Scenes from the Awkward Marriage of Hillary Clinton and the Press
The State Department's release of Hillary's e-mails expose her tortured relationship with the Fourth Estate
Hillary Clinton’s reclusiveness from the press has become a focal point of her young presidential campaign after she spent weeks dodging questions about possible conflicts of interests stemming from her husband’s paid speeches and foreign donations made to the Clinton Foundation. But on Friday, the public got a rare snapshot into her relationship with the press during a trying time of her tenure as secretary of state: the days following the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
The State Department document dump, an initial batch of 296 e-mails from that time, offers an inside look at her media team’s day-to-day operations and its extreme sensitivity to negative press. The clamor for her personal emails emerged after it was revealed that Clinton exclusively used a private email account as secretary of state, a move that prevented her correspondences from becoming available in public disclosure requests and aroused suspicions about her tenure in Foggy Bottom.
Clinton’s handlers have long been known for their aggressive approach to reporters, but no one embodied that style more than Philippe Reines, the preeminent guardian of the Hillary Clinton brand.
Reines, who currently handles media relations and messaging for Clinton’s presidential campaign, served as a senior adviser to her as secretary of state. An example of his protectiveness over Clinton shines through in an e-mail dated October 11, 2012, in which he appears scandalized by a Wall Street Journal reporter who got a little too close to Clinton during a one-on-one interview.
“I’ve never seen a Westerner invade her space like that,” Reines said in an e-mail addressed to Tom Nides, the former deputy secretary of state for management and resources. “Even the non-Westerners I’ve seen do it based on cultural differences have been only briefly to greet. This went on like that for 51 minutes – unacceptable in any culture. I don’t even think you see that behavior among any type of mammal.”
Reines goes on to compare the reporter, Monica Langley, to a dental hygienist, maneuvering exceedingly close to Clinton “to get the best access to your mouth.” The exchange is vintage Reines: humorous, prickly and acerbic all at the same time.
In response to his detailed breakdown of Langley’s interviewing style, Nides can barely contain himself. “I may go and throw up since I am laughing so hard,” he replied.
But the document dump also reveals a softer side of Reines, whose prickliness became infamous after he told the late reporter Michael Hastings to “fuck off” in an exchange published by BuzzFeed in 2012.
The two had been arguing aggressively about the State Department’s handling of the fallout of the Benghazi attack. Reines called Hastings an “unmitigated asshole” and Hastings responded with a scathing broadside about Reines’s personal life.
But the newly disclosed documents reveal the two sides making up and even having something of a bromantic moment.
“I have deep sympathy for what your team and the families of the victims are going through,” wrote Hastings. “In the interest of diplomacy and extending an olive branch: we should get a drink sometime, off the record.”
“I apologize, both for my language and for my tone,” responded Reines. “As you can imagine this has been an intense time for everyone at the State Department, including me.”
The daily news stories sent up the chain of command to Clinton fall into two categories. The first are those that back up the State Department’s version of events or paint the former Secretary of State in a flattering light. They’re typically sent without comment.
For instance, a September 21, 2012 Reuters story — tens days after the attack — entitled “Libyans march against Islamist militias in Baghdad” — arrived in Clinton’s inbox. Another, from The Hill, called “Issa targets Hillary: Big mistake,” was also passed to the secretary. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-N.Y.) continues to try to link missteps by Clinton to the Benghazi attack.
Two other examples are a Washington Post article, “Hillary Clinton tries to calm anti-U.S. sentiment as protesters storm embassy in Yemen,” and a video package from Reuters that showed Libyans trying to help Stevens after the attack.
One instance that did draw comment from Clinton’s staff came on September 16, 2012. It references a piece by Andrew Sullivan, who had criticized Clinton in the past, praising her for her actions following the attack. The email chain also contains a link to a piece by Margery Eagan, entitled “An apology to Hillary.”
“This is simply painfully honest on her part and a moment in time where Higher Purpose shines a bright light on Higher Ground…Higher Ground is where all great solutions and triumphs are found and scaled…HRC-once again is taking people there-whether they ever thought they ever want to go there or not,” advertiser and Clinton confidant Roy Spence wrote. The email was forwarded to Clinton three days later.
Those who wrote articles challenging the White House narrative are handled quite differently. After the New York Times published “Clinton Suggests Link to Qaeda Offshoot in Deadly Libya Attack” on September 26, 2012, deputy chief of staff Jacob Sullivan sent a message to Clinton referring to a man named “Schmitt” as a “pain in the ass.” He’s presumably referring to New York Times’ reporter Eric Schmitt, who has covered the Middle East extensively.
Earlier, on September 20, 2012, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called a Wall Street Journal article questioning security at the compound a “real hit piece.” The secretary also didn’t take kindly to television hosts who gave critics a chance to question her. After Sen. John McCain told Greta Van Susteren in December 2012 he didn’t think Clinton was healthy enough to testify to Congress, Clinton wrote someone should call her to “thank her for ‘knowing the truth.”
There are a few outliers. A October 7, 2012 post from FP’s The Cable about how 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney would compare Benghazi to 9/11 was sent to the secretary. So was an April 3, 2011 piece about her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who says he wouldn’t rule out sending guns to Libya.
Clinton also received a piece that served as a harbinger of what was to come. On September 15, 2012, Nuland circulated a Wall Street Journal piece about U.S. intelligence warnings of attacks in the Middle East in the wake of the anti-Muslim film some believe is sparked the violence in Libya.
The email contained one line: “Here we go.”