In recent years probably no aide has worked harder for Hillary Clinton than Huma Abedin. Officially vice chairman of Clinton’s 2016 political organization, unofficially Ms. Abedin is the woman to see – the insider with influence who provides or denies access, dispenses advice, and disseminates Clinton’s wishes throughout the campaign.
Now she is at the center of the latest upheaval in this extraordinarily dramatic presidential race, testing Clinton's long-time loyalty to Abedin. A laptop she shared with estranged husband Anthony Weiner was the source of the thousands of emails the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now scrambling to assess for possible classified information.
Normally loyalty in politics travels only in one direction – up. The relationship between Clinton and Abedin has long been unusual in that loyalty has appeared to go both ways. The aide has fiercely defended her boss. The boss in turn has treated the aide almost like a second daughter.
But this may be an uproar too far. If Clinton manages to hang on and win the election, it’s possible that Abedin won’t get a White House office – despite being previously seen as a sure bet for such a post.
“I think it will be difficult for her to serve in the White House except in an informal capacity ... without direct line responsibility,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, noting that politics is very "unsentimental."
Aides are generally seen as dispensable, and at the slightest hint of an image problem, are dispensed. So why has Clinton stuck with Abedin through past controversies, such as her connection with a global consulting firm while still on the State Department payroll?
In part, it's because Clinton can be surprisingly stubborn on staff and organizational questions. The email controversy itself is a case in point. Staff emails leaked by WikiLeaks show consternation among aides that Clinton would not realize that a private server arrangement would look bad.
Clinton is also loyal to those who have marched alongside her in her long and event-filled political career. And she’s particularly loyal to Abedin, whom Clinton has seen progress from a young assistant to a top-level player before her eyes.
A Clinton World insider
Abedin has risen through the ranks of Clinton World since beginning as a student intern in Hillary Clinton’s office in 1996. She’s now a top advisor Clinton trusts. A run through the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, released by WikiLeaks (after likely theft by Russian state hackers), easily shows the nature and extent of Abedin’s influence.
When ex-President Bill Clinton’s paid speeches scheduled near his wife’s presidential campaign announcement threaten to become a problem, it’s Abedin who raises the issue with everybody involved, and offers to push for a rescheduling.
When HRC (as Mrs. Clinton is referred to in most of Abedin’s correspondence) is considering setting up delicate political meetings with potential rivals VP Joe Biden and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Abedin conveys Clinton’s feelings on timing to the rest of Clinton’s staff.
When top staffers are workshopping a series of tweets to be sent out in Clinton’s name on Martin Luther King Day, it’s Abedin who leads the discussion.
Whether it’s discussion of how to handle New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inquiries for access, or a draft response to a letter from Ralph Nader, or an alert about leaked data from an upcoming CNN poll, Abedin’s at the center of the email chain.
But it’s that centrality that has now landed her in a difficult situation. Thousands of emails related to her work have turned up on a computer she shared with Mr. Weiner, who’s under investigation for allegedly exchanging sexually charged messages with a 15-year-old girl.
Abedin has reportedly said she does not know how the emails got there. Given the large number, it’s possible they are not physically on the laptop itself but in cloud data storage once shared by the couple. For the FBI, the question is whether any of those emails contain classified information, or whether they were intentionally concealed from previous investigations.
It’s possible the stash of communications is duplicative and otherwise benign. It’s possible there are problems for Clinton somewhere in the messages. But their mere existence is the biggest headache for the Clinton campaign right now. Their appearance has energized the Trump campaign. In the absence of further word from the FBI, opponents can speculate about the worst possible interpretations of the data with little fear of contradiction.
“Thank you Huma. Good job, Huma,” said Trump on Monday on the campaign trail.
A murky future
Abedin, once a fixture at Clinton’s own appearances, has disappeared from the physical campaign. Officially, she’s taking time off to let things clear up and will resume travel sometime in the next few days. It’s unlikely she’d quit or be fired in the next few days simply because that might appear to be an admission of guilt or weakness with the election only days away.
And Abedin already faced some controversy. Much of the past criticism aimed Abedin’s way has focused on her Muslim religion and heritage. In 2012 Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann wrote the State Department inspector general charging that Abedin had “murky” ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Washington Post editorial page judged that a “smear” – a “baseless and paranoid” assertion.
But more credibly, Republicans (and some Democrats) have questioned an arrangement where Abedin worked at the State Department and at a global consulting firm named Teneo at the same time.
A special government exemption authorized this dual employment. But one of Teneo’s co-founders is Doug Band, an ex-staffer for President Clinton who’s pushed for government meetings and other favors for Clinton Foundation donors. That’s raised allegations that Abedin might be involved in the “pay for play” business.
Clinton has stuck by her aide to this point. In the past, Abedin seemed a sure bet to win the post of chief of staff or some other top job if Clinton wins the election (itself far from a sure thing). Does that assumption still hold? The eventual outcome of the new email investigation likely holds the answer to that question. It’s quite possible she’d be a distraction that could complicate Clinton’s efforts to get any sort of agenda through Congress.
“Given the level of suspicion that a substantial portion of the electorate has about Hillary Clinton, why give them more of an excuse [to dislike her]?” says Professor Baker.