In summer 2013, Hillary Clinton had just left the State Department and returned to New York. She planned a quiet year, basking in sky-high approval ratings and enjoying a respite from the media spotlight as she laid the groundwork for a second presidential run.
Then Carlos Danger happened.
Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin, was running for mayor of New York City when news broke that he had continued to exchange lewd messages with women online after the practice cost him his congressional seat. This time, he used the embarrassing Spanish-inspired moniker.
The tawdry story line and Abedin’s closeness to Clinton made the events explode far beyond New York, dragging Clinton’s name into messy headlines about photos of private parts, Weiner’s descriptions of his sexual appetites and his online paramour named Sydney Leathers.
Now, with Clinton seemingly on the cusp of winning the White House, Weiner, who once described himself as “a perpetually horny middle-aged man,” has pulled her into another drama. Federal investigators looking into his sexual messaging with an underage girl stumbled upon thousands of emails potentially pertinent to the FBI inquiry into Clinton’s private email server.
The jolting development highlighted not only the intersecting lives of Clinton, Abedin and Weiner, but also the pattern that has characterized the Clintons’ relationships with the sometimes oddly behaving inhabitants of their insular world: Even amid accusations of sexual or financial impropriety, the Clintons’ first instinct is to hunker down and protect those in their orbit, sometimes leading to more ugly eruptions later and, eventually, to messy public breakups.
On Friday, several of Clinton’s friends and allies suggested she distance herself from Abedin, a painful prospect given that Clinton has described Abedin as a surrogate daughter and has relied on her more than anyone else during her nearly two-year pursuit of the White House.
The two women’s closeness has both intimidated those in the Clinton circle of status-conscious advisers and caused envy. Even as Clinton learned Friday the FBI’s interest in her email server, which she thought had ended in July, had reignited, Abedin was by her side as she prepared to make a statement to the news media in Des Moines, Iowa.
Pressed by a reporter there about the emails’ having been discovered during the investigation into Weiner’s sexting, Clinton dismissed the reports as “rumors.”
Clinton has always been circumspect about Weiner and her feelings toward him. She has steadfastly supported Abedin, 40, as the younger woman stood by her husband, despite the public ridicule and career damage that resulted from his behavior. The Clintons have never publicly criticized Weiner.
It was only two months ago that Abedin announced she was separating from her husband, after she learned The New York Post planned to publish a story reporting Weiner had sent a picture of his crotch to a woman online as he lay next to the couple’s 4-year-old son in bed. Clinton was vacationing in the Hamptons at the time and stayed away from the story.
Privately, aides to Clinton suggested Friday that Abedin would remain alongside Clinton for the final, breakneck stretch of the campaign. But some senior Democrats are now wondering whether, if Clinton is elected, she will be able to bring Abedin along with her for what was once widely expected to be a senior role in the White House.
Clinton’s loyalty to Abedin (and vice versa) stems from the decades they have spent working closely together, beginning when Abedin was a 19-year-old intern to the first lady in the 1990s.
At the State Department, Abedin served as deputy chief of staff to Clinton. Emails released by the State Department captured the closeness of their relationship. A jet-lagged Clinton once emailed Abedin at 12:21 a.m. to take her up on an offer to come over to Clinton’s house for a chat. “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed,” she wrote.
Abedin’s loyalty and strong identification with both Clintons was conspicuous at the State Department. At a staff meeting in early 2009, she was going through a list of requests from “the president.” When others in the room looked at her in puzzlement, Abedin clarified: “Not President Obama. Our president: Bill Clinton.”
Abedin’s high profile and proximity to Clinton also brought her scrutiny. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has questioned Abedin’s arrangement to earn income privately while she worked for Clinton at the State Department. In addition to being on Clinton’s personal payroll, Abedin received money from the Clinton Foundation and Teneo, a consulting firm co-founded by Doug Band, a former senior aide to former President Bill Clinton. And some of Abedin’s emails on Clinton’s private server led to accusations that foundation donors had received special access to the State Department.
Through it all, Clinton and her longtime adviser Philippe Reines have fiercely protected Abedin.
Hillary Clinton played a part in introducing Abedin and Weiner, then a brash and outspoken Democratic congressman from New York. In August 2001, the young congressman asked Abedin, then an aide to Clinton in the Senate, if she would go out for a drink. Standing behind Clinton, Abedin waved her arms at her boss and shook her head “no.” “Of course all you young people should go out,” Clinton said.
Weiner eventually won Abedin’s affections in January 2007, when he sat between Clinton and her rival, then-Sen. Barack Obama, at President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. “I appreciate you looking out for my boss,” Abedin texted him. They went out for coffee and later were married in July 2010; Bill Clinton performed the ceremony.
Abedin and Clinton’s personal lives have in some ways taken parallel tracks, with each woman choosing to forgive her husband’s humiliating transgressions.
Others close to Clinton have not been as understanding. On a campaign conference call the day Weiner admitted he had continued to engage in online liaisons, Reines berated him, yelling that he would “reach through the phone” and “rip out” his throat, adding an expletive.
And some advisers to the Clintons were exasperated this year to learn that Weiner and Abedin were bringing about another distraction: The couple had permitted a behind-the-scenes documentary about Weiner’s circuslike mayoral bid to be made, resurrecting the sexting stories once again.
But deciding how to handle the current situation could be especially difficult. Cutting out employees who prove politically damaging might seem like Politics 101, but for the Clintons, it has never been easy, particularly when it comes to their oldest and most loyal aides. Abedin and Band both started as White House interns, spent their formative years working for the Clintons and ultimately brought unwelcome headlines to their bosses.
Before the email news broke Friday, Clinton’s campaign was answering questions about Band’s private consulting firm, Teneo, and its ties to the Clinton Foundation. “I think voters, first of all, understand that Hillary Clinton is the candidate that’s on the ballot, not Doug Band,” her campaign manager, Robby Mook, told reporters Friday.
It remained to be seen whether he would soon need to say the same of Abedin.