WASHINGTON — First, Hillary Clinton was embroiled in controversy about her use of a private e-mail server. Then, questions were raised about the Clinton Foundation run by her family. Now, the dual ethics clouds are putting some of her biggest vulnerabilities under a spotlight.
What emerges from the tempest is a picture of a political operation where few advisers seemed to be questioning the boss or raising alarms about potential conflicts of interest that could hurt her down the road.
The State Department Tuesday afternoon also said another 30 e-mails that might deal with the terrorist attack on Benghazi were recovered on Clinton’s private e-mail server, some of which Clinton did not turn over to investigators.
They follow a batch of e-mails from Clinton’s days as secretary of state that showcase high-dollar donors seeking access and favors. They have prompted criticism from Republican rival Donald Trump, calls from newspaper editorial boards to shut down her family foundation, and a new round of polling that shows some slippage in her standing.
The e-mail controversy contributes to decades-old criticism that Clinton insulates herself with a coterie of adoring confidants who think she’s always right. Poor decisions follow. As one former aide said in a 2007 biography of the former first lady, “the kind of people that were around her were yes people.”
Clinton, her allies, and the foundation strenuously deny the allegations and insist that there was no quid pro quo going on between the foundation and the State Department.
“My work as secretary of state was not influenced by any outside forces,” Clinton said last week in a phone interview with CNN. “I know there’s a lot of smoke, and there’s no fire.”
But the problem with smoke is that many voters have started to think “fire.” Ethics experts say that while the e-mails don’t show Clinton or her associates breaking the law, the messages nonetheless leave an impression that people with money had a more direct line to Clinton and her top aides than others did. Even if it’s not true, experts say, the perception is damaging.
“It undermines people’s confidence in democracy and in their leaders,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel with the Campaign Legal Center. “So even when you have a situation where Secretary Clinton may have made a decision about meeting somebody for all the right reasons . . . or made a decision based truly on the merits, the fact that there is a big donation connected with it undermines [Clinton’s] credibility.”
When President Obama tapped Clinton to be secretary of state in 2009, the Clintons said they would wall off the foundation’s interests from her work as the nation’s top diplomat.
But the latest e-mails add further evidence that the wall they built in practice wasn’t all that sturdy.
In one instance, a top foundation executive sent over donor names to be included on the guest list for a State Department lunch with Chinese officials and followed up to ask whether one could be seated at Vice President Joe Biden’s table. Donors reached out directly to Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide at the department, with their own requests.
These are not the first campaign-season revelations that have led political observers to throw up their hands and ask themselves why no one in Clinton’s orbit stood up and said: You can’t. She made a decision to set up a private e-mail server to handle all her State Department correspondence. And she chose to rake in six-figure sums for speeches to Wall Street banks after leaving the agency.
“In the end, it all gets down to the principal and it all flows from the top. She set the pace,” said Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist and former member of Senate minority leader Harry Reid’s staff. “Having said that, it’s pretty clear she’s got a wide circle that surrounds her that by all appearances is unwilling to stand up and tell her, ‘This is a bad idea.’ ”
It seems the problems could have been anticipated, given Clinton’s continued political ambitions and the scrutiny she’s experienced throughout her career, said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.
“You would think that they would be worried about an appearance of a conflict of interest. . . . Knowing that Hillary had political aspirations, why weren’t they a little more concerned?” he said of the blurred lines between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department.
For many people, their spouse or partner often acts as a moral check, pointing out blind spots or delivering tough-love advice. But many of the requests to Clinton’s aides were coming from close allies of Bill Clinton’s at the foundation.
And rather than shut the appeals down, Hillary Clinton acquiesced in some cases.
Quite a few of the eyebrow-raising requests initiate with Doug Band, a longtime aide to Bill Clinton and a top foundation executive at the time.
In June 2009, Band messaged Abedin to seek a meeting with Clinton for the crown prince of Bahrain. “Good friend of ours,” Band said in an e-mail exchange released last week by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which obtained the documents and others as part of a lawsuit against the State Department.
Crown Prince Salman had pledged $32 million in funding to the Clinton Global Initiative, a program run by the foundation.
Clinton met with Salman a few days later, according to the Associated Press, which obtained some years of Clinton’s calendars through a lawsuit.
Another time, Band sought help getting a visa for a British soccer player. The original request came from Casey Wasserman, a sports entertainment executive who has given at least $5 million to the Clinton Foundation. Band passed it on to Abedin. She replied: it “makes me nervous to get involved, but I’ll ask.”
“Then don’t,” Band replied.
Amey, the ethics watchdog, pointed to the role played by foundation executives, saying the “constant requests for these types of favors seems to be also part of the problem.”
Band, who has declined to comment on the latest batch of e-mails, did not respond to a request for comment.
Clinton’s defenders say her worldview has in part been shaped by decades of unfair, politically motivated attacks by conservatives. But even some supporters believe her permanent defensive crouch has contributed to moments of poor judgment over the years.
Mark Fabiani, a lawyer in the Clinton White House who worked closely with the then first lady during the Whitewater scandal, told Hillary Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein it was unusual for advisers to challenge her decisions, but she could be persuaded by forceful argument. Generally, though, she didn’t surround herself with people willing to stand up to her.
“The kind of people that were around her were yes people,” Fabiani said. “She had never surrounded herself with people who could stand up to her, who were of a different mind. . . . I always thought that was a real tragedy in that if she had had different people around her [who would challenge her] earlier, that maybe some of the things that happened might not have happened.”