Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton’s Sycophantic Inner Circle

Clinton with Huma Abedin in 2010. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty)

How could Hillary Clinton’s staff let her get away with it?

It’s one of the most perplexing questions surrounding the massive scandal over Clinton’s use of an unsecured, private e-mail server when she served as secretary of state. How could it be that no one in the State Department pointed out that Clinton was violating government policy and putting sensitive information at risk? Why didn’t her closest advisers warn that the move could torpedo her resurgent presidential ambitions?

State Department staffers aren’t talking — not yet, at least. But the thousands of Clinton e-mails reluctantly released by the State Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit are illuminating. They reveal a secretary of state heavily insulated from her agency’s rank-and-file by a devoted inner circle, one which relentlessly lavished praise on Clinton and sometimes functioned more like receptionists than top strategic advisers. Many of the same confidantes appear set to take high-level jobs in a future Clinton White House, meaning her “yes-man problem” is likely to persist should she become president.

The vast majority of the 3,500 e-mails released so far were sent or received by just four members of Clinton’s inner circle at State: Cheryl Mills, Bill Clinton’s lawyer during his impeachment trial, who became Secretary Clinton’s chief of staff; Huma Abedin, Clinton’s longtime aide, who became her deputy chief of staff; Jake Sullivan, a foreign-policy adviser to Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, who became her top foreign-policy adviser at State; and Philippe Reines, Clinton’s long-serving Senate spokesperson, who became a senior adviser.

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From day one, there was a sharp divide between the department’s career officials and this personal coterie of loyalists who followed Clinton into office. Reines lays out that divide explicitly on May 1, 2009, in an e-mail to Mills disputing a New York Times quote from a source “in [Clinton’s] circle” who described tension between Clinton and retired General James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser. “Someone in her circle is someone like you, or a Jake, or me,” Reines wrote. “And none of us would ever say anything like that. Someone who was slated for a position at State irrespective of the choice of HRC as Secretary should not be allowed to be identified that way.”

E-mail after e-mail shows how top State Department officials were kept from dealing with Clinton directly, instead being rerouted to the members of her inner circle. Though nominally in charge of the Department’s public-affairs division, assistant secretary P. J. Crowley was included in just 94 of the 3,500 e-mails, and even on those he was often merely CCed. In all but a handful of cases, Crowley’s messages to Clinton were first sent through Mills, who then decided whether to forward them along to her boss with a simple “FYI.” In the exchange involving General Jones — clearly a high public-affairs priority for Clinton and the State Department — Crowley was excluded altogether.

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E-mails between Clinton and her personal advisers, meanwhile, were brimming with fawning praise for the secretary. Dozens of times, Mills forwarded messages from State Department observers and lower-level staffers congratulating Clinton on a successful speech or media appearance. “A little positive reinforcement to pass on to the S,” read the subject line of one March 28, 2009 e-mail, in which a University of Southern California lecturer called her trip to Mexico a “stunning success” and “jaw-dropping.” Mills also forwarded an April 30, 2009 message from Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser. “I gave Sec. Clinton an A+ in our dopey CNN report card last night,” he wrote. “So did Donna Brazile. The only two A+’s all night.” Clinton would sometimes ask her staff to print the more effusive commendations.

E-mail after e-mail shows how top State Department officials were kept from dealing with Clinton directly, instead being rerouted to the members of her inner circle.

Many other e-mails contain news reports or editorials complimentary of Clinton’s tenure. “Andrew Sullivan with the Hillary love,” read one e-mail from September 16, 2012, which included a positive op-ed from the Boston Herald. “Higher ground is where all great solutions and triumphs are found and scaled,” wrote Roy Pence, a Clinton-family friend included on the e-mail chain. “HRC, once again, is taking people there.” A perusal of the documents revealed no e-mails highlighting negative media coverage of the secretary.

Some of the e-mails show an apparent desire to bolster Clinton’s confidence in the shadow of President Obama. In one especially effusive e-mail, Reines praised Clinton’s July 26, 2009 appearance on Meet the Press. “You threw a perfect game — or at least a no hitter,” he wrote, saying her performance proved “you’re in a class all your own (including the President who became enmeshed in the Gates incident.)” While not officially a State Department employee, Clinton shadow adviser Sidney Blumenthal attacked President Obama while simultaneously congratulating Clinton. “I don’t know about details of Obama’s plan, but you looked terrific at the speech,” he wrote on September 11, 2009. In an August 22, 2011 missive lauding Clinton for presiding over the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi, Blumenthal struck out at the “flamingly stupid ‘leading from behind’ phrase,” which an Obama White House official had used to describe the intervention.

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At times, Clinton’s inner circle seemed aware of the lengths they’d go to buck up their boss. “Your arrival in Kabul landed the front page picture in the NYT and sparked an on-line poll in Huff Post about your coat. At last check, its favorability rating is 77 percent,” wrote Crowley in a rare direct message to Clinton on November 19, 2009. Reines, CCed on the message, quickly wrote back. “Now I know why Huma has been at a computer all day clicking the mouse incessantly,” he quipped.

#related#When Clinton’s top advisers weren’t busy applauding the secretary, she often engaged them in menial work. Abedin received the brunt of it, with the deputy chief of staff being instructed to “pls print” dozens of budget testimonies, intelligence memoranda, Afghanistan updates, and a whole host of other documents. But Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, also seemed caught up in minutiae, forwarding hundreds of e-mails to Clinton in a matter of months and apparently operating as the secretary’s personal e-mail screening service. Even Sullivan, now a shoo-in for the prestigious position of national-security adviser should Clinton win the presidency, wasn’t immune. Clinton would often e-mail him an interesting news article with the same accompanying instructions, “pls print.” And in April 2009, Sullivan was asked to compile a list of the key White House attendees at AIPAC conferences throughout the years.

Isolated from the broader department and surrounded by seemingly adoring advisers who were often buried in busy work, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Clinton never thought through the consequences of her private server use. But if history is any indication, a staff shake-up is probably not in the offing. Mills, Abedin, Reines, and Sullivan have served the Clintons for years — some of them through scandals as bad, if not worse, than the private-server fiasco. If Clinton wins in 2016, the only place they’re likely to be going is the White House.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.


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