Hillary Clinton has never met a sunny day she completely trusted, and Friday proved why.
The front-running Democrat has always been weakest when protecting a lead, and, according to the people around her, chronically suspicious of any overlong stretches of good fortune or blue-sky forecasting. She needn’t have worried. The last 10 days of her historic campaign are now socked in by a lowering overcast of suspicion, and a depressingly familiar threat.
Friday started off brightly enough in Des Moines, as a cheerful Clinton rallied her supporters during the first round of early voting in a state she wants, but doesn’t need to win. She seemed chilled-out in an aqua-blue suit that suggested marine tranquility, and was buoyed by the presence of her childhood friend Betsy Ebeling and the superstar photographer Annie Leibovitz.
But by the afternoon, a candidate and campaign that thrives on preparation were blind-sided by a bombshell (that might ultimately prove to be a blank): FBI Director James Comey – who declared her handling of classified information “careless” but not criminal in July – has begun looking into what are said to be thousands of new emails for possible violations of the classification laws.
Then, the elect-ile dysfunction: The source of the new controversy, Clinton’s surrogate daughter Huma Abedin and her estranged husband Anthony Weiner, package-proud proof that not every horny narcissist with bad judgment is named Donald Trump.
How much the latest email eruption affects the race depends on how both campaigns handle it over the next few days – and how much voters give a damn. Still, it’s a drag. The best peppy self-talk one Clinton ally could muster today was: “People don’t trust her already, so that’s baked in the cake. But she’s better than Trump.”
Here and five takeaways from Clinton’s very bad Friday – that could turn into something much worse.
Blame Huma and Tony – for now. According to numerous published reports, thousands of potentially sensitive (and possibly classified) government emails from Abedin’s account were discovered on devices owned by Weiner – seized by the FBI in connection with their probe into the former congressman’s alleged social media lewdness with a 15-year-old girl.
How the emails got into Abedin’s possession isn’t clear (though Clinton often emailed her aide-de-camp documents to print out). But the fact that the material being examined didn’t come from Clinton’s account gives the candidate a degree of separation she didn’t have in Comey’s prior investigation – and the correspondence being looked at, according to some reports, come from Abedin’s account, and not the “homebrew” server that has been the source of so much controversy and reputational damage. That helps, if only a bit.
Donald Trump and Republicans – giddy to get the old email band back together — wanted to keep the focus squarely on Clinton and, for an hour before the Weiner connection was known, they succeeded. But the sexting angle, the Huma angle, the tabloid marriage-gone-sour angle made it seem a lot less sinister — and more the continuation of a political soap opera in which Clinton has played a starring but supporting role.
The CNN, MSNBC and FOX screens at POLITICO world headquarters said it all – they split-screened between dour, preoccupied snapshots of Clinton and more whimsical images of the once happy Weiner-Abedin glamour couple. Clinton will ultimately bear responsibility for whatever happened to her emails – and Comey made it clear that the new messages “appear to be pertinent” to his earlier look at the former secretary’s handling of classified and secret missives.
But unlike the first go-around – when Clinton stood alone — she now shares the stage with Anthony and Huma.
It takes the focus off of Trump. We are in the final stretch of a psoriasis-vs.-eczema election – and whichever candidate gets the greatest scrutiny tends to make the voters the most itchy.
Trump has had them scratching for a month – what with his 2005 hot-mic admission that he committed what sounded like sexual assault, followed by a procession of a dozen or so women who accused him of being a cad, groper and commando kisser. He denied it, but compounded his problem by attacking regular, non-famous-type people who had the gall to criticize him — and washed it all down with three of the rottenest debate performances in the history of people moving their lips to emit sound. Trump capped it all with a threat to destabilize 240 years of American democracy by claiming any vote against him was automatically rigged.
Clinton, who hates everything about campaigning except reading briefing books and debating her opponents, has been happy to coast in Trump’s turbulent wake – tsk-tsk-tsk-ing him and deploying a Hall of Fame roster of surrogates from the Obamas to Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren to Katy Perry. But gradually, inevitably, the focus has turned back on the second-most detested candidate running for president – in part because of the drip-drip of WikiLeaks, in part because voters are now forced to grapple with the reality that she’s likely to be the country’s next leader.
She doesn’t fare especially well alone in the spotlight – while she’s held her own in most polls, and retains a commanding advantage in many battleground states (and the Electoral College) – Trump has begun to finally consolidate support among core Republicans, which has brought him as high as 44 percent in one national poll and to par with her in Florida and Nevada.
So look for a new oppo dump on Trump — and a new line of attack — or anything, really, that will turn the race back into a referendum on his fitness to serve, not hers.
Never underestimate Trump’s ability to misplay a winning hand. Trump is about as good a political poker player as he was a casino owner. Case in point: His first comments about Clinton’s new email problems were aimed not a wider audience of Donald-skeptical conservatives and persuadable voters but the cheering throng at his most recent rally in New Hampshire, where he trails in most polls.
Weinergate, he declared, “is bigger than Watergate.”
It totally isn’t, at least not yet – and there isn’t a voter not already committed to Trump who believes the hype. No, the target for his message now needs to be higher-educated Republican voters (and, perish the thought, GOP women) who are considering defecting to vote for Clinton. They aren’t looking for another Trump body slam, but a little reason and rhetorical subtlety – a permission structure to accept him as an alternative to hated-but-tolerated Hillary.
There are smarter ways to do this, obviously. Take Paul Ryan, Trump’s intra-party nemesis, who offered a more targeted and legalistic attack on Clinton that undermined her legitimacy as a potential commander-in-chief by calling for the suspension of her national security briefings. “Yet again, Hillary Clinton has nobody but herself to blame,” the House speaker said in his statement. “She was entrusted with some of our nation’s most important secrets, and she betrayed that trust by carelessly mishandling highly classified information.”
Clinton vs. Comey. It wasn’t so very long ago when Trump and his surrogates were hammering Comey and the once-sacrosanct bureau for allegedly covering up Clinton’s abominable email offences. “FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem,” Trump Tweeted when Comey cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing.
On Friday, he was in a J. Edgar state of mind with his opponent back in the investigative crosshairs. “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 that they made,” he said, with faintest flip-floppy grin. “This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understood. And it is everybody’s hope that it is about to be corrected.”
Now it was the Democrats’ turn to accuse Comey and Co. of unfairness – with surrogates like former Obama Justice Department official Matt Miller flat-out accusing the director of needlessly publicizing the details of an ongoing investigation to burnish his own image. The reaction among Clinton’s top aides and lawyers was fury – they had been given no advance warning by the bureau before Comey sent a letter to congressional Republicans, copying Hill Democrats – and they questioned whether the timing was, somehow, intended to scuttle Clinton’s chances of winning the White House.
By late afternoon, it was Clinton’s turn to play the old Trump card against Comey, demanding that all the details of the probe – especially the involvement of Abedin and Weiner were made immediately public.
“We don’t know the facts, which is why we are calling on the FBI to release all the information that it has,” a clearly ticked-off Clinton told reporters between campaign stops. “Even Director Comey noted that this new information might not be significant, so let’s get it out.”
Trump’s not the only candidate with a self-destructive streak. Among the most revealing (and funny) emails released as part of WikiLeaks’s (allegedly) Kremlin-supplied hack were the tart, accurate observations by longtime Hillaryland adviser Neera Tanden, who couldn’t believe the Clintons would have set up a private server in the first place. “Do we actually know who told Hillary she could use a private email? And has that person been drawn and quartered?” Tanden asked her friend John Podesta, who was subsequently hacked – adding that the “whole thing is f—ing insane.”
What made it especially insane was the candidate’s own propensity for self-protective self-immolation: The server was set up, in part, to shield the hyper-scrutinized former first family from scrutiny, embarrassment and scandal. Worked like a charm, if that charm was to foment an already burbling suspicion among the American people that Clinton was secretive, self-interested and not to be trusted. In September 2015, before the email server scandal was weaponized by Trump (her primary opponent Bernie Sanders famously eschewed using the issue against her), The Atlantic hosted a focus group to figure out why more than half of Americans didn’t trust an international superstar who was almost always voted the most admired woman in the world.
“She’s lied again and again and again in the pursuit of power,” one man told the magazine’s pollster. “This has been her entire life’s work, it seems like, has been building up to this moment, so she doesn’t have any shots left.”
“She wants it so much she’ll say anything, she’ll do anything,” a female respondent added: “the people behind her will say anything or do anything. Do I want those kind of people in power? Oh, please no.”
Those opinions have taken deep root, even among her supporters; Mind you, voters often vote for candidates they don’t trust, but Clinton’s no-trust numbers are abysmal – topping 60 percent in some polls, with solid majorities of voters expressing unease about her handling of the emails and her family’s charitable foundation. This won’t help.
Trump hasn’t done much to burnish his own image, but he’s been relentless in degrading public esteem for “Crooked Hillary” – leading rally chants of “Lock her up!” despite Comey’s July exoneration of Clinton. The FBI’s decision was hailed with relief in Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters but it came ahead of her deepest swan dive in the polls to date: For a few days in late July, Trump briefly seized the national lead, and poll aggregators gave him a roughly 55 percent chance of winning the election on the eve of Clinton’s successful convention in Philadelphia.
She’s in better shape now – the handicappers give her between an 80 and 90 percent chance of winning and roughly 30 percent of votes have already been cast, thanks to early balloting and absentee voting in many states. And the scandal (or pseudo-scandal) doesn’t yet directly involve her.
But by late Friday all the Democratic talk of landslides and big down-ballot victories had given way, yet again, to nervous chatter about a candidate who never seems to able to seal the deal.
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