When it was revealed last week that the Clinton Foundation accepted money from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Fox anchor Bret Baier asked a good question: “How big a problem is this becoming? Now not only for Clinton but for the [Obama] administration?” Now with latest revelations that for purposes of digital communication Hillary essentially ran her own parallel government, it’s clear that Clinton’s ethical lapses should also be a scandal for President Obama. But to understand where Obama went wrong here it’s instructive to remember how he approached the idea of nominating Hillary to be his secretary of state after the 2008 election.
First, the latest: not only did Hillary Clinton exclusively use private email addresses to avoid transparency and record keeping. She, as the AP reveals today, operated her own server at her home:
The computer server that transmitted and received Hillary Clinton’s emails — on a private account she used exclusively for official business when she was secretary of state — traced back to an Internet service registered to her family’s home in Chappaqua, New York, according to Internet records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Later, the AP explains why she did it, and how great of a security risk it was:
Operating her own server would have afforded Clinton additional legal opportunities to block government or private subpoenas in criminal, administrative or civil cases because her lawyers could object in court before being forced to turn over any emails. And since the Secret Service was guarding Clinton’s home, an email server there would have been well protected from theft or a physical hacking.
But homebrew email servers are generally not as reliable, secure from hackers or protected from fires or floods as those in commercial data centers. Those professional facilities provide monitoring for viruses or hacking attempts, regulated temperatures, off-site backups, generators in case of power outages, fire-suppression systems and redundant communications lines.
As I said, Clinton essentially operated her own parallel government. Several commentators raised the same question with regard to Clinton only using private email addresses to conduct state business: Didn’t President Obama and his staff notice immediately that she was emailing them from a non-government account? The answer is: of course. The Obama White House is certainly implicated in this.
But it’s also worth pointing out that Obama always overestimated the degree to which he could control Clintonworld. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes detail in their admiring book on Hillary’s time at State, HRC, Obama made the classic mistake of trying to coopt a force that would otherwise be disruptive to his agenda. Clinton seemed intent on going back to the Senate, where she could act as a kind of gatekeeper to Obama’s legislative agenda. Understandably, Obama would rather have her on his team.
Obama didn’t think much of Clinton’s experience abroad. HRC notes Obama’s belief that Hillary’s sense of worldliness amounted to “what world leader I went and talked to in the ambassador’s house, who I had tea with.” In Obama’s estimation, Hillary was not up to the task of being a top figure on the world stage.
But Obama wasn’t looking necessarily for competence or experience. His view in piecing together his team has always been about sidelining critics and rivals. So, fully aware that Hillary was unqualified, he asked her to be secretary of state. Allen and Parnes write:
Obama wanted Hillary on his team, and in making the case to his own aides, he knocked down the argument he had made on the trail that her experience was limited to tea parties. As important, having Hillary on the inside would let Obama keep control over perhaps the nation’s most potent political force other than himself.
Except it wouldn’t. Sometimes the Clintons’ parallel government works in Obama’s favor, such as Clinton’s Benghazi disaster. Her independent email server and private addresses enabled her to hide her correspondence on the attack, which also shielded the rest of the administration from that scrutiny. Obama is infamously secretive about his own records and his administration’s unprecedented lack of transparency was a good match for the Clintons.
But it also meant a certain degree of this went beyond his control. Hillary’s family foundation, which essentially became a super-PAC for foreign governments, was supposed to have donations vetted. They didn’t. They were supposed to have Bill Clinton’s paid events cleared. And they did–they were cleared by Hillary’s State Department. They weren’t supposed to accept foreign-government money while Hillary was secretary of state. They did.
Clintonworld operated as a distinct, independent entity for its own purposes while also running American foreign policy. The phrase “conflict of interest” does not even begin to approach the disturbing ethical calculations here. But it can’t be argued that Obama didn’t know what he was getting the country into. He just thought he could control it. He was wrong, and he was wrong to try. And we’re only beginning to see the consequences.