Just as stunning as the unending stream of reports of scandal and subterfuge that has come to define Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state is the Obama administration’s tireless effort to keep a lid on it.
Whether it’s the Justice Department taking a pass when afforded the opportunity to investigate or the State Department steadfastly defending every controversy, President Obama’s administration has emerged as a first line of defense for the woman who would carry on his legacy.
The kid-glove treatment of Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has helped shield her from bad headlines as Republican nominee Donald Trump has been battered by the news media over his remarks on the stump and rants on Twitter.
The administration’s protectiveness toward Mrs. Clinton has outraged Republicans and raised eyebrows among ethicists.
Aine Donovan, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College, said the Obama administration definitely has a problem with the appearance that it has failed to pursue questions of misconduct by Mrs. Clinton.
“We don’t want people let off the hook just because they have a public name. I think it is very important that we follow up,” Ms. Donovan said.
She stressed that questions of ethics and conflicts of interest, such as those dogging Mrs. Clinton because of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of state, involved “gray areas” between proper and improper behavior. These types of potential conflicts of interest are commonplace in various professional settings, she said, but how the conflict is managed often becomes more important than the conflict itself.
“The higher up you go in public perception, the more important it is to make sure that there is transparency, that even a perception [of impropriety] is immediately eradicated,” she said. “This becomes a problem for Hillary Clinton. She’s battling issues of trustworthiness as it is without this latest issue and that just kind of compounds matters.”
The Obama administration has appeared to take Mrs. Clinton’s side every time ethical questions arise.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch last month closed the case on Mrs. Clinton’s secret email setup as secretary of state, declining to press charges despite the mishandling of classified information by the former first lady and U.S. senator.
The Justice Department also put the kibosh on requests from three FBI field offices for a public corruption probe into the Clinton Foundation and the State Department under Mrs. Clinton, according to multiple reports last week.
The FBI field offices made the request this year after being alerted by banks to suspicious transactions involving the Clinton Foundation, which has been the focus of accusations of cronyism and pay-to-play dealmaking when Mrs. Clinton ran the State Department from 2009 to 2012.
The Obama administration also has gone to bat for Mrs. Clinton in court, trying to block her from having to testify under oath about her secret email server. In documents filed last month, the State and Justice departments said the former secretary has already said enough publicly about why she chose to use the secret server and why she failed to properly store her emails.
Mrs. Clinton has said she thought she had permission to use her secret account, though nobody at the State Department has acknowledged giving her approval — a discrepancy that Judicial Watch, which sued to get a look at the emails, says must be settled by Mrs. Clinton in sworn testimony. The Obama administration, though, said that’s not enough of a reason to force the former secretary to go under oath.
All sides are still awaiting a judge’s ruling in that case.
State Department emails obtained by Judicial Watch and released last week further exposed the interplay between the agency and the Clintons’ family foundation:
⦁ Mrs. Clinton’s State Department chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, performed work simultaneously for the agency and the Clinton Foundation. Ms. Mills’ attorney and the Clinton campaign insisted her work for the foundation was strictly voluntary, but questions about the arrangement persist.
⦁ Clinton Foundation official Doug Band communicated with Ms. Mills and top Clinton aide Huma Abedin in April 2009 about arranging for Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who is a major donor to the foundation, to talk to the agency’s “substance person” on Lebanon.
⦁ Mr. Band emailed Ms. Mills and Ms. Abedin about finding a State Department job for someone whose name was redacted from the email but whom Mr. Band described as someone “important to take care of.”
Repeatedly confronted by the press about these incidents, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau dismissed questions on virtually everything that transpired under Mrs. Clinton’s leadership.
“The department’s actions under Secretary Clinton were taken to advance administration policy as set by the president and in the interests of American foreign policy,” she said. “The State Department is not aware of any actions that were influenced by the Clinton Foundation.”
Leon E. Panetta, who served as head of the CIA and the Pentagon in Mr. Obama’s first term, also came to the defense of Mrs. Clinton on Sunday when questioned about the ties between her aides and the Clinton Foundation.
“Staff people trying to make connections in Washington is a pretty prevalent behavior by most people in Washington …,” Mr. Panetta told ABC’s “This Week.” “I really do think it’s time for the candidates and for the American people to move on and talk about the real issues.”
Most strikingly, the administration raced to Mrs. Clinton’s rescue despite the intense scrutiny of the relationship between Mr. Obama and the woman he appointed as secretary of state and now endorsed for president.
“Certainly there are some questions about independence when the same administration that appointed Mrs. Clinton is also investigating her,” said Scott H. Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight. “My hope is that there is enough integrity in the system to fight off any politicking and damage control, but that might be a heavy lift for some in federal government circles. Only time will tell.”