issued by his lawyer’s office. “The reports I sent her came from sources I considered reliable.”
Yet Blumenthal fits a pattern of allies to whom Clinton has long been drawn — those who share her view that she is surrounded by enemies and dark conspiracies.
“She’s not a paranoid person, I don’t think, but she wants some paranoid people around her,” said one former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Clinton’s distaste for those who speak to reporters when not authorized to do so.
Another former high-ranking staffer said that Clinton prizes “a combination of loyalty, blind devotion, willingness to stand up and fight for her — somebody who doesn’t back down from a fight on her behalf and who doesn’t flinch.”
On that score, Blumenthal had more than proven himself over the years. Indeed, one of the reasons that the White House objected to putting him at the State Department was that many there believed he had spread toxic rumors about Barack Obama during the lengthy primary battle with Clinton in 2008.
Clinton believes in the value of such tactics and of the people who are willing to employ them. After her husband was defeated in his bid for reelection as Arkansas governor in 1980, she went to work on a plan for him to win back the office.
One of her first moves was to recruit Dick Morris, a political consultant who worked mostly for Republicans and had a reputation for hardball tactics.
A friend recalls being surprised when she told him about hiring Morris. He asked why she had turned to someone that many in the field considered unsavory.
Morris “sees the underside of things,” Clinton told her friend, according to his recollection.
In an interview, Morris remembered it pretty much the same way. “The main reason that she liked me was that I did do a lot of negative advertising and viewed politics as a combatant. She was the same way,” he said.
When Bill Clinton’s presidency was on the rocks after the midterm elections of 1994, the first lady played a key role in bringing Morris back again. She had made no secret of her belief that her husband’s White House advisers were too defeatist for what could be a difficult reelection fight, one aide recalled.
So surreptitious was the move that Bill Clinton’s own aides did not know of it at first; phone messages from Morris were left under the code name “Charlie.”
“The president had engaged him to run a covert operation against his own White House — a commander’s coup against the colonels. The two of them plotted in secret — at night, on the phone, by fax,” former aide George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir.
Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential operation was similarly dysfunctional. Veterans of that campaign recall that there were too many advisers elbowing each other on important decisions and no one empowered to tell them to stop.
Her 2016 organization has been built with those mistakes in mind. Relatively few of those who were involved in 2008 remain; in their place is a new generation of data-driven operatives, few of whom have long or deep ties to the candidate herself.
Her new campaign chairman, John Podesta, was picked in part for his willingness to act as an enforcer.
“With Podesta in charge,” said a longtime Clinton friend, “it’s a new game in the sense that Podesta’s big skill is the ability to tell people to go to hell.”
In other words, they are building a different kind of Clinton campaign. The question is whether the candidate can be a different kind of Clinton.