Wednesday 22 May 2019

Clinton's campaign in chaos: Details emerge of how aide acted as email 'gatekeeper'

Hillary struggles to take control of scandal, as details emerge of how her aide acted as a 'gatekeeper' for her various emails

Email trail: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and long-term aide Huma Abedin on the campaign trail. A laptop Abedin shared with her former husband, Anthony Weiner, is thought to have triggered the latest furore Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Email trail: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and long-term aide Huma Abedin on the campaign trail. A laptop Abedin shared with her former husband, Anthony Weiner, is thought to have triggered the latest furore Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Harriet Alexander

It was an announcement that was supposed to provide clarity and transparency. Instead it threw the whole election campaign into chaos.

With 11 days until the United States votes to choose its next president, the letter from James Comey, the FBI director, informing Congress that more information had been found relating to Hillary Clinton's email scandal sent the country into a frenzy.

Donald Trump could barely contain his glee - describing the saga, which began in 2009 when Clinton was appointed secretary of state, as "worse than Watergate".

Clinton was furious, and demanded that the FBI provide more details. Comey only referred to "emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation", when he wrote to inform Congress of the fresh evidence.

Clinton and her team insisted they were in the dark. "We want to know the facts, which is why we are calling on the FBI to release all the information it has," she said on Friday afternoon, insisting she had found out about it through the media.

The state department was said to be "stunned", and was not given advance notice.

"We've heard these rumours, we don't know what to believe," Clinton said. "And I am sure there will be even more rumours. Even FBI director Comey admitted it might not be significant, so let's get it out."

Yesterday sources were providing more detail about the "pertinent" emails - which were connected to the investigation into Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of the Democratic candidate's top aide Huma Abedin.

"Oh God, Anthony Weiner," said Joe Biden, the vice-president, with a groan yesterday, when asked about the story. "I should not comment on Anthony Weiner. I'm not a big fan. I wasn't before he got in trouble. So I shouldn't comment on Anthony Weiner."

In September, Weiner, 52, a former high-flying politician who disgraced himself with a series of sexual scandals, was alleged to have been sending explicit messages to a 15-year-old girl. His wife left him, and he now faces up to 30 years in prison.

Once seen as a rising Democratic star, Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in 2011 after he sent a picture of his penis to a 21-year-old student via Twitter. After he initially denied involvement in the messages, further pictures sent by Weiner emerged and he stepped down, at the urging of Barack Obama.

An attempt to become mayor of his hometown, New York City, gained traction in 2013, with several polls showing he had a decent chance of beating the long-time Clinton ally Bill de Blasio, the man who would eventually get the Democratic nomination and win the election in a landslide.

However, Weiner's campaign was wounded after he admitted taking a picture of his penis and sending it to a 22-year-old woman. He had made contact with the woman after leaving Congress, using his now infamous alias "Carlos Danger" in his interactions with her.

Abedin initially spoke out in defence of Weiner but the former congressman's election hopes were further tarnished after he admitted sending sexually explicit messages to several other women. Another low point arrived when Weiner was repeatedly asked "What is wrong with you?" during an excruciating live interview with the MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell.

As shown in an eponymous fly-on-the-wall documentary released earlier this year, Weiner refused to bow out of the race despite the anguish of his staff and Abedin, who often looked on in silence as her husband attempted to extricate himself from the scandal.

Abedin (40), who has become an increasingly public figure in her own right as vice-chair of the Clinton presidential campaign, announced her separation from Weiner in August "after long and painful consideration and work on my marriage". Weiner and Abedin have a young son.

The split was expected to mark the end of the saga but, in what Clinton will view as a cruel irony, Weiner's communications have become an issue at the worst possible time for the former secretary of state.

Prosecutors in Manhattan, it is believed, seized Weiner's mobile phone and iPad. They also took a laptop computer which he shared with his ex-wife - and it is this device which is believed to have sparked Comey's announcement on Friday.

Yesterday, it was reported that the laptop contained tens of thousands of emails - and that, with such a significant body of fresh evidence, Comey had no choice but to make the news public.

Given the spotlight under which Clinton's email practices have been for the past two years - since the select committee investigating the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi discovered her private email server - it does seem remarkable that Abedin would not have handed over the laptop.

The Clinton campaign say they cannot comment until they are told what the "pertinent" emails are.

But it is thought the computer contains information showing how Clinton's emails were managed by Abedin - who has acted as Clinton's "gatekeeper" for years, ever since starting work for the then-first lady as a 19-year-old intern.

Abedin, according to Newsweek, maintained four email accounts - an unclassified state department account, another on her private server with the domain, and a third on Yahoo. The fourth was linked to her husband's account, which she used to support his activities when he was running for Congress.

Abedin has said that she did not know Clinton used a private server for her emails. She told the FBI in April that she used the account on the domain only for issues related to Clinton's personal affairs, such as communicating with her friends.

For work-related records, Abedin said she primarily used the email account provided to her by the state department. Crucially, Clinton never had an official state department email. Clinton, 69, has repeatedly insisted she preferred printed material to emails.

"I did not conduct most of the business I did on behalf of our country on email," she, told a panel investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died. I conducted it in meetings, I read massive amounts of memos, a great deal of classified information, I made a lot of secure phone calls, I was in and out of the White House all the time."

Abedin's laptop is believed to show how Abedin would move emails around from one account to another, then print them out so they could be delivered to Clinton in a diplomatic pouch by a security agent.

It is not clear whether she ever transferred official emails to the account she used for her husband's campaign.

If the FBI determines that any of the documents that ended up on the shared device were classified, Abedin could be deemed to have mishandled them. If the documents were not classified, no crime was committed.

In order to prove that was a criminal offence, however, investigators would have to establish that she had intended to disclose the contents of those classified documents, or that she knew she was mishandling that information.

And yet the damage to Clinton has been significant. Despite the FBI's efforts to use a chisel to clarify and update the investigation, at this most sensitive time, the impact has been that of a sledgehammer.

Sean Spicer, chief strategist of the Republican National Committee, yesterday brandished a document in an interview with CNN to argue that the Clinton team could not be trusted.

The document, Form OF-109, was signed by Abedin in August 2013, when she officially ended her work with the state department.

"She signed it saying she understood it was her obligation to turn over emails relating to her work," said Spicer. "And there is this pattern; what they said they did is not true. It's this pattern of lying and obstruction.

"This is what we can expect from a Clinton presidency. A zebra can't change its stripes. We've seen it for 30 years."

While there is no evidence the emails involve Clinton as a sender or recipient, the new investigation has allowed Donald Trump to pounce. Last year, the Republican nominee said Weiner was a "perv" and a security risk due to his proximity to Clinton, through Abedin.

On Friday, a gleeful Trump told a rally that he welcomed the new FBI investigation and that the system "might not be as rigged as I thought". The developments have helped bolster Trump at a time of plummeting poll numbers that have provoked wild claims by the real estate tycoon that the election is being fraudulently taken from him.

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