Clinton to face tough questions on Benghazi, email scandal with 2016 bid

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Photo by: Greg Allen Hillary Rodham Clinton has attempted to allay the furor over her exclusive use of a private email account hosted on a private server in her home for conducting official business as secretary of state, a practice that may have violated federal open records laws. (Associated Press)
Photo by: Greg Allen
Hillary Rodham Clinton has attempted to allay the furor over her exclusive use of a private email account hosted on a private server in her home for conducting official business as secretary of state, a practice that may have violated federal open records laws. (Associated Press)
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The days of answering softball questions at paid speaking engagements have ended for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will face a slew of tough questions that she has sidestepped for months now that she has formally announced her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

She will have to wrestle with a broad range of topics — from foreign policy issues, such as how she would handle the Islamic State terrorist army that grew up on her watch as secretary of state, to domestic priorities pushed by her Democratic Party’s liberal base, including whether she is willing to crack down on big Wall Street banks that have been major donors to her campaigns.

The former first lady, senator and top diplomat also must field questions on matters of ethics, including being pressed to more fully address an email secrecy scandal and a potential conflict of interest with the Clinton Foundation accepting foreign donations while she served as secretary of state.

Mrs. Clinton has begun taking steps to distance herself from the Clinton Foundation. That likely will not deflect questions about whether donations from wealthy interests in foreign countries influenced her actions at the State Department or even may sway her decisions if she succeeds in her quest for a return trip to the White House.

At a press conference last month, Mrs. Clinton attempted to allay the furor over her exclusive use of a private email account hosted on a private server in her home for conducting official business as secretary of state, a practice that may have violated federal open records laws.

But her explanation that it was simply more convenient for her to mingle personal and government email didn’t settle the controversy, which only deepened when she revealed that she had wiped clean the server, destroying all the emails except those selected by her team to be turned over to the State Department. Also, some of her explanations, such as not wanting to carry multiple devices, rang hollow or proved false upon investigation.

Questions persist about why she didn’t turn over her emails when she left the State Department in early 2013, how she selected the roughly 63,000 emails from her tenure to destroy and why she erased the server memory amid the scandal.

Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have weathered a lifetime of political scandals. Still, her responses to these ethical issues and how she handles other criticism as she navigates the campaign trail once again will test her character.

“Presidential elections are not just about issues and partisan politics, they are character tests about specific candidates at specific moments in history,” said Democratic campaign strategist Craig Varoga, who previously worked on Mr. Clinton’s 1996 reelection team and for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is preparing to challenge Mrs. Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

“Americans are divided down the middle, in a foul mood and think the country’s going to hell in a handbasket. Hillary’s greatest strength is her experience, but every one of her opponents will try to use that experience against her,” said Mr. Varoga. “The candidate who eventually wins in November 2016 will be the one who does the best job of showing that he or she has the experience to be steady and strong, but also has the temperament to take the country in a new direction.”

Indeed, many of the questions swirling around Mrs. Clinton arose from her four years as American’s top diplomat under President Obama.

She remains a key figure in the probe by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which is investigating the 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The attacks, and the Obama administration’s response to them — including initially blaming them on a spontaneous riot over an anti-Islam YouTube video — left an indelible black mark on Mrs. Clinton’s record as secretary of state. She could be called to publicly testify before the Benghazi committee in the middle of the campaign and answer questions about her role in the episode, as well as her secretive handling of emails.

Mrs. Clinton also will perform a careful balancing act as she defends the actions of the Obama administration that she served, while breaking with Mr. Obama to demonstrate that she’s her own woman and offers voters something new.

She will encounter criticism of her dealings with Russia, symbolized by the embarrassing “reset” policy. But she will also have to offer a new vision for dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who led his country’s takeover of Crimea and continues to sow unrest in eastern Ukraine with disregard for U.S. sanctions and admonishments.

“Now, if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” Mrs. Clinton said last month at a fundraiser in California, comparing Mr. Putin’s moves to those of the Nazi German dictator who started World War II, reported the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Despite the stinging rhetoric, Mrs. Clinton has yet to offer a strategy to confront Mr. Putin.

On another foreign policy front, Mrs. Clinton likely will have to elaborate on her views of Mr. Obama’s decision to release five terrorist leaders from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for the Taliban returning captive Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, whom the Army later charged with desertion.

Mrs. Clinton defended Mr. Obama’s decision in June, before the charges were brought but amid widespread speculation that Sgt. Berghdal had abandoned his post and sought out the Taliban.

“It doesn’t matter how they ended up in a prisoner-of-war situation,” Mrs. Clinton told ABC News. “It doesn’t matter. We bring our people home.”

She will have to revisit the issue now that she’s a candidate and Sgt. Berghdal faces a court-martial on charges of desertion and misconduct in the face of the enemy.

Mrs. Clinton must take stands on U.S. spy agencies’ massive domestic surveillance programs and America’s use of drones to kill terrorist suspects — and, sometimes, Americans — overseas.

She has called Mr. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran a “step in the right direction.” But she will be asked about her plans to deal with Iran in the future, and she will be pressed about how she would restore the U.S. relationship with Israel, which has been badly damaged under Mr. Obama’s tenure.

Some of the most pointed questions will come from her own party, as Democratic activists push Mrs. Clinton to the left and prod her to adopt the populist agenda championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, including expanding Social Security benefits, creating “debt-free college” and breaking up Wall Street banks.

Mrs. Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, so far has resisted calls to enter the presidential race, but she represents an ominous presence on the sidelines as Mrs. Clinton begins her run.

“Hillary Clinton’s biggest challenge at the outset is reassuring the Democratic grass roots that she can represent them,” said veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “Look for her to proactively talk about issues like Wall Street, wages and equality as a result.”

Still, he said that any divide within the Democratic Party would quickly repair itself in response to attacks by Republicans, especially on issues that party activists view as partisan, such as Benghazi.

“That will only solidify her base of support in the Democratic Party and make her an even more formidable candidate in November 2016,” said Mr. Trippi.

Mrs. Clinton faces criticism from the left over her cozy relationship with Wall Street. Three of the four top donors throughout Mrs. Clinton’s political career — Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase — are among the same megabanks that liberals want to bust up.

“Hillary Clinton’s campaign launch is an opportunity to make clear to Americans that she will campaign on big, bold, economic populist ideas like debt-free college, expanding Social Security, clean energy jobs and reforming Wall Street,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is pulling Democratic candidates to the left.

“The battle over the direction of the Democratic Party is coming to an end — the Elizabeth Warren wing has won, and the battle of big versus small ideas is here. Americans are ready for boldness,” he said. “We hope Hillary Clinton thinks big and takes on powerful interests on behalf of everyday working families. Progressives will continue working to put big, bold, economic populist ideas at the center of the national conversation.”