The right’s newest crusade has an old fake villain
Has Washington learned nothing from Whitewater? The Clintons have spent their entire political lives in the capital dogged by one fake scandal after another. And, as we’ve been reminded this week, the fake villain in many of their fake scandals always seems to be the same: Sidney Blumenthal.
By leaking emails between Blumenthal and Hillary Clinton to the New York Times, the House Select Committee on Benghazi majority staff evidently aimed to frame Blumenthal into a sinister narrative of Libyan intrigue, encouraging dark suspicions about his work for the Clinton Foundation and his relationship with the former Secretary of State. The fact that Blumenthalwas paid some $10,000 a month for working at the Clinton Foundation doesn’t change anything: This remains a fake scandal that will fail to turn up any real wrongdoing.
Having known Sid for nearly 40 years, I feel confident predicting that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the committee chair, will find nothing to substantiate the fantasies marketed by his staff to the Times, which set the stage for Blumenthal’s subpoena and deposition in a political show trial that will unfold sometime in the coming weeks. Sid passed along information that he thought might be useful to his friend, the secretary of state—someone he has known for nearly 30 years and with whom he worked closely in the Clinton administration.
As the emails illegally purloined from his computer by the Romanian hacker called “Guccifer” indicate, he kept that role separate from discussions about a Libyan relief project, which was intended to provide hospital beds and medicine. That project never got beyond the concept phase and remained entirely distinct from Blumenthal’s job at the foundation, which involved several projects—mostly concerned with President Clinton’s legacy. Certainly it was no crime for the foundation to pay him for that work.
Unfortunately, the Washington press corps tends toward exaggeration and worse when the subject is Sid—and, come to think of it, often when the subject is the Clintons, too. It was no surprise to see Karen Tumulty declare in The Washington Post that “Blumenthal had business interests in Libya,” as if he was making money there—when the reality is that he was never paid a penny and never asked the secretary for anything.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page went even further, demanding a Justice Department investigation of those alleged “business interests,” complete with a far-fetched theory that his emails to her were somehow “in violation of State rules,” while noting darkly that both “used private email addresses.”
The Journal editorialists, whose style harks back to their page’s decade-long Whitewater obsession, don’t specify what kind of email address Blumenthal, who is after all a private citizen, should have used. (Whether Hillary Clinton should have imitated her predecessors in using private email is a separate question that she has already addressed—and again, Blumenthal can’t be blamed for that.) But the Journal’s sinister, heavy-breathing tone, like so much coverage and commentary, remains unsupported by anything but speculation.
Meanwhile, nobody asks why the Republican Congressional leadership should feel entitled to squander millions of tax dollars on yet another Benghazi inquisition—despite last year’s exhaustive 2014 report by the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence, which effectively dismissed all the crackpot conjecture about cover-ups and conspiracies, following several other lengthy official investigations. Rather than any perfidy on the part of Blumenthal or Clinton, this episode demonstrates how little the Washington press corps has learned over the past two decades from pursuing bogus scandals like Whitewater.
It is telling when reporters suggest, for instance, that Blumenthal represents a “paranoid” streak in Hillary Clinton’s thinking—as if the years of conniving against her and her husband by a network of right-wing adversaries never occurred.
The media appears to have forgotten how, during Blumenthal’s first summer working in the White House, ideological refugee David Brock told him about wealthy conservatives, notably Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who were spending millions of dollars on a secretive scheme known as the “Arkansas Project” to destroy Clinton’s presidency—and how those same figures lurked behind the Whitewater investigation, Kenneth Starr’s Office of Independent Counsel and the media campaign to smear the Clintons as somehow culpable in the 1993 suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster.
Sid recounted this partisan offensive in The Clinton Wars, his account of the Clinton administration’s struggle against Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the entire constellation of forces determined to bring down a Democratic president they considered illegitimate. In that struggle, he served as a loyal partisan, defending Bill and Hillary Clinton and, as he and others in the White House believed, the Constitution of the United States.
When Bill Clinton first invited Blumenthal to join the White House staff, the newly re-elected president wasn’t hiring a hatchet man. Over the preceding decade, they had established a friendship based not on common animosities, but a shared interest in how to renew the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Blumenthal had introduced Clinton to Tony Blair, then the new leader of Britain’s Labor Party and future Prime Minister, whose outlook was strikingly similar. Bringing together social democratic leaders across Europe with the U.S. president in what became known as “the Third Way” movement was a substantial part of Sid’s portfolio as a special assistant to Clinton.
But Blumenthal’s years of reporting on the American right had prepared him for a less uplifting mission—to confront the ongoing plot against Clinton by right-wing lawyers, operatives, and financiers, which already was building toward a climax by then. When the unfolding crisis finally concluded in Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial, Sid became the target of House and Senate Republicans (and his old friend Christopher Hitchens), who tried to set him up for a perjury trap.
In the process he was “demonized” in the Washington media, later writing: “To the right wing, I was the focus of evil in the White House. To the scandal-beat press, as a former journalist, I was a traitor, a Lucifer-like figure who had leaped from grace to serve the devil.” He had committed no offense, but left public service with over $300,000 in legal bills.
Not everyone was pleased by impeachment’s denouement—and many still suffer from Clinton Derangement Syndrome. So Sid has emerged again as an almost fetishistic object of spite (and a convenient surrogate for attacks on Hillary Clinton). He evokes turbulent emotion on the editorial pages of the Journal, the New York Post, and kindred outlets, which depict him as a ruthless, manipulative schemer, constantly immersed in skullduggery on behalf of his powerful patrons.
Rather than a perpetrator of dirty tricks, however, Sid has been a victim—and not just of Guccifer. On the first day that he went to work in the White House in the summer of 1997, the Drudge Report gleefully published a false, defamatory, anonymously sourced post that accused him of abusing his wife Jackie, to whom he remains happily married after 39 years. (The main suspect in that ugly episode was, not incidentally, a political columnist for the Journal.)
While his critics and enemies never succeeded in bringing Blumenthal down, they have concocted an image of him that is strangely flat and clichéd. Blinded by animus, they have no realistic sense of who he is, what he has done, or why the Clintons might continue to value his friendship. He’s a bit more interesting and complicated than their imaginary hobgoblin.
A talented and industrious writer, Sid has authored several significant books on American politics and co-produced two movies, including Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary on the Bush administration’s torture policies, Taxi to the Dark Side. (Currently he is working on a four-volume series for Simon & Schuster about the political life of Abraham Lincoln.) Unafraid to dissent from the Clinton-bashing consensus among Washington elites, he indeed became a dedicated ally to Hillary and Bill, but not only to them—he has developed a substantial network of friends and contacts around the world. Familiar as he is with practical politics, what drives him is a commitment to liberal values and ideas.
“Sidney Blumenthal was not as billed,” acknowledged the late Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter in his 2000 memoir, recalling the day he deposed the presidential aide and longtime journalist in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. Specter, then a Republican, evidently intended a gruff compliment. Expecting a tense and combative witness—the “Sid Vicious” of tabloid headlines—he was surprised instead to find the White House aide and longtime journalist to be cooperative and even cordial.
Today it still seems rather simple-minded to define Sid, in the words of that Journal editorial, as an “opposition hit man.” And it is absurd to suggest, absent any evidence, that he committed some legal or ethical offense.
With another Clinton seeking the White House, an epidemic of derangement was sadly inevitable. Before November 2016, there will surely be more to come. But if there is indeed any scandal in this affair, it lies in the partisan abuse of power by Congressional Republicans, trying desperately to sustain a Benghazi investigation that should have ended many months ago.
Like the effort to frame Blumenthal during the impeachment trial, this too shall pass—and then fizzle away.
Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo