2015 was the year of wars, The Donald, nuclear deals … and Hillary Clinton’s emails. The former secretary of state has emerged as the single most likely person to become America’s 45th president — and the tens of thousands of emails that were sent to her or written by her during her tenure as secretary of state provide a unique insight into how she grappled with the job, and her evolution as a public figure.
Even if, like her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, you’re fed up with Clinton’s “damn emails,” you’ll still have to sit through another month of email releases. In 2015, the State Department released 24,436 emails, including the latest tranche on New Year’s Eve. More emails will be released this week and later this month to meet the deadline set by a federal judge to release all of the estimated 30,000 pages by the end of January 2016.
If Clinton was hoping to protect her privacy by opting for a private server, the move backfired. Rarely has the correspondence of a powerful politician become public so soon after the person left office. Some details we’ve gleaned from the emails are quirky, from Clinton’s apparent inability to operate a fax machine to her love for New York state apples. In the latest release, the most interesting email is a flowchart typed up by one of her senior advisors, Philippe Reines, about who gets priority to jump into the secretary’s limo — in essence, it’s the key to the relationships the secretary has with her close aides.
Having covered the State Department for the BBC during Clinton’s tenure, I was mostly intrigued by the context in which some of the lighter emails had been sent: Where was she when she was asking for the apples? Who was trying to send her a fax in this day and age — and why?
So I went back to put some of the pieces together and find the connection between the human side of some of the emails and the high-powered world in which they were sent. The correspondence provides a look into Clinton’s evolution not only as secretary of state but also as a person as she learns to manage a large bureaucracy and juggle a multitude of international crises while dealing with more mundane needs.
The beginning: cabinet meeting drama
As with every transition, it took a few months for members of the Clinton team to get their feet under their desks at the State Department. From my conversation with some of her staffers, I know that “Who do you call to get a printer installed?” was a question one of them was wrestling with at the time
Clinton was also settling into the job of secretary of state, and her inbox was inundated by management emails, letters of recommendation, and résumés. Meanwhile, she was still working out her own place within the administration — and worried she was being left out of a team headed by her former political rival and now boss, President Barack Obama.
From: H <HDR22@clintonemail.com>
To: Valmoro, Lona J; Huma Abedin <Huma@clintonemail.com>
Sent: Mon Jun 08 05:52:59 2009
Subject: Cabinet mtg
I heard on the radio that there is a Cabinet mtg this am. Is there? Can I go? If not, who are we sending?
The cabinet meeting was to discuss the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus, designed to counteract the deep recession that had hit the United States the previous year. Only agencies that had received recovery money were invited to attend. The State Department had not, but was invited to send a representative, so Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy went along.
It wasn’t the only time that the leaders of the world’s most powerful country got tangled up in scheduling difficulties. Later that same week, Clinton showed up for a meeting that had been cancelled.
From: H [mailto:HDR22@clintonemail.com]
Sent: Friday, June 12, 2009 10:22 AM
To: Valmoro, Lona J; Abedin, Huma; Sullivan, Jacob J
Subject: No WH mtg
I arrived for the 10:15 mtg and was told there was no mtg. Matt said they had “released” the time. This is the second time this has happened. What’s up???
Sarah Farnsworth, a senior advisor to then National Security Advisor Jim Jones, was the point contact at the White House for the Clinton team. But she was out of the office on June 12, 2009, causing the scheduling slip-up. It also turned out that these specific Friday meetings were no longer a regular occurrence, so they were included in the schedule on an ad hoc basis from then on.
It took another few months for these kinks in the system to be ironed out and for Clinton to feel more settled into her job and her place within the cabinet. There was a lot of bad blood between the Obama and Clinton camps, and it never really went away. Still, the president and his diplomat in chief did eventually make peace: Just a month after the scheduling slip-up, Clinton was already getting emails from Obama’s senior advisor, David Axelrod, telling her she was “terrific” on the Sunday shows.
Women’s rights: public and private action
Clinton made women’s and children’s rights a key component of her agenda at the State Department — but she also kept an eye on individual cases. She oscillated between private and public action. For example, she had a quiet private conversation with Saud al-Faisal, then Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, in May 2011 to press the need to release women who had been arrested for driving, and she eventually made a public comment in support of the women. In her emails, she writes about a young Yemeni girl who had been married at age 10 and took a taxi by herself to a court to ask for a divorce, which the judge granted.
From: H [mailto:HDR22@clintonemail.com]
Sent: Friday, August 28, 2009 4:39 PM
To: Verveer, Melanne S
Subject: Noori Ali
Do you recall Noori Ali(?), the ten year old Yemeni girl who got herself divorced? I met her at the Glamour awards last year. There was a CNN story last few days about how unhappy she is, still living at home, not attending school and quite angry that her life is not better. Is there any way we can help her? Could we get her to the US for counselling and education?
Verveer followed up with an email with some more details, to which Clinton replies, “I hope there’s something we can do. Let’s discuss soon.”
But not everyone was a fan of Clinton’s efforts to include women’s rights on the agenda. In May 2010, senior advisor Reines sent Clinton this email: “I for one loved that you finally called out the ogrish males on your staff who roll their eyes at womens issues and events But fyi I’m pretty sure I saw [redacted] roll their eyes at the very moment that you were obviously referring to them. They just don’t get it.”
Reines was probably trying to gain some credit with his boss, but eventually many of the male team members did get it. One career foreign service officer I spoke to at the end of Clinton’s tenure told me that the secretary had persisted in putting women’s rights on the table until it had become a built-in part of the conversation. On the road with foreign leaders, Clinton raised women’s rights as an economic issue, telling her counterparts that their economy could not improve if they left behind half the population.
In the case of the Yemeni girl, however, Clinton’s interest didn’t seem to have helped. When the secretary of state traveled to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in January 2011, she met with the girl, whose name is actually Nujood Ali. Her story has been written up in a book and made into a film. Unfortunately, Nujood’s father squandered the proceeds, and Nujood’s hopes for an education were dashed. She remains in war-torn Yemen.
Apples and iced tea on her mind
When you’re secretary of state or president, you don’t have the ability to just walk out to the supermarket and pick up some apples. Clinton, who by now has spent most of her life in places of high power, is surrounded by a small number of staffers who also help free up her brain space for more important things than figuring out what’s for lunch. In September 2009, Clinton asked one of her staffers about New York apples on a Sunday morning.
From: H <HDR22@clintonemail.com>
To: Jiloty, Lauren C
Sent: Sun Sep 20 09:31:46 2009
Will we receive them this Fall? How can I buy some for personal use?
From: Jiloty, Lauren C <JilotyLC@state.gov>
Sent: Sun Sep 20 09:36:35 2009
Subject: Re: Apples
I was just thinking about this last week. I’m going to order some tomorrow so that they’ll be in your office when you get back from unga. For some reason our ny supplier just stopped sending them after the new year. Ill set up an account with them to ensure we get regular deliveries again.
Clinton was already in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly session, perhaps reminiscing about her time as a New York senator. Lauren Jiloty had worked for Clinton in the Senate and knew what apples the former senator had on her mind.
Ten days later, on Sept. 30, 2009, Clinton chaired a meeting on the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution to combat sexual violence in armed conflict at 10 a.m. and then headed back to Washington for a meeting at the White House with Obama at 3 p.m. Five minutes before entering her meeting, she sent this email to her special assistant at the State Department, Lona Valmoro.
From: H <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 2:55 PM
Subject: Pls call Sarah and ask her if she can get me some iced tea.
If Clinton gets to the Oval Office, her iced tea will presumably always be waiting for her.
On the morning of Dec. 4, 2010, Clinton had returned from a whirlwind four-day trip, dubbed the WikiLeaks “apology tour,” that had taken her to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Bahrain. The visits started a few days after the whistleblower site released thousands of State Department diplomatic cables that contained candid descriptions of world leaders and other sensitive information, such as the names of sources, all of which could damage trust with America’s allies. In the cables, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was an “emperor without clothes” and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was “feckless.”
The State Department was in an upheaval trying to deal with the fallout and there was some resentment toward the Defense Department, where the leak started, so it’s perhaps no surprise that someone mentioned a not-safe-for work acronym to Clinton, who needed some help translating.
From: H <HDR22@clintonemail.com>
To: Mills, Cheryl D
Sent: Sat Dec 04 15:57:02 2010
Subject: Re: Conf Call [redacted]
And BTW what does “fubar” mean? And what does this whole thing from Gayle mean? Are you in the DR yet?
From: Mills, Cheryl D <MillsCD@state.gov>
Sent: Saturday, December 4, 2010 4:00 PM
Subject: Re: Conf Call [redacted]
Fubar is unprintable on civil email
Am on beach getting ready to join the wiki call – which feels a whole lot better w/ this view!
The CIA task force to deal with the fallout was called the WikiLeaks Task Force, with the acronym WTF aptly describing how most State Department officials felt about the debacle. FUBAR indeed.
Huma is everywhere
One email that has caught a lot of people’s attention: Huma Abedin, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, sent a missive from Clinton’s email address to Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s other deputy chief of staff and key policy advisor. The exchange started with an email from Clinton asking Sullivan when they could speak on the phone. But when Sullivan wrote he would ring her shortly, the reply came from Abedin, using Clinton’s email.
From: H <email@example.com>
Sent: Thursday, November 11, 2010 5:49 PM
Subject: Re: Let me know when we can talk.
Hey its huma
She can’t talk right now
She will call when she gets in car. What flight u on? Can u email me on other email?
Clinton’s email to Sullivan was sent immediately after she ended a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Regency hotel in New York. The secretary of state had gone into the meeting to express Washington’s disappointment with the Israeli decision to build 1,300 new housing units in disputed areas of East Jerusalem. The two leaders met for eight hours, but nothing was achieved or agreed.
Abedin would often hold on to Clinton’s handbag in between meetings or when Clinton had to give a speech, and she would have been keeping an eye out for urgent incoming emails on Clinton’s BlackBerry following, or perhaps even during, an eight-hour meeting. It denotes a level of trust between two women who have known and worked with each other since Abedin came to the White House as an intern in 1996. Abedin remains omnipresent in the 2016 campaign.
Abedin and others on Clinton’s team of close aides also served as a sort of in-house tech support for Clinton, who sometimes struggled with using emojis on her new BlackBerry or battled with fax machines. Consider this epic exchange with Abedin about trying to receive a fax on Dec. 23, 2009.
Abedin: can you hang up the fax line, they will call again and try fax
Clinton: I thought it was supposed to be off hook to work?
Abedin: Yes but hang up one more time. So they can reestablish the line
Clinton: I did.
Abedin: Just pick up phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up.
Clinton: I’ve done it twice now.
Clinton: Still nothing. Call Oscar if they need help. I’ll be out of pocket for an hour or so.
Why on earth is anyone sending a fax in the 21st century? That day, Clinton was at home for the Christmas holiday, and there she had a secure phone line for calls to world leaders and conversations about classified material. She was expecting classified documents, which cannot be sent by email, so they were being faxed on the secure line.
According to another email from Abedin, Clinton was expecting memos from, among others, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On Dec. 1, Obama had delivered his West Point address announcing the surge in Afghanistan, so exchanges on this topic and exchanges of memos with Gates and Holbrooke were a regular affair.
Unless you’re the president, you still have to deal with the tedium of technology and fax machines yourself when you’re at home for the weekend.
Clinton finds herself at State
One of the last email exchanges of Clinton’s tenure includes a reaction to her Benghazi hearing on Jan. 23, 2013, when Clinton briefly lost her cool with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) over his line of questioning about the events preceding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound there.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” she exclaimed, while raising her hands in exasperation. “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?”
Most reactions to her testimony from people close to her had been positive, judging from the flood into her inbox later that day. But her 2008 campaign strategist, Mark Penn, sent this reaction in the evening:
From: Mark J. Penn [redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 9:01 PM
The Republicans but not the American people have been obsessed with Libya and trying to pin the acts of terrorists on you. They have been playing this non stop on their cable tv.
But I don’t think the emotion in the hearing works to your advantage — looks more like they rattled you on something no one outside the crazy right blamed you for anyway.
I think you either let it lie and say I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said on this or if asked why so emotional you might explain that you were just frustrated with the apparent high level of partisanship on this issue — we should be pulling together here and not losing our focus on the fight against terrorism which has always been a bipartisan issue and focusing on the big questions that confront us. (This answer would drive the republicans crazy but I’d rather they talk about how you accused them of being partisan which everyone knows is true)
Clinton initially reacted to the email by forwarding it to her team and describing it as a “discordant note–just to keep it real.”
Sullivan, who had been a campaign advisor in 2008, replied that he disagreed because Penn’s analysis “repeats the same flawed assumption that underpinned his advice in 2008; namely, that being yourself is risky.”
Clinton replied with just one word: “BINGO!!”
If there’s one lesson Clinton learned during her time at the State Department, when she was above the fray of politics, it was that being herself paid off. She left Foggy Bottom with approval ratings at an all-time high.
In January 2013, her last month in office, I asked her whether she was popular because she had changed or because people finally saw her for who she was. She told me it was probably a bit of both. Either way, it allowed her to confidently dismiss the analysis of the architect of her last presidential run.
Needless to say, Clinton’s approval ratings have suffered since she dived back into domestic politics. And just because she learned to be herself at the State Department doesn’t mean she will be able to consistently apply that lesson on the campaign trail this year (though the contrast between her demeanor in 2008 and her style in 2016 bodes well for her).
Clinton is now in the next chapter of her career, and she’d prefer to leave her State Department archive behind her. But voters would be wise to take notice — Clinton’s emails provide a window into her evolution as a public figure. And the more of her emails we receive, the more we can fill out our portrait of her.
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