From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer



Esam Al-Fetori / Brian Snyder / Gary Cameron / Jim Young / Reuters / Brennan Linsley / Susan Walsh / AP / razihusin / Shutterstock

Esam Al-Fetori / Brian Snyder / Gary Cameron / Jim Young / Reuters / Brennan Linsley / Susan Walsh / AP / razihusin / Shutterstock


From Whitewater to Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer

The FBI has announced that it is reviewing new emails related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system, after the messages turned up in an unrelated inquiry.


Here’s that October surprise. The FBI will investigate newly revealed emails from Hillary Clinton related to her use of a private email server and address while secretary of state, Director James Comey informed the chairs of relevant congressional committees on Friday.

In a letter, Comey wrote, “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the case.” He wrote that he had learned of the emails on Thursday and felt that the FBI should look into the new emails. But Comey added that the FBI “cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take for us to complete this additional work.”

With so little information available yet, it’s hard to assess just how seriously to take this. The New York Times and NBC both reported that the emails were discovered in the course of an investigation into former Representative Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, who is being investigated for allegedly sexting a North Carolina teenager. The Times reports that the emails were found on a device shared by Weiner and Abedin. NBC added that there was no indication that Clinton had withheld emails.

Donald Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire, “I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake they made.” Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, meanwhile, issued a statement demanding that Comey provide more information. Some reports pegged the number of possible emails in the thousands, with speculation that no investigation could be completed by November 8.The news shook up a campaign that has seemed largely on auto-pilot for the last week, with Clinton holding a stable lead. A partisan food fight ignited within minutes of the news breaking, over whether this constituted “re-opening” the investigation or not. Because Clinton did not use a government address, she instead sorted her messages and turned them over to the State Department. (More accurately, lawyers working on her behalf sorted the emails, using keywords.) But over time, various sets of emails that Clinton did not turn over have popped up in various places, via freedom-of-information requests and the like.

While each new wave has generated excitement, there hasn’t yet been a smoking gun in the bunch. In late August, for example, the State Department announced that the FBI had turned up 15,000 new emails that Clinton did not turn over; of those, 30 were said to be related to the September 11, 2012, terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. It turned out that only one of those messages was new, and it was an ambassador’s entirely innocuous note of praise sent after Clinton testified about the attacks to Congress.

That means the story could be dangerous for Clinton’s presidential campaign, which seemed to have escaped the worst danger from the investigation over the summer. After months of investigation, Comey announced in early July that while Clinton and her aides had been “extremely careless” with classified information, there was no evidence of intent to break laws on her part or anyone else’s. As a result, he recommended that no charges be brought against her, a recommendation the Department of Justice accepted several days later.In September, the FBI released its own report on its investigation. The report, released in two chunks, offers the most complete narrative of Clinton’s email system. But it does offer a few of what a computer technician quoted in the investigation might refer to as “oh shit” moments.

The original “oh shit” moment concerned an out-of-date server that was housed at a facility in New Jersey. In December 2014, Clinton aide Cheryl Mills asked someone to delete the old messages. Apparently he didn’t do so. Then, in March 2015, The New York Times reported the existence of the email setup. The next day, a House committee on Benghazi requested the preservation of any records. Despite that, an unnamed staffer, realizing he had not followed Mills’s instructions, deleted anyway:

Mills and Clinton said they were unaware of the move.

Unawareness is a common thread throughout the report. Clinton seemed to have only a faint understanding of the process of classification and what was and was not classified, nor was she apparently trained when she joined State from the U.S. Senate:

She also said she was unaware of the requirement that she turn over her emails when she left office, which she said might be due in part to a concussion she suffered in 2012:

Some of the classified messages in Clinton’s emails dealt with “SAP,” special access programs, generally believed to be a reference to drone strikes carried out by the U.S. overseas. Through a peculiarity of classification, these strikesd are widely known about and reported on, but the government still treats them as a secret. Some of Clinton’s discussions involved material that had been reported in the public but still was technically classified. On the one hand, that seems pointless, but on the other hand Clinton told FBI investigators she understood the importance of SAP secrecy. In another case, Clinton said staffers were handcuffed by the lack of a protocol for discussing classified information at holidays when people were traveling, meaning aides had to “communicate in code or do the best you could to convey the information.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell doesn’t come off well in the report. While Clinton said she had already planned to use a private email address, some advice that he gave her seemed geared to circumventing public-records laws:

Many of Clinton’s aides apparently had no understanding of the fact that Clinton—and in some cases the aides themselves—were using a private email server. Clinton used a remarkable 13 mobile devices to access her email account, including eight separate BlackBerrys during her time as secretary of state. None of the 13 could be located for inspection, her lawyers said. (Clinton apparently often got new BlackBerrys and then decided she liked the old ones better.) She also used five iPads to access her account.

In sum, the report portrays Clinton as generally unaware: unschooled in the rules of classification and not especially concerned about getting trained; but also technologically dependent on aides in the way that many 60-something executives likely are, with little understanding of how the technology they use every day fundamentally works. Reading the report, it’s surprising that more classified information was not accidentally sent than the FBI found.

One important remaining question is whether Clinton’s server and email were ever hacked. When Comey announced the findings he stated, in essence, that they had found no direct evidence; that they would not expect to find such evidence; and that there was good reason to suspect she might have been hacked. The report fleshes that out.

There were numerous failed attempts, which Clinton aide Bryan Pagliano knew about because they appeared as failed login attempts. Pagliano considered but did not implement security protections like a virtual private network or two-step verification. There was an onslaught of attempts after the Times story first publicly revealed the server, once again none of them apparently successful. There were also several cases of what sound like standard phishing and spear-phishing attempts, where Clinton and others received malicious messages with dangerous links.

In one of the more peculiar notes, the FBI reports that an email address belonging to a staffer was compromised by someone using Tor, a software that allows masking and anonymity:

It’s too soon to know what sort of effect the FBI report could have on Clinton’s presidential campaign. It certainly does not paint a flattering view of Clinton, but it also mostly fleshes out information that was widely known about her email system.

The emails represent something of a classic Clinton scandal. Although the House investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on her part with respect to the attacks themselves, it was during that inquiry that her private-email use became public. This is a pattern with the Clinton family, which has been in the public spotlight since Bill Clinton’s first run for office, in 1974: Something that appears potentially scandalous on its face turns out to be innocuous, but an investigation into it reveals different questionable behavior. The canonical case is Whitewater, a failed real-estate investment Bill and Hillary Clinton made in 1978. Although no inquiry ever produced evidence of wrongdoing, investigations ultimately led to President Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice.

With Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee for president, every Clinton scandal—from Whitewater to the State Department emails—will be under the microscope. (No other American politicians—even ones as corrupt as Richard Nixon, or as hated by partisans as George W. Bush—have fostered the creation of a permanent multimillion-dollar cottage industry devoted to attacking them.) Keeping track of each controversy, where it came from, and how serious it is, is no small task, so here’s a primer. We’ll update it as new information emerges.

The Clintons’ Private Email Server

Jim Young / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Jim Young / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

What? During the course of the Benghazi investigation, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt learned Clinton had used a personal email account while secretary of state. It turned out she had also been using a private server, located at a house in New York. The result was that Clinton and her staff decided which emails to turn over to the State Department as public records and which to withhold; they say they then destroyed the ones they had designated as personal.

When? 2009-2013, during Clinton’s term as secretary.

Who? Hillary Clinton; Bill Clinton; top aides including Huma Abedin

How serious is it? Very serious. A May report from the State Department inspector general is harshly critical of Clinton’s email approach, but Loretta Lynch announced on July 6 that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges, removing the threat of an indictment that could be fatal to her campaign. On October 28, the FBI announced is it reviewing a new tranche of emails that turned up in an unrelated investigation, but it did not offer any other details on the scope. In any case, the scandal will remain a millstone around her neck forever. Comey’s damning comments about her conduct—“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information”—will reverberate throughout the campaign. Also unresolved is the question of whether Clinton’s server was hacked. You can read the FBI report here.

Clinton’s State Department Emails

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her phone on board a plane from Malta to Tripoli, Libya. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her phone on board a plane from Malta to Tripoli, Libya. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

What? Setting aside the question of the Clintons’ private email server, what’s actually in the emails that Clinton did turn over to State? While some of the emails related to Benghazi have been released, there are plenty of others covered by public-records laws that are still in the process of being vetted for release.

When? 2009-2013

How serious is it? Serious. While the contents of emails revealed so far has been more eyerolly than scandalous, the bigger problem is the revelation that dozens of email chains contained information that was classified at some level.  Meanwhile, some emails remain to be seen. The State Department, under court order, is slowly releasing the emails she turned over, but there are other emails that she didn’t turn over, which have surfaced through court battles.



What? On September 11, 2012, attackers overran a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Since then, Republicans have charged that Hillary Clinton failed to adequately protect U.S. installations or that she attempted to spin the attacks as spontaneous when she knew they were planned terrorist operations. She testifies for the first time on October 22.

When? September 11, 2012-present

How serious is it? With the June 28 release of the House committee investigating Benghazi, this issue is receding. That report criticized security preparations at the American facility in Benghazi as well as stations elsewhere, but it produced no smoking guns or new accusations about things Clinton could have done the night of the attacks. Although some conservatives will likely continue to assail her, the biggest damage is likely to be iterative—the highly damaging private-email story was revealed during the course of the House inquiry. The August revelation of up to 30 new, unreleased emails suggested some new information, but it turned out there was only one truly new message, a flattering personal note from an ambassador.

Conflicts of Interest in Foggy Bottom

 Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

What? Before becoming Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills worked for Clinton on an unpaid basis for four months while also working for New York University, in which capacity she negotiated on the school’s behalf with the government of Abu Dhabi, where it was building a campus. In June 2012, Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin’s status at State changed to “special government employee,”allowing her to also work for Teneo, a consulting firm run by Bill Clinton’s former right-hand man. She also earned money from the Clinton Foundation and was paid directly by Hillary Clinton. In a separate case, ABC News reports that a top Clinton Foundation donor named Rajiv Fernando was placed on State’s International Security Advisory Board. Fernando appeared significantly less qualified than many of his colleagues, and was appointed at the behest of the secretary’s office. Internal emails show that State staff first sought to cover for Clinton, and then Fernando resigned two days after ABC’s inquiries. Judicial Watch released documents that show Doug Band, a Foundation official, trying to put a donor in touch with a State Department expert on Lebanon and to get someone a job at Foggy Bottom.

Who? Both Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin are among Clinton’s longest-serving and closest aides. Abedin remains involved in her campaign (and she’s also married to Anthony Weiner).When? January 2009-February 2013

How serious is it? This is arcane stuff, to be sure. There are questions about conflict of interest—such as whether Teneo clients might have benefited from special treatment by the State Department while Abedin worked for both. To a great extent, this is just an extension of the tangle of conflicts presented by the Clinton Foundation and the many overlapping roles of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Sidney Blumenthal

Blumenthal takes a lunch break while being deposed in private session of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

Blumenthal takes a lunch break while being deposed in private session of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

What? A former journalist, Blumenthal was a top aide in the second term of the Bill Clinton administration and helped on messaging during the bad old days. He served as an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and when she took over the State Department, she sought to hire Blumenthal. Obama aides, apparently still smarting over his role in attacks on candidate Obama, refused the request, so Clinton just sought out his counsel informally. At the same time, Blumenthal was drawing a check from the Clinton Foundation.

When? 2009-2013

How serious is it? Only mildly. Some of the damage is already done. Blumenthal was apparently the source of the idea that the Benghazi attacks were spontaneous, a notion that proved incorrect and provided a political bludgeon against Clinton and Obama. He also advised the secretary on a wide range of other issues, from Northern Ireland to China, and passed along analysis from his son Max, a staunch critic of the Israeli government (and conservative bête noire). But emails released so far show even Clinton’s top foreign-policy guru, Jake Sullivan, rejecting Blumenthal’s analysis, raising questions about her judgment in trusting him.

The Speeches

Keith Bedford / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Keith Bedford / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

What? Since Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001, both Clintons have made millions of dollars for giving speeches.

When? 2001-present

Who? Hillary Clinton; Bill Clinton; Chelsea Clinton

How serious is it? Intermittently dangerous. It has a tendency to flare up, then die down. Senator Bernie Sanders made it a useful attack against her in early 2016, suggesting that by speaking to banks like Goldman Sachs, she was compromised. There have been calls for Clinton to release the transcripts of her speeches, which she has declined to do, saying if every other candidate does, she will too. For the Clintons, who left the White House up to their ears in legal debt, lucrative speeches—mostly by the former president—proved to be an effective way of rebuilding wealth. They have also been an effective magnet for prying questions. Where did Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton speak? How did they decide how much to charge? What did they say? How did they decide which speeches would be given on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, with fees going to the charity, and which would be treated as personal income? Are there cases of conflicts of interest or quid pro quos—for example, speaking gigs for Bill Clintonon behalf of clients who had business before the State Department?

The Clinton Foundation

A brooch for sale at the Clinton Museum Store in Little Rock, Arkansas (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

A brooch for sale at the Clinton Museum Store in Little Rock, Arkansas (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

What? Bill Clinton’s foundation was actually established in 1997, but after leaving the White House it became his primary vehicle for … well, everything. With projects ranging from public health to elephant-poaching protection and small-business assistance to child development, the foundation is a huge global player with several prominent offshoots. In 2013, following Hillary Clinton’s departure as secretary of State, it was renamed the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

When? 1997-present

Who? Bill Clinton; Hillary Clinton; Chelsea Clinton, etc.

How serious is it? If the Clinton Foundation’s strength is President Clinton’s endless intellectual omnivorousness, its weakness is the distractibility and lack of interest in detail that sometimes come with it. On a philanthropic level, the foundation gets decent ratings from outside review groups, though critics charge that it’s too diffuse to do much good, that the money has not always reached its intended recipients, and that in some cases the money doesn’t seem to have achieved its intended purpose. The foundation made errors in its tax returns it has to correct. Overall, however, the essential questions about the Clinton Foundation come down to two, related issues. The first is the seemingly unavoidable conflicts of interest: How did the Clintons’ charitable work intersect with their for-profit speeches? How did their speeches intersect with Hillary Clinton’s work at the State Department? Were there quid-pro-quos involving U.S. policy? Did the foundation steer money improperly to for-profit companies owned by friends? The second, connected question is about disclosure. When Clinton became secretary, she agreed that the foundation would make certain disclosures, which it’s now clear it didn’t always do. And the looming questions about Clinton’s State Department emails make it harder to answer those questions.

The Bad Old Days

 Supporter Dick Furinash holds up cardboard cut-outs of Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Jim Young / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

Supporter Dick Furinash holds up cardboard cut-outs of Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Jim Young / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic)

What is it? Since the Clintons have a long history of controversies, there are any number of past scandals that continue to float around, especially in conservative media: Whitewater. Troopergate. Paula Jones. Monica Lewinsky. Travelgate. Vince Foster’s suicide. Juanita Broaddrick.

When? 1975-2001

Who? Bill Clinton; Hillary Clinton; a brigade of supporting characters

How serious is it? The conventional wisdom is that they’re not terribly dangerous. Some are wholly spurious (Foster). Others (Lewinsky, Whitewater) have been so exhaustively investigated it’s hard to imagine them doing much further damage to Hillary Clinton’s standing. In fact, the Lewinsky scandal famously boosted her public approval ratings. But the January 2016 resurfacing of Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegations offers a test case to see whether the conventional wisdom is truly wise—or just conventional. On May 23, Donald Trump released a video prominently highlighting Broaddrick’s accusation.