Friday 23 March 2018

All the presidential women: Hillary's Huma Abedin problem

Huma Abedin has been Hillary Clinton's top aide, as close, almost, as a daughter. Now, as Clinton tries to win the Democratic nomination, our reporter looks at Huma's background, her burning ambition, her Irish links, and her husband's sex scandal

Someone to watch over me: Huma Abedin has been Hillary Clinton's right-hand woman for almost a decade.
Someone to watch over me: Huma Abedin has been Hillary Clinton's right-hand woman for almost a decade.
Huma Abedin
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It should have been a redemptive moment of triumph for Hillary Clinton. After the disaster of losing the New Hampshire stage of the Democratic Primary to Bernie Sanders and after seeing what should have been a coronation slowly turn into a dog fight, she was finally starting to shine.

Immediately after it ended, most observers reckoned she had handily won the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, appearing distinctly presidential while Sanders came across as hectoring, resorting to a series of mean-minded one-liners. In a feisty performance, Hillary had managed to effectively frame her candidacy as the third term of President Obama. She calmly deflected questions about why she still struggles to connect with young women. She watched as Sanders, a progressive, anti-corporate senator from Vermont, struggled to outline how he'd improve race relations. And, with jaw dropping neck, she successfully managed to present herself as an outsider - how could a woman president be anything but, she asked. Unfazed by this logic, the crowd lapped it up. The assembled news media agreed she'd won. All that was left to do was make her way from the hall, pressing the flesh and waving as she went, and wait for the press to absorb this latest twist in her White House odyssey.

And then one of those unfortunate little campaign trail moments - the kind that seem emblematic of a larger problem - seemed to momentarily derail her carefully crafted script about being for the little guy. From the sea of well-wishers a bespectacled woman inched her way toward Hillary and attempted to reach out for a hug from the former First Lady. Hillary responded, embraced the woman and stopped to speak to her for a few moments. But, as the former Secretary of State moved away, the woman attempted to also hug the woman behind Hillary - her top aide Huma Abedin. Huma brusquely pushed the woman aside with one arm and the next day one headline about the event read 'You can vote, but don't touch.'

Ordinarily the rudeness of a campaign staffer, however senior, would not merit comment. But Huma is no ordinary aide. For almost a decade now she has been Hillary's right-hand woman, organising everything from her schedule to her speeches, and in the process becoming an integral part of Clinton's public life and philanthropic empire. She shields Clinton - Vogue magazine once described her as "the master of the velvet no" - and guides her. As Bob Barnett, the lawyer who orchestrated the Clintons' book deals, says, Huma is "now one of the key glues that holds Clintonworld together. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She knows their strengths. She knows their weaknesses. She knows the roles they've played, and that history is priceless to a person in public life." Little wonder perhaps that there are some already speculating that, should Hillary win the Democratic nomination and go on to win the presidency, it will be Huma, not Bill, nor even Chelsea, who serves as her First Lady. Huma has been described as a "mini Hillary."

And yet Huma, like Bill, has not always shone glory on Hillary. Like the Clintons themselves, their 40-year-old protege's complicated web of public and private interests has come under increased scrutiny the more successful she has become. Her past work for Teneo, a New York-based consulting film, whose CEO is Declan Kelly (brother of Irish Environment Minister, Alan Kelly and a man who's been described as "this generation's Tony O'Reilly"), has become something of a political football on Capitol Hill. The question of whether Huma was paid for hours she reportedly did not work during maternity leave in 2011 (she counters that she did work them and was almost constantly on conference calls) became the subject of a 161-page Senate Report recently. An email in which she described the former First Lady as "often confused" and in need of hand holding when it came to calls with foreign dignitaries (particularly damaging, since Hillary positions herself as a foreign policy-savvy steady hand), was recently made public. And of course, were she ever to become First Lady, the thorny subject of Huma's spouse's sex scandal would undoubtedly be thrust front and centre once again.

None of these focuses will surprise a woman who has been at the white hot centre of the Clinton's inner circle for some time now and who began her career with ambitions to become a top political journalist. She was born in Michigan where her Pakistani mother and Indian father were academics and intellectuals. She grew up partly in Saudi Arabia, where her father founded the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, a think tank. Years later opponents of Hillary - former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann among them - would try to allege that Huma's family developed extremist links in those years, but these have been rubbished. Huma worked as an assistant editor with a Muslim journal and had ambitions, she later said, to become the next Christiane Amanpour. "I grew up in a very traditional family," she once said, "but there was never anything I didn't think I could do."

In 1996, while studying at George Washington University, she began interning for the Clinton administration, and was assigned to Hillary's office. Over the following years the two women would build a powerful personal and professional bond. Huma became a ubiquitous presence in Hillary's inner circle, often spotted in the wings at her boss's campaign events, smartphone to her ear, Louis Vuitton bag on her shoulder, otherwise Prada head-to-toe. Clinton relied on her at every level, and while Bill continued his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, Hillary developed her very different relationship with Huma. In 2001, when Huma met an up-and-coming young congressman from New York, Hillary gave her a night off so that she could go for a drink with him. Initially Huma wasn't overly keen on brash Brooklyn-born Democrat, Anthony Weiner, but in 2007, during George W. Bush's last State of the Union speech, Huma saw him in the crowd, nonchalantly perched between Hillary and Barack Obama, with whom the Clintons were already at war. She texted him: "I appreciate you looking out for my boss." Huma's relationship with Weiner developed and three years later they were married, with Bill presiding over the ceremony. In the early summer of 2011, Huma travelled to London with Hillary and Obama, and from her fairy-tale room at Buckingham Palace, she emailed Weiner: "I cannot believe what an amazingly blessed life that we live, these incredible experiences we've both had."

A few days later another experience - incredible for vastly different reasons - would change their lives forever. On the morning of May 27, 2011, Weiner sent a link to a website called IFrog to his 45,000 Twitter followers. The link contained a photo of him with an erection in his underwear. The link was hastily removed but not before it had been spotted and widely reported on in US media. Over the next few days Weiner gave a number of interviews suggesting variously, that his Twitter account had been hacked, that the photo had been doctored and that he had been pranked. He belatedly admitted that he could not say "with certitude" that the photo was not him. On June 6, Breitbart, a US political site, published another compromising picture of Weiner, this time with his shirt off, and Weiner admitted that he had published pictures of himself, including one which was sexually graphic. At a now infamous news conference he apologised to everyone, including Huma.

She would later say she felt, "every emotion that one would imagine: Rage and anger and shock. But more than anything else, in the immediate, it was disbelief. The thing that I consciously remember saying over and over and over again is: 'I don't understand. What is going on? What's happening to our lives?"'

The Clintons were said to be especially annoyed at Weiner because, not only was he upsetting Huma, but he was stealing their excuses and their lines: he blamed his travails on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Through it all Huma said that Hillary had been her rock. "What I will say about (Hillary), and for that matter her entire family, the unconditional love and support they have given me has been a real gift," she told the New York Times. "And I think she would be OK with me saying this, because I know she has said this before: at the end of the day, at the very least, every woman should have the ability and the confidence and the choice to make whatever decisions she wants to make that are right for her and not be judged by it." She eventually forgave Weiner, reasoning that he still loved her and was "the father of the child inside me" (their son Jordan, who was born in December 2011).

Weiner resigned his seat in Congress but in 2013 he announced his comeback and ran against Christine Quinn, a city council speaker whose four grandparents are Irish. Two months later, more allegations emerged about Weiner. Using the alias Carlos Danger he had sent pictures and photos to a 22-year-old woman and he later admitted he had been sending messages to "six to ten" women, rather than the dozens that were being reported. Porn actress Ginger Lee, Las Vegas blackjack dealer Lisa Weiss and Megan Broussard, a 26-year-old single mother from Texas, were among the women who claimed they had his photos.

The scandal was enough to finish his political career, and recently a fascinating insight has been given into how they must have felt at this point. Huma and Weiner had allowed a group of film-makers access to them in these months, in the hope that they would document an unlikely comeback. Instead, the film, which premiered at Sundance last month, shows Weiner panicking, giving the runaround to the news media and, at one point, hurrying through the back halls of a McDonald's to avoid a woman with whom he traded inappropriate texts, whom his campaign code-named "Pineapple." The film also shows fascinating footage of Huma acting cooly, even as the news media swarms. It presents her as very much the shrewd power behind Weiner rather than the sorry little wife, eager to take him back at any cost. The parallels with the legendary Clinton pragmatism could not be more explicit.

In a way it wouldn't have suited Hillary if Huma had another role to play - that of First Lady of New York. When the scandal ignited Hillary came to Huma's rescue in more ways than one. Following his resignation from Congress, Weiner sold his condominium and Huma sold her Washington apartment at a substantial loss.

Through a close Clinton associate they were able to move into a lavish Park Avenue apartment that cost $12,000 a month in rent. Hillary signed off on Huma's new role as a SGE (special government employee) which enabled her to work at home, while advising on policy, and also enabled her the space to develop a few more strings to her bow. She was hired as a consultant to the William J. Clinton Foundation to help plan for Hillary's philanthropic activities after she retires from public life. Huma also became a consultant with Teneo Holdings, which was co-founded by Declan Kelly and Douglas Band, who had been an advisor to Bill Clinton. During Clinton's bid for the presidency in 2007 and 2008, Declan Kelly organised events in New York (at the home of actor Gabriel Byrne), San Francisco and Limerick, which together raised close to $1m.

At one point Huma was receiving four separate paycheques, spread over the public and private sectors in the US, and the murmurings began. A Vanity Fair profile of Abedin quotes an email sent by Band to Huma in which he mention's Teneo's efforts to get client Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, a seat on the President's Global Development Council: "Judy Rodin. Huge (Clinton) foundation/cgi (Clinton Global Initiative) supporter and close pal of wjc [Bill Clinton]. Teneo reps her as well. Can you help?" Huma didn't reply or intercede on behalf of Teneo but the potential for perceived conflicts of interest was obvious. Republican senator Charles Grassley has said he was "concerned" that her SGE status "blurs the line between public and private sector employees." "We know she set up dinners for Secretary Clinton and her private-sector employers and emailed private-sector employees from government accounts," he added.

In the context of Hillary Clinton's own $675,000 speaking fees, which she received from Goldman Sachs, it's perhaps easy to see she might not be too worried about whether Huma's private and public roles overlapped at all. But it is the optics - as Abedin might say herself - rather than actual wrongdoing, that some take issue with, but the controversies that have clung to Huma are unlikely to affect her place at the heart of the Clinton court. Implied in the account of Huma's patient attempts to help Hillary send a fax is Huma as the Girl Friday fixer. But there is likely also a huge degree of maternal love. "I have one daughter", Hillary said at Huma's wedding. "But if I had a second daughter, it would (be) Huma."

Could it be that, in Huma, Hillary sees a nascent version of herself - a hard working career climber, who can straddle the public and private spheres while riding out her husband's peccadilloes? Hillary sees the attacks on Huma as attacks on herself and it bonds them. And they are bonded by shared circumstances.

Perhaps it might be that they share a certain stiff upper lip? The most revealing moment of the new film - which will be released this May - shows fascinating footage of Huma acting as steely as the reputation which precedes her. The scene is this: Carlos Danger's house of cards has come falling down, the Clintons have been embarrassingly drawn into the circus, everyone is wondering if Huma's marriage can possibly survive. And yet when a young campaign staff member, on the verge of tears after the revelations and subsequent media harassment, prepares to leave the couple's Park Avenue apartment, Huma offers some advice. "Just a quick optics thing?" she said to the woman. "I assume those photographers are still outside. So, you will look happy?"

Looking stunned the staff member shook her head and meekly agreed. Huma smiles tightly. And somewhere, you felt, the woman who would be president must have nodded in approval.

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