Much of the criticism of Hillary Clinton over her emails and her family’s foundation is unfairly harsh. But the Clintons themselves invite such scrutiny and suspicion.
First, the emails. Months of investigation turned up essentially nothing worthy of being called a scandal. Unless you doubt the integrity of FBI director James Comey – and I don’t – any mishandling of classified information was so minimal that “no reasonable prosecutor” would seek to pursue a case. And the FBI found no evidence, Comey said, that foreign adversaries or anyone else ever hacked their way into Clinton’s emails.
That’s the bottom line, no matter what critics might claim. Ordinarily, such findings would put the whole matter to rest. But they didn’t, largely because of Clinton’s own actions and words.
As she has acknowledged, she never should have decided to reject an official State Department email account and instead use a personal account on her family’s private server. Clinton’s explanation that she took this highly unorthodox step for “convenience” is as hollow as they come.
As I have written, it seems obvious that she wanted total control of her electronic correspondence – probably to make sure that no personal emails would ever become part of the public record. Did this reflect an obsession with secrecy? Did she have something to hide?
Before drawing conclusions, remember this: It’s not paranoia if enemies really are out to get you. The Clintons have been doggedly pursued by their foes for decades. It’s understandable that they would try to avoid giving any ammunition to their adversaries.
But rather than come out and say that, Clinton has sought to convince us she did nothing different from what previous secretaries of state had done. This came as a surprise to previous secretaries of state, not one of whom used a personal email server. Why does Clinton keep coming back to this empty rationalization? I have no idea.
Given the political trouble the emails have given her, I believe Clinton when she says that if she had it to do over again, she would just use a State Department account and forget the private server. But there is still a defensiveness in her explanations that makes me wonder if her contrition is more situational than genuine. I’m sorry this caused me such grief isn’t the same as I’m sorry I did it.
The other faux scandal for which Clinton is being pilloried – involving the Clinton Foundation and her State Department appointment calendar – has even less substance.
Step back for a moment. Bill and Hillary Clinton established a charitable foundation that even critics say has done much good work. One signature accomplishment is making it possible for millions of people in poor countries to have access to low-cost, lifesaving anti-HIV drugs. The Clintons have donated millions of dollars from their own pockets to the foundation over the years.
In a sane world, this would be considered laudable. In fact, Donald Trump – who now paints the Clinton Foundation as some kind of criminal conspiracy – made a donation of $100,000 through his own foundation. Clearly he thought highly of the Clintons’ work at the time.
But now Trump and others allege a “pay to play” scheme in which big donors to the foundation got access to Clinton while she was secretary of state. To my eye, however, this charge is ludicrous because so many of the donors in question would surely have obtained an audience with the secretary of state anyway.
One foreign luminary often cited as having paid to play is Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain, whose nation had donated to the foundation. The prince was having trouble getting an appointment with Clinton through normal channels, but obtained the meeting after someone from the foundation alerted a top Clinton aide.
What that summary omits is that Bahrain is host to a U.S. naval base that provides our major military presence in the Persian Gulf. Having decided to stick with the Bahraini royals despite popular protests against their rule, there was no way the secretary of state would ultimately leave the crown prince cooling his heels.
Of course, Clinton could have avoided such questions by building an impermeable wall between the foundation and the State Department. But no, the Clintons do not believe in impermeable walls. I wish they would get religion.
Hillary Clinton is running against a man who is wholly unqualified to be president. So she must win. But she also must learn.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.