The Obama Administration dispatched its big guns this week to take out a major political rival whose mere presence poses a threat to a hoped-for breakthrough with Iran. “I think it is, obviously, highly unusual,” said former White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs, taking on a question of protocol that set the front page of every newspaper in the country ablaze. Over the course of the week, the White House kept the fires of controversy burning with a steady rat-tat-tat of denigrating leaks and quotes sourced to “administration officials.” As reporters at Buzzfeed, Politico, the AP, and the New York Times went into a feeding frenzy, and photo editors mined their archives for unflattering photos, Secretary of State John Kerry—away on an impromptu trip to Saudi Arabia—upped the ante again by addressing the issue with reporters on his plane.
The twist? The grave violation of protocol that brought Gibbs, Kerry, the White House spin doctors and their reporter friends out in force was not committed by Bibi Netanyahu but by Hillary Clinton—whose use of a private email account while serving as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State was transformed in the space of three days from a two-year-old non-story to an immediate threat to American national security and a probable violation of criminal law, or at least a very serious violation of “protocol.” Declaring that he “honestly can’t explain” Clinton’s use of the email account, Gibbs also suggested that Clinton’s behavior violated normal procedure, and possibly the law—a charge echoed in dozens of stories sourced to anonymous administration officials, in what had all the hallmarks of a well-organized political hit.
After all, the public first became aware that Clinton was using her personal email two years ago, in March 2013, when a Romanian Internet activist using the nickname Guccifer hacked into Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal’s AOL account and uncovered a trove of work emails between the two from and to her personal account. During that same month, Gawker reporter John Cook emailed the White House to ask if “Clinton’s emails to and from the ‘[email protected]’ account archived in accordance with PRA [Presidential Records Act] and FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]?”
So, why did it take the Obama Administration two years to admit to what was already known and to then suggest that Clinton’s behavior was reckless and may have even been criminal? And why did it take so long for a major news organization like the New York Times to come up with the big “scoop” it published earlier this week?
Or to put the question another way, why did Hillary Clinton become the Obama Administration’s bête noire this very week, the same one during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled all of the world’s focus onto the issue of the administration’s negotiations with Iran?
The answer is that the two are related: This week’s tarring of Hillary Clinton is part of the White House’s political campaign to shut off debate about its hoped-for deal. It’s not hard to see why they’re anxious. With Netanyahu’s speech forcing lawmakers and editorial writers to face up to the proposed agreement’s manifest problems, the administration fears the prospect of Democrats jumping ship and signing on to Kirk-Menendez sanctions legislation that also would give Congress oversight on the deal. So far, the White House has managed to keep Democratic lawmakers in line, no matter how much they seem to question the wisdom of the proposed deal. Hillary Clinton, gearing up for a 2016 run in which she is likely to put some distance between herself and Obama’s dubious Middle East policies, is the one major national Democratic figure who can give Democrats in Congress cover.
Which is probably why Clinton’s successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, told reporters Thursday during a trip to Saudi Arabia that the State Department will move immediately to review the emails. “We will undertake this task [of reviewing the emails] as rapidly as possible in order to make sure that we are dealing with the sheer volume in a responsible way,” said Kerry, making clear that he and his department would be in charge of the process. Nonetheless, Kerry warned, the process of sorting through and releasing Hillary Clinton’s personal and work-related emails will take time—presumably about the amount of time it will take to make sure the Iran deal gets through unobstructed.
The Obama team’s campaigns against American allies, like Netanyahu, and domestic rivals, like Clinton, is evidence that it’s more than politically savvy enough to bring its adversaries to their knees. But, as I’ve argued previously, the administration’s negotiating team isn’t getting outmaneuvered by Javad Zarif and his colleagues because they’re too stupid to know better. They see Iran as America’s new partner in the Middle East—and they are determined to make that partnership stick, come hell or high water.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).