A tough political attack is a terrible thing to waste, but that is what Donald Trump has squandered by launching vague, sweeping accusations against Hillary Clinton at precisely the moment when newly released emails raise valid, specific concerns about whether Clinton improperly mixed her public and private interests while serving as secretary of state.
It’s not enough for Trump to dub her “Crooked Hillary,” which always gets a roar of approval from friendly crowds that have already decided to vote Republican. If Trump wants to persuade truly undecided voters to shun Clinton, he needs to familiarize the voting public with the particulars of what Clinton’s emails suggest, and why they might show conflicts of interest.
According to dozens of recently released emails, top State Department aides were in dialogue with officials from the Clinton Foundation, despite Hillary Clinton’s vow to keep her charitable work isolated from official decision making.
In one communication, Clinton Foundation executive Doug Band pushes State Department staffers, telling them it’s “important to take care of” a favored applicant. In another message, Band asked former Clinton aides Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills to connect Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire and donor to the Clinton Foundation, to officials in the State Department. “We need Gilbert Chagoury to speak to the substance person re Lebanon,” Band wrote. “As you know he’s a key guy there and to us and is loved in Lebanon. Very imp.” That “substance person” was the US ambassador to Lebanon — a connection promised by State Department officials, although the ambassador says no meeting took place.
It’s not exactly smoking-gun proof of corruption; none of the emails are to or from Clinton herself. Chagoury never got the meeting he sought with the ambassador to Lebanon. And we don’t know if the applicant mentioned got a job. But it’s fair to ask whether Clinton violated a promise to keep a wall between her official work and the family foundation.
Ideally, the Trump campaign would demand and/or lay out a detailed timeline showing when the emails were sent, and demand specific answers from Clinton about what happened and why.
But that’s not likely to happen: Trump is too fond of broad accusations rather than specific proof. “It’s called pay for play,” he said in a recent speech. And some of these [emails] were really, really bad and illegal. If it’s true, it’s illegal. You’re paying and you’re getting things.”
Not exactly. As the Clinton campaign has countered: “Neither of these emails involve the secretary or relate to the foundation’s work. They are communications between her aides and the president’s personal aide, and indeed the recommendation was for one of the secretary’s former staffers who was not employed by the foundation.”
True, the campaign’s denials don’t answer the question completely: Trump has every right to ask whether Clinton’s aides adhered to the letter and spirit of an agreement to keep foundation and government work entirely separate. If they didn’t, she can and should be held accountable by voters.
But by calling it illegal without solid proof, Trump risks blowing a political opportunity. During the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders goofed by dismissing Clinton’s possible ethics issues: “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” Sanders famously said at the first Democratic debate.
That let Clinton off the hook, and prevented Sanders from raising the issue later in the campaign, when it might have done him some good.
Trump is making a similar mistake. It should be a respected legal supporter — an ex-judge or law professor, for instance — who points out any potential ethical shortcomings in actions of Clinton or her aides. And any criticism from Trump should be paired with a specific promise — and, perhaps, a screening panel or mechanism — to ensure a Trump White House would avoid such problems.
It’s not as much fun as blindly bashing “Crooked Hillary,” but it might hold more water and signal to voters that holding high officials accountable for their actions is serious business, not just an excuse for name-calling.