Sunday, November 6, 2016

America's Favorite Sport: Hating Hillary Clinton. The Scandals, Real and Imagined.

"The central point about Mrs Clinton, however, is that she is being judged by an absurd double-standard. By any respectable measure, she is one of the most impressive Democrats of her generation. If she was a man, her toughness and intellect would win universal approval". That was The Economist in a column titled "Hillary Clinton, trail blazer" published in December 1992. Yes, 1992.

The Clintons are surely to be blamed for the predicament they find themselves and for putting the Obama White House, an administration that has been remarkably scandal free, in a fix. The day Hillary became Secretary of State the Clinton Foundation should've been shut down or transitioned or far stricter rules for accepting contributions be put in place. On the issue of the Foundation I'd also fault the Obama team for not insisting on any of that though they did insist on a number of rules before she was indeed nominated. All that said the emails and the Foundation related stories have been so vastly exaggerated to make Clinton look like she is some Don Corleone. But then, as Economist argued in the article, hating Hillary Clinton, actually just her, not Bill Clinton, for nearly 3 decades has been America's most favorite national sport.

First, the emails. A bit of perspective here. In 2007 Bush's Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez had fired 8 US attorneys and a Democratic run Congress investigated. The investigation turned up the fact that the then White House officials used personal email addresses willy nilly. Many emails, now said to be 22 million, the White House said were lost. While calling commentator Juan Williams's claim that there was 'zero' coverage of that as false Politifact did concede that compared to the outrage and coverage given to Hillary's email saga it was nothing. Poltitifact conducted a Lexis-Nexis search of related articles and found 125 newspaper articles about the Bush White House email affair compared to 1700 articles on Clinton's email travails. Politifact does point out that the two cases differ in one significant manner, in the Bush White House affair Bush himself, as President was not even remotely involved, whereas in Clinton's case it happened to be a prospective presidential candidate who could very well become president.

Now, why did Clinton do the private email server snafu? Prior to assuming office Hillary got in touch with Colin Powell and asked him questions about how he handled emails and correspondences. Powell happily used to send emails from his private email addresses and he decided that such emails were not public records. Also, fed up with restrictions that the NSA/CIA wanted him to observe Powell, in his own words, "we just went about our business and stopped asking". An important caveat, Powell did not use a private email server.

With this backdrop Hillary Clinton decided to use a private email server 'for convenience' which would help her avoid having a private email account and an official one. When her tenure ended her lawyer and her team decided which was 'private email' and deleted them from the server. Sure, this sounds fishy, illegal and corrupt BUT at the end it is not at all different from what Powell did. As for classified emails that were found on her server. That is a complex issue. Many were classified ''secret' at a later date and not at the time it was sent. This was standard practice in government. Even a State Department official jousting with an FBI official to reduce the classification status, not granted though, is routine.

We've to get one thing clear the Federal government, especially at the President's cabinet level does NOT function like the IT department of a private company. That the FBI, despite director Comey's characterization of Clinton and her team as being 'extremely careless', would not decide to charge Clinton has caused sufficient heartburn amongst many and that alone has caused many to suspect that the investigation was scuttled. Of course, the recent resurrection of the case in a politically suspicious manner has made yesterday's critics of Comey today's supporters and vice versa. Legal scholar and author of books on US Supreme Court Jeffrey Toobin in a column flat out declared "Clinton has committed no crimes with regard to her emails". Let's also remember that former CIA director and 4 star general David Petraeus, who intentionally and knowingly gave classified material to a biographer who later became his mistress, was also not charged.

The New York Times which originally published the email story in it's endorsement of Hillary for presidency finally conceded that the matter was one for the 'help desk'. A column in left leaning magazine Vox sums it up in the title, "The real Clinton email scandal is that a bullshit story has dominated the campaign". And The Economist agrees, "In the annals of political misdeeds, future historians will not pause on Mrs Clinton's emails long. But they will marvel at how an exaggerated belief in her malfeasance created the conditions for Mr Trump to seize the White House".

Without a doubt the Clintons were peddling influence when they were raising money for the Clinton Foundation but that is perfectly legal. When Sanders repeatedly cast aspersions on Hillary giving speeches to Wall Street she bristled "if you have something to say specifically Senator come out and say it". Till today there is not a single shred of evidence to show pay for play. Not a single legislation or favoritism was shown by Hillary either as Senator or as Secretary of State.

A notorious charge is how the Clintons forged relationship with a Russian industrialist and facilitated the sale of US uranium maker to Russia in exchange for a donation to the foundation. Contrary to the popular myth about the press ignoring her scandals it was, yet again, New York Times that first reported on the supposed scandal. Buried in an article titled ominously "Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal" was this "whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal". Essentially there was no story but hey why bother. Politifact conducted a detailed fact check on the Uranium story and said that the deal was approved by multiple federal agencies and the deal was part of a complex altering of geo-political strategy to engage with Russia.

The Associated Press reported with fanfare that more than half of Hillary Clinton's visitors were donors to the foundation. For nearly two days the press and Cable TV coverage ran around like headless chicken. Then the verification happened. AP essentially screwed up. What the AP story did not mention in its attention grabbing headline was that it was a percentage of people that Clinton met that did not include heads of states and other federal employees. Essentially it was nonsense. There was, yet again, no story.

After the FBI director dropped a bombshell about "re-opening" the investigation into Hillary's email case the networks and press worked themselves into a furore. Nearly two days Hillary's campaign was literally besieged and pummeled akin to how the Trump campaign was pummeled after the release of the Billy Bush video in which he boasted of grabbing women by their genitals. Unlike the Billy Bush story which had no ifs and buts the FBI story started to unravel. The Director did not have a warrant to search the laptop they secured from an estranged husband of Hilary's aides which supposedly contained emails from Hillary's private account. Also, the investigation of that aide's husband itself was due to an unrelated case. Further leaks from FBI showed that the Director refused to push ahead with Trump related investigations because it was close to the election. But in two days Hillary's campaign suffered a near fatal body blow and we will know Tuesday if that really costs her the election.

Meantime, Fox news host Bret Baier went on air to claim that the FBI was close to charging Hillary for irregularities with the Foundation. Again, for two days the news spread like prairie fire and then Bret Baier apologized that that was really not true. Trump campaign manager told CNN that though the news was false the "damage was done". That, my dear readers, is absolutely true.

The wikileaks email release is another yawn. We cannot forget the fact that Julian Assange, prompted by Putin or not, is interfering with US presidential elections. What wikileaks is doing is no different from what the Watergate burglars attempted to do. Couple of excerpts caused some stir and as usual unfairly so.

In one of her speeches Clinton spoke of how she dreams of a "hemispheric where there are open borders and open trade". Immediately the right and left pounced on it; one to say that she believed in open borders; another to say that she was hypocritical in opposing trade pacts. Nonsense. Sure, her opposition of TPP is politically expedient but nowhere has she said she's totally opposed to trade. No sensible person can be. Further, seen in context the remark extends to combating climate change and not about opening borders to illegal immigrants.

Another eye brow raising remark was where she said that sometimes one has to have a public opinion and a private opinion. Immediately everyone pounced on it and said "aha, there you go hypocrite. Crucify her". Nonsense. What Hillary was saying was how politicians have to sell policies to different audiences and moderate their presentations. It is not for nothing that governing was called akin to sausage making. Whether it is the Civil Rights legislation or the 13th Amendment or the Affordable Care Act they were all passed with inordinate amount of skulduggery and politicking. This is NOT a bad thing in totality. A rambunctious and large democracy like US has competing interests and each senator or congress person tries to do what he/she thinks their constituents demand. Balancing that requires deal making. And, sometimes, as JFK learned during the Cuban missile crisis, the public has to be kept in dark about a defense deal. Transparency is overrated.

While there was absolutely no bombshell the steady drip drip of wikileaks took a toll on Clinton's ratings during the home stretch. Just as Trump's led tape and implosions during the debates were hogging the limelight I saw TV commentators spend time discussing Trump's latest craziness and then with a pious desire to restore balance to the news segment would pivot to Clinton's emails and preface the remarks with "well Clinton is no saint and she has her own problems like the wikileaks today which said...." Then it would be a discussion on how some campaign official wrote uncharitably about Sanders, their hard elbow strategies to knock off Sanders etc. Sanders himself laughed it off saying "well if they had hacked my campaign's email they'd find similar emails about the secretary". Yes, this is what campaigns do.

The consensus view about the email was that Hillary Clinton comes of as a moderate and that she's no fire breathing progressive radical. Even the much anticipated speeches to Goldman Sachs contained no shred of controversy. There was, contrary to what was expected, no hypocrisy or no bootlicking. By and large editorials then rounded off by saying that Clinton comes off as a nuanced person who takes the world in all complexity and fleshes policy out of it. A thankful and much needed balance compared to her competitor.

The Clintons, particularly Hillary, are the most investigated politicians since Richard Nixon. Unlike Nixon they were never charged or indicted on any criminality and yet just the fact that they have been repeatedly investigated becomes, by circular logic, proof that something must have been amiss. Whether it is the Monica Lewinsky scandal or the email scandal the irony is neither investigation started there but they started as inquiries into something else that Hillary supposedly did. The emails were a collateral finding that came out a very highly partisan investigation into Benghazi against Hillary. The Benghazi investigation was complete political theater at the end of which even the republicans conceded Hillary did nothing wrong.

Picture Courtesy 'The Economist' from article "Hillary Clinton, Trail blazer"

Given how the GOP has loathed and investigated her one can only sympathize with her desire to have control of her emails. Unfortunately her remedy only deepened her misery. The fact that a partisan investigation led to this should not be lost sight of. No politician, if investigated so extensively would come off clean.

Mots importantly we've to note that while investigation after investigation has gone into Hillary's affairs we've seen next to nothing on Trump University, Trump Foundation, Trump's bankruptcies, Trumps's taxes that are being audited by IRS etc. While there have been articles by NYT and Washington Post here and there the wealth of material on Hillary, thanks to the investigations, is Himalayan compared to that of Trump's. Further as a GOP congressman conceded it is easy to launch congressional investigations on Hillary because she was a former secretary of state whereas Trump is a private citizen. But then the FBI which is eager to investigate Clinton foundation based on a book and news items is suspiciously silent about Trump foundation which was indeed found to operate illegally in New York City by New York City attorney general.

There is no rational explanation for the intense loathing that Hillary Clinton inspires without including the element of sexism. Economist notes in the article 'Hating Hillary', "the ferocity of such barrages reflected something more: the deep full lines the couple were straddling. The first baby-boomer president and his pushy wife represented a cultural shift that much of America feared....The obvious inference, that Mrs Clinton's unpopularity was fueled by sexism, has always annoyed her critics almost as much as she has. But it is otherwise hard to explain the gap between the measured criticism Mrs Clinton's behavior has sometimes invited and the unbridled loathing that has shown up in its place".

Hillary haters will show a characteristic disdain for facts and will hop from one conspiracy to another until one concedes that she has to be jailed. Though many will eschew the rabid scream of Trump voters of "lock her up" the arguments will be tailored to lead to that conclusion. "She's a corporate shrill" they'd say but when pointed out that she, not Bernie Sanders or Obama, led the fight to create universal healthcare and was literally lacerated by the GOP and the insurance industry the retort, with dollops of sneering contempt, would be "oh well she sold herself after that". "She's a wall street sell out" would be a complaint but when pointed out that Sanders voted for the Commodities and futures treading act the complainer would jump off to another conspiracy. Essentially Hillary Clinton has, in their view, prostituted herself and deserves to be frog marched into prison if not nailed and crucified. After all nobody wants such extreme medieval punishment.

All of the above is NOT to suggest that Clinton is blameless. Clinton needs to learn from the email travails and the stories about Foundation that she has, fairly or unfairly, a severe trust deficit. As one who seeks to occupy the highest office of the land she needs to show Americans that she's better than this. Shut the damn Foundation, put the coterie on a leash and work extra hard to show transparency and earn the trust of America.

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