The Slatest

The Latest Clinton Foundation Scoop Is a Vital Lesson in How Things Work

Bill Clinton, alongside Al Gore, talks with journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee on Aug. 5, 2009, in Burbank, California, one day after they were released by North Korean authorities.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for Shangri-La

A conservative watchdog that’s been fanning the flames of the Clinton Foundation controversy for months is out with its latest scoop, billed as a bombshell. So is it?

The new batch of Hillary-themed State Department emails—obtained by Judicial Watch via a Freedom of Information Act request and then published online Thursday—shows a Bill Clinton aide, who was also a Clinton Foundation executive, asking for help from Hillary Clinton’s State Department. “Need get me/ justy and jd dip passports,” Douglas Band wrote to Huma Abedin in an email on July 27, 2009, referring to diplomatic passports for himself and two of his fellow aides to the former president. “Okay. Will figure it out,” Abedin responded a few minutes later.

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Here, then, we appear to have another example of the often-overlapping interests and uncomfortably close ties between the foundation and the agency, which you don’t have to believe is a scandal to concede is a legitimate concern. The backstory behind these emails, though, offers some crucial context that paints a different and far less sinister picture.

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Band’s ultimately unfulfilled request for special diplomatic passports for people who aren’t diplomats was certainly unusual—as the New York Times notes, only Foreign Service officers and others with similar status are eligible for the travel documents—but what was also unusual was the reason he was asking in the first place. Via the Washington Post:

[M]any of the emails touted by Judicial Watch concern a once-secret mission to North Korea by former president Bill Clinton that led to the release of two American journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for spying. The highlighted emails centered around a moment widely considered a Clinton success….

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Since North Korea did not have diplomatic recognition from the United States, the effort to rescue the reporters occurred through private channels with the Clinton Foundation leading the way. … After the journalists were safely on American soil, the Obama administration acknowledged that it had been aware of the privately arranged trip.

Team Clinton wasted no time trying to take a victory lap after what they saw as an own goal scored by the opposing side. “Judicial Watch is now attacking State Department officials and the 42nd President of the United States for rescuing two American journalists from North Korea,” the campaign said. “This is a new low even for this right-wing organization that has been going after the Clintons since the 1990s.”

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But is this really the big, fat nothingburger the Clintons claim? In an oversimplified political sense, yes. I’m on record saying that the Clinton Foundation represented one giant mess of conflicts of interest for Hillary when she was secretary of state, and continues to now that she’s running for president. But in this case it’s hard to get worked up about the specifics (an aide to Bill asked for—but did not receive—something from an aide to Hillary concerning what was ultimately a quasi-government-sanctioned mission) and even harder to argue against the end result (the safe return of two American journalists).

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Still, totally ignoring these emails simply because they don’t amount to a scandal would be short-sighted. Yes, it’s dangerous to treat Clinton’s questionable actions in the same way we treat Donald Trump’s unquestionably dangerous ones. I get that. But if we can get away from the zero-sum nature of electoral politics for a moment, what we have here is both a fascinating peek behind the diplomatic curtain and an important illustration of how the Clintons in specific operate.

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A separate but related email exchange in the newly public email trove, for instance, appears to show that Hillary Clinton played her own role in facilitating the North Korea mission when she agreed to her husband’s request to meet face to face with Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris at a State Department dinner in 2009 while the trip was being planned. Liveris ended up giving Bill and his team use of a corporate jet—one of two planes Clinton and co. took to Pyongyang—and Friday’s reports suggest that was indeed the topic of Liveris’ conversation with the secretary that night. (The other private jet belonged to businessman and philanthropist Steve Bing, a longtime Democratic donor.)

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If you want to be generous, then, you could even see this as a point in Hillary’s favor. It’s another example of how she and her husband have harnessed their sprawling network of friends, allies, and benefactors for the greater good, not simply their own. The successful end result, however, doesn’t change the fact the Clintons had to call in favors to get the job done. Maybe that trade-off was necessary and worth it, and maybe it wasn’t. But a conversation about the role of private entities (be they rich donors or U.S. corporations) in international diplomacy is one worth considering at any time, let alone today, when the well-connected Clintons are on the verge of returning to the White House.

This election has understandably become a referendum on Trump’s (in)competence and his vile, dangerous brand of xenophobia. But while that all seems, to many voters, to be black and white, we shouldn’t let it obscure the reality that a Hillary Clinton administration, like all administrations, would exist in the shades in between.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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