The Slatest

Trump Is Going to Attack Hillary Over Whitewater. What Was Whitewater, Again?

Then-first lady Hillary Clinton arrives at a federal courthouse in Washington, DC, to testify before a  grand jury in connection with Whitewater in January 1996.

Richard Ellis/AFP/Getty Images.

Donald Trump, fresh off hinting Hillary and Bill Clinton may be actual, real-life murderers, plans to next grab hold of the single thread that runs through large swaths of the Clinton conspiracy canon: Whitewater. How do we know this? Because Trump’s campaign spokeswoman accidentally cc:ed a Politico reporter on an email about it. (The reporter, Marc Caputo, shares a last name with Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo. Whoops!)

So what was Whitewater? The short-version for those in need of a refresher: a real estate scandal that plagued the Clintons during the 1990s and that now serves as something of a catchall for a number for unproven accusations involving corruption, fraud, and public stonewalling that consumed Bill and Hillary’s eight years in the White House.

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The most important thing to remember when Trump begins to ramble on about any number of those charges and conspiracies: No investigation into Whitewater ever found Hillary Clinton guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. ​After taking over one such probe in 1994, though,​ independent counsel Kenneth Starr expanded his investigation to include the Paula Jones lawsuit and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which ultimately led to President Clinton’s impeachment for perjury.

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The Whitewater imbroglio centered on a failed real estate company, Whitewater Development, that the Clintons formed with longtime friend James McDougal in the late 1970s in order to buy and sell vacation homes in Arkansas’ Ozarks. The issue first gained national attention in 1992 when the New York Times published a report detailing the Clintons’ involvement in the development firm, their relationship with McDougal, and possible conflicts of interest. In 1989, McDougal, who also ran a savings and loan association, was indicted on fraud charges for making bad loans, around $130,000 of which was funneled through Whitewater Development. (He was acquitted on those charges the following year, though eventually convicted on related ones in 1996. He died in prison in 1998 while the Starr investigation was ongoing.*)

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What followed was a mess of federal investigations and partisan probes that included a host of subpoenas, some delinquent corporate tax returns, a half dozen or so fired White House travel staffers, the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster (the death of whom Trump suggested on Tuesday that the Clintons had something to do with), and accusations that Bill Clinton used his power as Arkansas governor to secure a six-figure loan for McDougal in the 1980s. (For a much more detailed account, consult this comprehensive timeline compiled by the Washington Post.)

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While it’s nearly impossible to imagine Trump will find any new dirt out of that mess, that might not matter. Simply invoking the word Whitewater and alluding to any number of its related conspiracy theories that still live on in some corners of conservative talk radio and online message boards should pair well with his attempts to brand his likely general election opponent with his chosen juvenile nickname of “Crooked Hillary.” It will also give him an excuse to rehash the more salacious details of the Lewinsky scandal, which he clearly delights in doing. Trump thrives on innuendo and outlandish claims, after all, and Whitewater is fertile ground for both. That will force Hillary and her allies to spend time and energy defending the last Clinton administration from charges that were never proven, when they’d much rather focus voters’ attention on dangers posed by a future President Trump.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.

*Correction, May 26, 2016: This post originally misstated that McDougal was acquitted on federal fraud charges. While it’s true that he was acquitted in 1990, he was charged again with related crimes in 1995 and convicted in 1996.

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