Another season, another Hillary investigation quietly fizzles.
Well, almost. A few of the media, notably The Washington Post and Media Matters, posted in early January that a Justice Department investigation of fundraising early this century by Bill and Hillary Clinton’s foundation, and Hillary’s later collateral work as secretary of state, which President Trump had demanded two years ago, had concluded without finding anything amiss.
You remember President Trump’s famous tweet: “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary and the Dems.” So his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, before Trump finally sacked him, directed the federal prosecutor in Utah to head the investigation along with the FBI. It seems to have ended some time ago, but the Justice Department under Bill Barr decided to let it die a quiet death rather than announce her vindication.
A fruitless investigation? No crimes after all? If Hillary is not going to jail, who cares anymore? Certainly not Fox News or The New York Times, which helped trigger the investigation.
Trump’s white-nationalist adviser Steve Bannon and his conspiracy-mongering friend Peter Schweizer cooked up the whole thing. Schweizer had looked at all the thousands of donations to the Clinton Foundation from around the world and claimed that he had found lots of suspected corruption, although he later admitted that he had no evidence to support any of it. The main one was that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had connived to get official government approval in 2010 of the sale of a major interest in a Canadian-based uranium company to a Russian businessman who made a large gift to the Clinton Foundation, jeopardizing our national security.
That and Clinton’s use of a private email server rather than the State Department server that was perpetually being hacked or disabled were the main premises behind Trump’s ritual name-calling — “Crooked Hillary” — and the “Lock her up!” chants at all his rallies in 2016 and afterward. The looming prospect that a President Hillary Clinton might be dragged out of the White House in handcuffs played a big role in Trump’s victory, thanks partly to the fumbling (Republican) FBI director Jim Comey.
Investigations proliferated, but instead of Clinton or her associates going to prison, dodging extradition or sentencing, it takes four hands to count all the Trump associates and agents already behind bars or in jeopardy, owing to criminal investigations — conducted by Republicans no less.
Schweizer and his publicists, mainly Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Breitbart and The New York Times, suggested that a gift to the Clinton Foundation was a bribe for Hillary’s approving the sale of a big interest in Uranium One to the Russian’s nuclear agency. But a lower State Department official, who had no contact with Clinton, was one of 11 persons on the broad committee that found no security dangers in the transaction. The investigation found no hint that Clinton had anything at all to do with the committee’s action or that the sale itself posed any danger. Even the dates of the approval and of the donation to the foundation did not support Schweizer’s suspicion. A Justice Department official told Media Matters that no one took the matter seriously from the first but it was important to Trump that an investigation be announced.
Both The New York Times and the Post were persuaded to get early access to Schweizer’s book and publicize his findings. The reason, of course, is that the two newspapers — especially the Times — set the agenda for the entire media world. If it’s on the front page of The New York Times, that IS the big news and it is reliable. The rest of the national media picks up the story. Bear with me on that point.
Schweizer had long ago been discredited as a reliable journalist. As Media Matters described it, he had a long record of “major factual errors and questionable sourcing,” always shaded for right-wing purposes. But the Times took a chance, although its stories avoided giving its full imprimatur to his allegations.
Three months ago, you probably do not remember, Mike Pompeo’s State Department and the Republican Senate quietly put to rest still other allegations that Crooked Hillary committed a crime in the use of a private email server. The State Department under Pompeo undertook its own investigation of the emails, following umpteen other investigations by Republican-run congressional committees and the FBI, all of which found no illegality by anyone and that national security was never jeopardized.
The New York Times reported the investigation’s closure briefly and mentioned that Republicans had been the first to point out that Clinton had not communicated on the State Department server but on her own. The paper did not mention that it was the Times that had first made an issue of it, although neither the paper nor Congress had ever made much of an issue of the discovery in 2006 through the Freedom of Information Act that nearly the whole Bush administration had used the server of the Republican National Committee to avoid the media or anyone else seeing their emails and then, upon the FOI discovery, destroyed some 22 million of them. It has been reported that top Trump administration officials, including his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka and Jared, use private messaging services for their official work. There have been no chants of “Crooked Ivanka.”
The State Department’s brief report to Congress, shared with all of us by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said 38 State Department employees were “culpable” of violating security procedures by including Clinton’s private email in their messages to others in the department. They were among the 33,000 emails she turned over to investigators. All of the emails were judged to be unclassified at the time but a few were later reclassified as confidential. But there was no deliberate mishandling of classified information by any of them and no harm was done, the report said.
Pointless investigations of Hillary Clinton — and often of her husband, too — form the rubric of our political generation. They have changed the course of history and not merely because they produced the election of Donald Trump. It is personally sad to admit that The New York Times, which is still the greatest news organ on the planet, to which I contributed from time to time many years ago, played a role in all of them, from Whitewater, cattle futures and the suicide of Vince Foster down through Benghazi, emails and the foundation.
I had private knowledge of, although no active role in, several of the worst deceits perpetrated on the public and, of course, the Clintons. I have related some of that, many years ago in the Arkansas Times and last year in a little book on Arkansas politics. The New York Times trusted a new business reporter who had developed a reputation for investigating financial misdeeds. He came to Little Rock in 1978 to write a confusing but dark story about the possible deceptions of two Little Rock businessmen, Witt and Jack Stephens, in running their little gas company in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. The Times story was intended by the reporter to damage their nephew’s chances of getting elected to the U.S. Senate.
The reporter came back in January 1992 to write a series of articles about the newest presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, all of which painted a picture of the Clintons as devious and perhaps corrupt politicians who ran the government in Arkansas for the benefit of the rich and powerful, like the Stephenses (actually the Clintons’ foes). Clinton’s political career, including his early defeat for a second term as governor, actually was marked by enraging one powerful interest after another — the Stephenses, the utilities, the bankers, the trucking and shipping industries, the wood and paper industry, or the nation’s biggest meat producer.
The Times’ stories established the public persona of the Clintons, particularly Hillary, who unlike her husband had no ability and no impulse to counter it effectively. The articles set off one investigation after another — the longest and costliest, Whitewater, ending with a report in 2002 that the Clintons neither profited nor did anything illegal or improper when they and another couple borrowed $203,000 in 1978 in the ludicrous hope that a few hillside acres on the White River might be developed into a vacation community when interest rates were soaring to 20 percent.
After seven years, the Whitewater special prosecutor’s final report — a mere shrug — got no attention whatsoever. Nothing has changed.