Hillary Clinton, and her large coterie of friends and advisers, have once again found themselves in the familiar position of trying to contain a scandal.
Ahead of the publication of a new book alleging a pay-to-play relationship between the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s State Department, her allies are following their standard scandal playbook -- used recently in response to the flare-up over Clinton’s emails and the Benghazi terror attacks, and going all the way back to the Clinton White House.
Memos circulated by the campaign to Clinton surrogates this week, as well as interviews with allies involved in the defense, help explain the strategy. The goal is not necessarily to convince skeptics, but to muddy the waters enough that the issue looks like just another partisan food fight that most Americans feel they can safely ignore.
The Clinton campaign and its allies have responded aggressively to the forthcoming book “Clinton Cash,” by conservative author Peter Schweizer, and a series of related reports by mainstream media outlets. They’ve sought to discredit Schweizer, allege his facts are old news, and accused the media of buying a partisan conspiracy theory hook, line and sinker.
Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state is her biggest strength heading in 2016, and Republicans operatives battling Clinton every day have told msnbc that knocking her off that pedestal is their top goal. Schweizer’s book and related reports threaten to do just that, so the stakes could not be higher. Already, campaign donors are expressing concern.
“No one has produced a shred of evidence that Hillary Clinton ever took action as Secretary of State in order to support the interests of donors to the Clinton Foundation,” Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon said in a statement.
“To suggest the State Department, under then-Secretary Clinton, exerted undue influence in the U.S. government’s review of the sale of Uranium One is utterly baseless," Fallon continued, responding to a New York Times report connecting Clinton's involvement in a decision by the government to approve the deal and subsequent donations made to the Clinton Foundation. "It mischaracterizes the nature of the State Department’s participation in such reviews, and also ignores the range of other regulatory agencies that ultimately supported this sale. It is impossible to view this allegation as anything other than just another in the many partisan conspiracy theories advanced in the Clinton Cash book."
Based on reporting from Schweizer’s book, which was in turn based on a 2008 Times story, the paper reported Thursday morning on the sale of U.S. uranium mines to a state-controlled Russian energy company. Several people and entities involved in the detail gave millions to the Clinton Foundation, and rewarded Bill Clinton handsomely for public speaking, at the same time that Hillary Clinton was on a U.S. government panel reviewing the deal.
That committee is made up of nine federal agencies and departments, and five White House offices, including the State Department, and the allegation is that Clinton may have helped the deal go through in return for donations to her family’s foundation.
Clinton’s team has made an art of discrediting negative books about the former first family, often before they’re published, and outside allies began making preparations to kill Schweizer’s book in the crib more than two weeks ago -- long before they got a hold of a copy of the text.
The overall strategy follows the one Clinton and her allies have used to respond to many other would-be scandals, from Benghazi to her exclusive use of a private email account as secretary of state.
Instead of focusing on rebutting specific charges, Clinton and her allies have gone on offense to discredit Schweizer and attack the media for reporting the allegations.
“This is just another instance of a right-wing extremist author and the media trying in vain to find correlation where there is none, in order to smear the Clintons,” said Adrienne Watson of the pro-Clinton group Correct the Record.
In a deeply polarized country, the strategy tacitly cedes that nearly half the country will never trust Clinton on this issue no matter what she says or does, so they’re seeking to contain the damage and prevent distrust from spreading to Democrats and others.
John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, hit all the familiar talking points in response to the scandal during an interview with CBS this week. “There’s nothing new” in the facts, he said, and they’ve just “woven a bunch of conspiracy theories about.” “It’s par for the course in politics these days,” he added.
The campaign is comfortable with a storyline of Republicans vs. Hillary Clinton, but does not want the story to be The New York Times vs. Hillary Clinton.
Take Benghazi, where a 2012 terror attack on the diplomatic compound in Libya left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. While the issue has hung over Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, it mainly animates those on the right while the press and Democrats have mostly moved on.
As long as its potency as an issue is largely confined to conservatives, the issue is relatively safe for Clinton, and that’s where the issue is today.
A Pew survey from 2013 found Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to be closely following news about Benghazi hearings, and more than four times as likely to say the Obama administration had been dishonest following the attack. A more recent CNN poll found that Republicans were far more likely than Democrats or independents to be dissatisfied with Clinton’s handling of the controversy.
Clinton allies want to make other controversies like Benghazi, and were privately thrilled when Benghazi Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy stepped in to lead the investigation of Clinton’s emails.