With days to go before the election, the FBI has served up its own October Surprise, saying it was examining a new batch of emails in an investigation most thought had generally ended. But at the heart of the broader controversy, Hillary Clinton has no one to blame except herself.
I have been studying the behavior of influence elites for years as a social anthropologist, and one of the hallmarks of today’s elites is the subverting of standard process. In both my 2009 book Shadow Elite and my latest, Unaccountable, out in paperback, I examine how the most agile policy makers personalize the bureaucracy, creating workarounds and pushing rules and standards to their limits to both better press their agendas, and to avoid accountability should those agendas later come into question. I have devoted much study to one of the most egregious cases of subverting process, the concerted effort by a small circle of neoconservatives, what I call the Neocon core, to take the United States to war in Iraq in 2003.
For Hillary Clinton, there has been no case of personalizing the bureaucracy more ultimately damaging to her reputation than her use of a private email server. Watergate player John Dean took to the New York Times on Monday to say that Trump’s assertion that the email scandal is worse than Watergate distorts the record, and takes our eye off of more significant abuses of power. I agree that “Email-gate” does not deserve that name. It’s a blip compared to what the Neocon core did, both in terms of the subversion itself, and the terrible impact of the decision to engineer a casus belli. But it’s not nothing either.
Putting aside the very real security concerns raised by using a private server, officials like Clinton and many, many others who subvert standard procedure create a black hole of transparency. At the same time she was Secretary of State, her husband was subverting (his term is more likely “innovating”) philanthropic process by mixing business clients with donors, taking donations from corporations and foreign governments in novel and, again, less-than-transparent ways. This emerging elite practice has been dubbed “philanthro-capitalism” and is by no means confined to the Clintons.
Did neither Clinton not anticipate that all this would become suspect later? There is a reason public officials are asked to avoid not just impropriety but even the appearance of impropriety. That is because the latter can engender distrust in political decision-making, even when no severe transgression has occurred. And civic trust is hitting what I would consider a crisis low.
As has become common, the system did not treat Hillary Clinton as it would a lower-level functionary: While she faced a stern lashing over the summer from FBI director James Comey, who called her actions “extremely careless,” no punishment was forthcoming.
And now we have Comey himself subverting standard procedure by pronouncing on the issue so late in the election calendar. On Friday, he announced the possibility of new evidence in the email case, prompting an intense backlash from former Justice Department officials and U.S. prosecutors who have served under administrations of both parties. It didn’t help his case as reports surfaced that he opposed making a public statement involving Russia’s possible attempts to sway the U.S. election, suggesting he had a double standard that benefited Donald Trump. As of this writing, the reasons he made the email investigation announcement still remain hot debated and obscure, but the added uncertainty in what’s already been a traumatic election year is clear. Injecting even the (remote) possibility of a possible indictment so late in the game is a staggering breach of protocol. As one Bush-era ethics lawyer put it,
This is no trivial matter. We cannot allow FBI or Justice Department officials to unnecessarily publicize pending investigations concerning candidates of either party while an election is underway. That is an abuse of power. Allowing such a precedent to stand will invite more, and even worse, abuses of power in the future.
In all three situations—Hillary Clinton’s email, Bill Clinton’s philanthropy, and James Comey’s statement—the powerful have undermined standard practice, thereby casting doubt on their own integrity. Hillary Clinton might only have sought convenience, but that luxury doesn’t extend to a secretary of State. Bill Clinton might have believed he was “maximizing” his philanthropic reach, but he was apparently blind to the conflicts and questions these would create as his wife sought the most powerful position in the world. He also tarnished the many good works his foundation has carried out. Notably the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, deserves credit for recognizing with alarm what all the blurring of business, politics, and philanthropy could mean for her parents, as seen in emails released by Wikileaks. James Comey has likely damaged his personal integrity, as well as the integrity of the entire Clinton investigation, for reasons that still aren’t clear. And how would he work with Hillary Clinton should she win next week?
Of course, no one undermines standards more flagrantly than Donald Trump and you might wonder after this lengthy criticism if I think he is “cleaner” than Clinton. No, not by any stretch of the imagination. But Trump has not been an establishment figure, or influencer, even if he is indeed super rich (and at this point, we can’t be sure that the latter is true.) He has never been a policymaker, politician, or regulator and has not involved himself in any meaningful way in national policy. He seems far more transparently a con-man: reportedly stiffing suppliers and small businesses, running into discrimination lawsuits and fraud accusations involving his so-called “Trump University,” bankruptcy and sketchy practices so profound that some American banks apparently won’t lend to him, and, as seen today in the latest extensive New York Times’ report, stretching the tax code “beyond recognition.”
Trump has taken the “take it to the limit” approach to an unparalleled extreme in flat out bragging that he has engaged in “pay-to-play” corruption over the years. In a January primary debate, he said this: “You know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me ... And that’s a broken system.” Trump might well be corrupt, and if so, it’s a form of corruption that is generally illegal (certainly in the case of pay-for-play, fraud, discrimination, and underpayment).
While blatant corruption causes obvious damage, what I call the “new corruption”—actions that are generally legal but still violate the public trust—is more difficult to detect and impossible to prosecute. These forms of corruption, my area of study, are typically nuanced and subtle, words hardly associated with Trump. It is terrifying that a demagogue like Trump has gotten as far as he has. The Clintons, in fomenting public distrust, have handed him some of the red meat he serves to millions of alienated citizens.