Raise your hand if you didn’t see this coming from a long way off:
They thought she’d changed. They thought maybe she’d picked up a little bit from them about how people respond to awkward secret arrangements and contrived ways of not telling the full story.
This has been a surprising two weeks for aides in President Barack Obama’s orbit as they’ve watched Hillary Clinton’s email mess unfold.
It isn’t that Obama and Clinton like or don’t like each other, or that their aides still have hard feelings left over from the 2008 primary campaign. In the White House, as conversations with current and former aides make clear, they want her to win — after all, so much of what they’ve achieved depends on her getting into the Oval Office to keep it going. The Democratic nomination is all but hers, the Republican field still looking weak to them, and they’re counting on her.
To sum up the feelings, all the way up to the highest levels: What. The. Hell.
With so much on the line, with so much time to prepare, she’s back to classic Clinton? She’s flubbing a campaign kickoff eight years in the making because she somehow thought that no one would ever care that she set up a secret email server? That anyone would then accept her word that it was OK that she deleted 30,000 emails even though the State Department had been asking for some of them? And then go silent again?
After all, 2008’s “Change you can believe in” campaign slogan wasn’t just a reference to George W. Bush. It was also about her, and the uneasy feeling many people had that with Clinton, something else was always going on.
Obama aides had had that feeling themselves, even after she joined the administration and their staffs tried following Obama’s and Clinton’s leads in building mutual trust, almost to the point of suspension of disbelief.
A lot of this has to do with what Obama aides refer to as a culture clash. The Clintons look for loopholes, they say, while Obama takes a special pride, particularly on transparency issues, in sticking to the letter of the law: a combination of cockiness that he’s right, so why not let everyone see how he got there, as well as a background awareness that any scandal would be a scandal for the first African-American president.
If your hand is raised, give yourself a dopeslap. Give yourself another if you think this came from some White House aide telling tales out of school. This story originated “all the way up to the highest levels” of the administration. This is a political hit job.
The Lannisters and the Starks got nothing on the Clintons and Obamas. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Others have been given the green light to attack as well. Here’s David Corn at MoJo:
It is, unfortunately, an old and all-too familiar story. A Clinton, meaning Bill or Hillary, does something wrong (or possibly wrong). The media pounces; the Clinton antagonists of the right hit the warpath. Immediately, the Clinton camp and its supporters accuse the media and the conservative Clinton Hate Machine of trumping up a story to thwart the noble Clintons. Clinton spokespeople go into war-room mode. Resentful reporters grouse (privately and publicly) about the heavy-handed operators and obfuscators of Clintonland. And the right claims this latest fuss is a scandal that surpasses Watergate. Rinse, repeat.
The latest iteration of this Clinton-media dysfunctional spin cycle was triggered by the Hillary Clinton email kerfuffle that exploded last week. The Clinton camp’s handling of the controversy was a sign that Hillary and her gang are stuck in the Whitewaterish 1990s when it comes to communications strategy, relying on always-be-combating tactics predicated on self-perceived persecution. It’s bad news for anyone hoping that Hillary 2016 has learned from the miscalculations of the past.
Of course, Clinton and her emissaries cannot admit mistakes were made. I’m not privy to their private thinking, but it’s not hard to imagine a bedrock principle within this crowd: Don’t concede anything; don’t give our enemies anything. For instance, a Clinton spokesman told me that her emails had been preserved within the State Department. But that was not true. Some emails were retained within the system: those to and from other State Department officials. But as the State Department acknowledged to me, emails between Clinton and people outside the department related to official business were not captured by the State Department system. So the Clinton spokesman was attempting to convey a false impression. That happens all the time in politics. But political reporters who have been in this game for a while will tell you that many Clinton folks tend to engage in such tactics more aggressively (and confrontationally) than the average political op. And that ticks off journalists and perhaps causes them to scoff at Clinton credibility. (Take a gander at this epic email exchange between Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines and Gawker—if you can make it through it.)
Case in point: Lanny Davis. This Clinton loyalist has been in the news recently über-defending Hillary Clinton on the emails, and he’s been playing the same old cards: Everyone does it, she’s done absolutely nothing wrong, she’s been unfairly targeted by the media, yadda, yadda, yadda. This is not a new role for Davis. In the 1990s, when Senate Republicans were investigating fundraising improbities by the Clintons and the Democratic Party—such as fundraising at a Buddhist temple, offering White House coffees and overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom to big donors, and more—Davis was the White House lawyer who attended the hearings and tried to work the reporters covering the inquiry.
Though the Senate committee chaired by Republican Sen. Fred Thompson investigating the campaign finance scandal was hyping the case against Bill Clinton—suggesting that China had illegally funneled money to his presidential campaign—there were legitimate concerns about Clinton fundraising practices (when Terry McAuliffe was then the Clinton’s highly effective and prolific money chaser), as well as serious allegations about the excesses of the GOP’s money machine. Yet Davis, representing the White House, was hell-bent on denying any evidence of Clinton wrongdoing. It was absurd. There were days when the committee would reveal a memo clearly showing that the Democrats had done something untoward. In the hallway, Davis, in pitbull fashion, would insist with a straight face that the document did not say what it said, and he would self-righteously claim the GOP was wasting taxpayers’ money to wage this vendetta against the Clintons. Reporters soon began comparing him to Jon Lovitz’s SNL character, the pathological liar. (“Yeah, that’s the ticket.”) Anything Davis told us was totally discounted and dismissed. His reality denial discredited him—and, by extension, the White House.
At one point, I was talking to a Clinton aide working to develop the White House’s response to the investigation. Davis, I observed, was not helping them. He was alienating most everyone in the press. By refusing to concede any errors—even in the face of clear evidence—he was undermining White House credibility, generating ill will, and, perhaps worse, signaling that the Clintons didn’t care about the truth. Yeah, we know, this aide responded. But, he added, the Clintons were keen on Davis. They appreciated his moxie.
The Clintons survived that scandal. They had survived the Gennifer Flowers scandal, which was precipitated by a tabloid story that was probably more true than not but dismissed as trash by the Clinton gang. They had survived the Whitewater scandal, which had been triggered by a New York Times investigation (aided by Clinton foes in Arkansas) that Clintonites forever disparaged. They went on to survive the crazy Monica Lewinsky impeachment soap opera—which did reveal that there was a vast (okay, maybe not-so-vast) right-wing conspiracy set on demolishing the Clintons any way it could. And the whole damn media went along for that ride. But though the president had indeed received blow jobs from an intern in the White House and lied about it, the Clintons, as with the other scandals, still felt persecuted by their enemies and the media. It’s a bizarre relationship: (more or less) liberal Democratic politicians at cross swords with the media often slammed by the right as biased in favor of the left. (One theory thrown about by Clintonites during Bill’s presidency was that reporters were gunning for him because as the first Baby Boomer president he was a generational peer of many in the Washington press corps, and the scribblers and broadcasters viewed him with envy and, consequently, were suckers for the rightwing attacks on the couple.)
Will Hillary survive? The Clintons are nothing if not resilient. Their individual and mutual obituaries have been written and rewritten many times. So far they have endured, while many of their old foes have fallen.
On the other hand, if she walks away this scandal will vanish like a fart on a windy day.