Clinton has a Nixonian side, but it’s not what you think
by Marie Baleo
On 17 August, 2015, famous Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward appeared on MSNBC and likened the highly controversial Hillary Clinton email case to the most remarkable political scandal in United States history: Watergate.
Since then, hundreds of headlines have compared Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s choice to use private servers and email addresses to conduct government business with the 1972 scandal which ultimately led disgraced President Richard Nixon to resign. Stay with us to understand why this particular historical comparison is dangerously inappropriate, but also how Clinton and her team seem to have missed one of Watergate’s most important lessons.
A refresher course: Hillary Clinton, private servers, and cloths
In mid-2014, State Department lawyers tasked with submitting responses to congressional requests regarding the 2012 Benghazi attack realized that they lacked access to some of Hillary Clinton’s records from her time as Secretary of State. In October, the State Department wrote Clinton to request work emails related to personal accounts.
Two months later, members of Clinton’s staff carefully reviewed her vast correspondence for the 2009-2013 period, and proceeded to hand over 55,000 pages, or 30,000 work-related emails, to the State Department.
This selection process was met with criticism, as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has stated that “agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system.”
In March 2015, the New York Times revealed that Hillary Clinton had used personal email accounts hosted on private servers, located in the basement of Clinton’s home in Chappaqua (NY), to send and receive emails regarding state matters during her tenure as Secretary of State.
Instead of using government email accounts maintained on secure and encrypted government servers, Clinton never even had an official “state.gov” address. The use of private emails by government officials for conducting official business is only allowed by law in case of emergency. Clinton’s inexplicable decision could theoretically have caused confidential information to become compromised, and at the very least rendered it susceptible to hacking or foreign surveillance.
Eight days after the publication of the New York Time’s article, Clinton told journalists gathered at the UN Press Conference that she had opted to use private email simply as a matter of convenience, so that she would not have to carry two cell phones.
Clinton added that she and her staff had erased 32,000 emails deemed private or personal from that same server. The deletion of these emails is assumed to have occurred at the time Clinton’s staff released the 55,000 pages of work correspondence in late 2014.
Clinton was abundantly chastised following these explanations, and many Republicans highlighted the fact that her conduct had jeopardized national security.
Several congressmen as well as the NARA have claimed that Clinton’s actions had violated federal regulations on recordkeeping (namely, the Federal Records Act, which requires that emails exchanged through personal accounts be recorded by the agency, something Clinton’s staff failed to do). However, NARA’s former head of litigation has claimed that Clinton’s use of private mail, though very unusual, was technically legal, and Hillary Clinton herself has repeated on several occasions that she had not violated any laws or regulations.
At the heart of the debate lies the following question: did Hillary Clinton send or receive classified information via this private server? A question the Democratic presidential candidate has repeatedly answered with a resounding “no”.
In response to a request by the inspector general for the State Department, the FBI launched an investigation in order to determine whether confidential information had been compromised, and proceeded to ask for custody of Clinton’s server. It is worth noting that this is a counterintelligence, rather than a criminal, referral, meaning that the investigation is not aimed at asserting whether any crimes were committed.
On 11 August, 2015, after stating in March 2015 that she would never turn over her server, Clinton finally consented to turning over her 55,000 pages of emails.
A few days later, Clinton’s legal counsel told a Senate committee that emails had been deleted from her private server before the server was delivered to the authorities on 12 August.
Clinton delivers the infamous line: Wiping the servers: “What, with a cloth or something?”
It has since been revealed that out of the 1,500 documents that the State Department has reviewed so far from Clinton’s private server, 305 emails contained potentially classified information. Clinton maintains that none of the emails were classified when she sent or received them, though they may have been upgraded from unclassified to classified by the State Department or other agencies since then.
The media has feasted on the scandal, and Woodward’s declaration only fueled the fire, prompting everyone to call this situation a new Watergate. This is no surprise, as almost every political mishap in recent American history has been likened to the mother of all scandals.
Crying Watergate: a long tradition in US politics
In the past four decades, anything and everything political has been compared to Watergate, from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky to the FBI files controversy to Benghazi.
During Obama’s two terms, Media Matters has compiled a list of no less than 16 instances where political observers proclaimed they had found the new Watergate.
To MSNBC, Woodward declared:
“Follow the trail here. There are all these emails. Well, they were sent to someone or someone sent them to her, so if things have been erased here, there’s a way to go back to who originated these emails or who received them from Hillary Clinton. It, in a way, reminds me of the Nixon tapes. Thousands of hours of secretly recorded conversations that Nixon thought were exclusively his. … Hillary Clinton initially took that position: ‘I’m not turning this over, there’s gonna be no cooperation.’ Now they’re cooperating. This has to go on a long, long time, and the answers are probably not going to be pretty.”
With Watergate, a US president commandeered a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, and financed sabotage operations against Democratic campaigns across the country, before organizing the worst cover-up in recorded history.
Nixon directly oversaw this coverup, assisted by his chief of staff (who raised 1 million dollars as hush money for the five Watergate burglars) and the White House counsel. A US President and his staff destroyed evidence. A US president used the CIA to hinder a FBI investigation, invoking bogus national security reasons. Members of the executive lied to a grand jury after being carefully prepped to do so by White House counsel. Watergate led to the first and only resignation of a US President.
To host confidential emails and to delete emails related to government business while holding public office is unprofessional, reprehensible, and possibly illegal – still, it cannot reasonably be compared to Watergate, the systemic organization and funding of political sabotage operations against the opposition by a United States President and its ensuing coverup.
It is not known whether Clinton’s emails even contain anything at all that could hurt her run for the presidency. Clinton insists she never broke any law and is quick to remind her critics that other government officials have used private servers in the past. Drawing comparisons between a case of such magnitude as Watergate and the developing Clinton servers case is at best a mistake, at worst sloppy and proof of bad faith.
Let us hope that Bob Woodward, who has been ostensibly invited to talk shows in recent years only in the hopes of eliciting Watergate references, did not in fact liken “Servergate” to Watergate. Instead, he might have intended to point out the similarities between the destruction of emails and Nixon’s choice to erase compromising minutes from his infamous tapes. The relevance of Watergate to the Clinton email scandal is that Watergate has created extremely high standards of transparency for high government officials, from the President and the Vice President to the Secretary of State.
Watergate and the new transparency standards
In Shadow – Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, published in 1999, Bob Woodward writes:
Nixon’s successors, I thought, would recognize the price of scandal and learn the two fundamental lessons of Watergate. First, if there is questionable activity, release the facts, whatever they are, as early and as completely as possible. Second, do not allow outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressmen or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare”.
Watergate has set new standards. Following the “long national nightmare” mentioned by Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford, what post-Watergate America most needed, and felt entitled to demand from its leaders, was honesty and transparency – in other words, the truth. This still holds true today.
With “Servergate”, Clinton has revealed a mindset which could cost her her chances in the upcoming elections. She has shown how secretive she is, and how reluctant she can be to disclose information the public feels entitled to. Clinton’s intent to exert tight control over her communications, as evidenced by her initial blunt refusal to turn over her private server and her choice to destroy thousands of emails, has paradoxically caused her to lose control over her public image and the course of her candidacy.
This propensity to secrecy and control is where Servergate most resembles Watergate: Hillary Clinton has shown the Nixonian side of her personality. Forty years ago, Nixon doctored tape transcripts in a last-ditch attempt to cover up his sprawling wrongdoings. While Clinton has done nothing of the sort, the American public does not care for secrecy or paranoia.
Clinton’s reluctance to be transparent is likely to cause her more trouble than the actual content of the information she is refusing to disclose. These difficulties with transparency, exposed by “Servergate”, are a golden opportunity for her opponents. Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Clinton’s campaign, wrote that “this kind of nonsense comes with the territory of running for president. We know it, Hillary knows it, and we expect it to continue from now until Election Day.”
Clinton’s behavior as “Servergate” unfolds is a good indication of what the style of her presidency might be. In true Nixonian fashion, she might turn out to be the kind of aggrieved, bitter leader that sees enemies everywhere and lashes out at the media and the opposition at the slightest comment. Being President is no easy feat, and Clinton must work on her character flaws if she wants to stop eliciting comparisons to the most despised president in US history.