7 things we still don’t know about Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Clinton tries to control the scandal over her use of a private email while Secretary of State—typically raising more questions than she’s answered—it’s important to keep this latest uproar in the context of her record as a whole. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a figure in public life longer than any candidate for the presidency in the history of the office. She has served in high-power positions in both the legislative and executive branch, has worked in both the public and private sector, is married to one of the most successful presidents of the last 40 years, and is a worldwide figure who will collect derision as often as she collects commendations.

So while the issue of her private email raises questions as countless as they are troubling, it’s hardly the largest issue even liberals should have with this storied soon-to-be candidate. A long history in politics will tie even the most morally respectable characters to questionable initiatives or habits with or without the individual’s consent. But even if we limit analysis of Clinton’s record to just her career and actions since the end of her 2008 campaign—I’ll even leave out Benghazi—her campaign will be rife with serious questions far surpassing the contents of her inbox.

1) Did you act on behalf of the Clinton Foundation while Secretary of State?

The little sister controversy to the email scandal has been an ongoing investigation into whether Clinton leveraged her tenure as Secretary of State into beneficial relationships between foreign governments and the Clinton Foundation, an NGO founded by her husband and herself. The Foundation has raised over $2 billion to date, but much of that money has come from governments that very well might have been looking for an audience with a future president more than attempting to build a better world.

Deserving of focus in particular is a $500,000 donation accepted by the Foundation from Algeria in 2010, violating an ethics agreement signed between the Obama administration and the Foundation banning the NGO from accepting donations from countries that had not previously donated (which Algieria had not). In fact, The Washington Post found seven countries which violated this ethics agreement by donating to the Clinton Foundation.

While the donations have moral ambitions—Algeria’s contribution was for relief from the 2010 Haitian earthquake—they put Hillary in a unique position of having to resolve every diplomatic relationship she built while Secretary of State with every foreign donation her charity received. The questions become all more pertinent when you consider the fact that her husband was also receiving hefty speaking fees from many of these same countries.

2) How do you justify accepting donations from foreign governments with abhorrent human rights records?

Lost amid her hotly anticipated response to the email scandal was a question asked of her from MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell: How does Hillary Clinton square her lengthy history as a warrior for women’s rights with accepting Clinton Foundation donations from countries like Saudi Arabia?

The Foundation has received over $1 million since 2001 from Saudi Arabia, a country Clinton’s own State Department once derided for “a lack of equal rights for women and children,” which is putting it rather mildly. Clinton, one of the most favorably viewed woman in the world, has a charity accepting donations from a country that still lashes rape victims—not rapists, rape victims. Hillary Clinton, who earlier this week called gender equality “the great unfinished business of the 21st century,” has accepted money from a country that forces all women to have a legal “male guardian.”  

How she squares that circle will be an interesting bit of political jujitsu, but it’s a hypocrisy she’ll likely be expected to keep up as a matter of policy if she’s to become president.

3) Is your relationship with Wall Street too cozy?

Another conflict of interest, though one far more typical of a presidential candidate, is Clinton’s very close relationship with the world of finance. At a 2013 closed-door meeting with top Goldman Sachs executives, Clinton “reassured” the one percent that she was on their side, with one banker telling Politico “maybe here’s someone who can lead us out of the wilderness.”

It’s a major concern of liberals, many of whom would prefer the professorial ideologue Elizabeth Warren, a politician who once boldly stated that “there is no one in this country who got rich on their own.” Her tough stance on finance reform combined with her popularity among the base of the Democratic party are some of the reasons Clinton’s camp has tried to bring Warren into their fold, hoping to turn a possibly opponent into an ally.

Still, Clinton’s friendliness with Wall Street—combined with her husband’s record of deregulation, which some would argue caused the latest financial collapse—raises serious questions about how she’ll represent progressive economics from the Oval Office. In fact, it’s not just a fight for the White House but also for how Democrats will define their economic message for another generation: Will it be under-the-covers support of loose cannon bankers or Occupy Wall Street’s demands for equal opportunity?

4) Can you still “reset” relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin?

For the first time in a generation, Americans no longer see China as the largest foe challenging the United States abroad. After increasingly drastic actions by President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and within his own borders, 18 percent of Americans now see Russia as the leading antagonist toward American interests.

Very early in her position at the State Department, Clinton presented her Russian counterparts with a literal “reset” button, hoping to move past the negotiations of the flummoxed Bush administration and the 2007 invasion of Georgia (a dangerous invasion of a sovereign nation we might see now as a predecessor for the war in Ukraine). The gimmick obviously has not worked: Russia has become a more volatile actor in Europe while simultaneously squashing human rights, beefing up a propaganda juggernaut, and silencing dissidents.

While Clinton was Secretary of State, President Putin dropped his charade as “Prime Minster” under President Dmitry Medvedev and reclaimed his seat of power with seemingly no end. Russian punk band Pussy Riot was arrested under arcane religious laws enforced by a renewed relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. All public displays or references to homosexuality were banned.

Far from bringing Russia into the international conversation in a more positive way, Russia under Secretary Clinton became more insular, more dangerous, and more oligarchical. Of course, dealing with Russia is a conundrum for anyone hoping to be president, and Hillary Clinton definitely has more foreign policy experience than any GOP contender. But with that experience comes questions about her ability to be effective in the face of such a forceful state.

5) So what, exactly, did you accomplish as Secretary of State?

Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings held steady throughout her tenure at the State Department, and she always did appear to be accomplishing a lot, traveling to more countries than any other Secretary of State before her. But aside from day-to-day foreign policy initiatives and an impressive itinerary, Clinton hardly had massive doctrinal shifts nor was she ever the leading voice on international crises.

Clinton was largely caught off guard by the Arab Spring, perhaps the most important foreign policy development of the Obama administration. Clinton continually failed to get Iran to come to the negotiation table over nuclear weapons and had similar struggles with North Korea. Zero progress was made on the peace process between Israel and Palestine and relations between the two have rarely been so fraught with tension. Along with her failings in Russia, China has become a more corrupt, closed state than it has been since Tiananmen Square.

To lay all of these issues at Hillary Clinton’s feet would certainly be unfair; world events and attitudes shift so quickly and so heavily it would be absurd to expect any administration to respond to all of them with care, timeliness, and efficiency. However, her failure to respond solvently to even one of these issues presents a record of stagnancy that would likely shock most of her supporters.

6) What will be the new Clinton doctrine?

Her tenure as Secretary of State raises numerous concerns about how she will act in the White House. Clinton’s inaction on every foreign policy crisis of her career—combined with her hawkish attitudes dating back to her support for the Iraq War—make for an uncertain package to voters.

Clinton certainly exudes strength and competency, but her lack of results means President Hillary Clinton is an enigma. The focus on having a “doctrine” can often seem silly; presidents need to be fluid in their decision-making and in order to respond as events change. But the Obama doctrine of small footprints or the Bush doctrine of preemptive security provided a guiding principle for those administration’s actions,even if the actions themselves had middling results.

7) Did you order State Department officials to spy on foreign diplomats?

For my money, the biggest unanswered question of Hillary Clinton’s career is not what are contained in those 30,000 deleted emails or whether she denied the consulate in Benghazi proper security. The still-standing mystery that should really taint Clinton is her possible violation of diplomatic norms that largely wafted away with yet another news cycle.

Among the hundreds of thousands of cables leaked by Wikileaks in 2010 were several documents signed by Hillary Clinton ordering State Department officials to collect information on foreign diplomats at the United Nations. The orders, sent in 2009, included demands to have diplomats gain fingerprints, DNA samples, iris scans, and any other personal information of top U.N. officials, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

The reason this should be a much larger stain on Clinton’s record is the precedent it sets for diplomatic missions and intelligence services. The order not only violates several international laws, but it dilutes the even-keeled approach of diplomatic missions with the fear, paranoia, and scaly tactics of the CIA (the agency more typically tasked with spying on foreign officials). It puts into question the very trust foreign diplomats place in the United States, endangering any non-military quest in America’s interest.

Sadly, it also brings to mind the paranoia and secrecy that has mired Hillary Clinton since her husband’s administration. This version of Hillary Clinton was brought into light by the recent email scandal and was lampooned by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. Gaile Sheehy, a veteran Washington reporter who has reported on Clinton since she was First Lady, said of the scandal: “Those of us who’d hoped the controlling, deceptive, defensive Clinton of years past had grown into a more mature kind of leader are wrong.”

That perfectly sums up is the core of all these questions: What type of leader will Hillary Clinton be? Most of her public life has been a lengthy attempt to gain the Presidency, not a display of how she would behave once she caught it. If she can answer these questions and the thousands more the press and critics likely have, she can hopefully curate her future self. Until then, we’ll have to just take her at her word.

Photo via RogerGoun/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.