Just when the Clinton campaign believed the November 8 election was all but won, two familiar spectres have reared their heads. The first: Hillary Clinton’s private email server. The second: Anthony Weiner.
Since the FBI announced it was opening a new probe into the former secretary of state’s emails just days before the election, Hillary Clinton has eviscerated the FBI director’s handling of the probe as “deeply troubling”. Senior campaign staff meanwhile have mounted a strong defence of the Democratic nominee, denying any suggestion of wrongdoing.
Yet for some in the Clinton world, the new investigation feels less of an October surprise and more like déjà vu, particularly in terms of what both the email server and Mr Weiner say about the Clintons’ blind spots.
The problems around Mrs Clinton’s emails point to the Democratic nominee’s penchant for privacy and the scarcity of top aides who are willing to openly push back against her judgment. But the continued problems posed by Mr Weiner point to another feature of the Clintons’ world: the family’s stubborn loyalty to longtime associates, even when those people come with baggage and make life more difficult for them.
In the case of Mr Weiner, the associate in question is Huma Abedin, Mr Weiner’s estranged wife and Mrs Clinton’s longtime aide. Ms Abedin began working for Mrs Clinton as an intern in the White House, and has since followed her from the New York Senate to the State Department, and worked on the candidate’s 2008 and 2016 campaigns.
It was Mrs Clinton who first encouraged Ms Abedin to go out with Mr Weiner, then a rising star in the Democratic Party, in 2001. When the couple eventually married in 2010, former President Bill Clinton officiated, while Mrs Clinton delivered a toast in which she referred to Ms Abedin as her second daughter.
In summer 2011, though, Mr Weiner was forced to resign from Congress after it emerged that he had been sending sexually explicit photographs to women on Twitter. Two years later, he and Ms Abedin attempted to reboot his political career with a run for New York mayor — a bid that failed after it emerged that Mr Weiner had continued to exchange sexually explicit messages with other women.
This summer, Mr Weiner and Ms Abedin separated after it emerged he had sent yet another women a photo of his crotch with the couple’s young son sleeping in bed beside him. Soon after, allegations emerged that Mr Weiner had also been exchanging sexual messages with a girl in North Carolina who was just 15 at the time.
Mr Weiner has said he “repeatedly demonstrated terrible judgment” in his online conduct but added he was probably the “subject of a hoax” and provided an email in which the girl appeared to recant her story.
To investigate the charges, the FBI seized all of Mr Weiner’s electronic devices. The agency reportedly found the thousands of emails related to the private server investigation on Mr Weiner’s computer, which Ms Abedin had also used.
Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Mr Weiner as a “perv” and “a sleaze”, suggested that Mrs Clinton would be forced drop Ms Abedin.
“I wonder: is she going to keep Huma?” Mr Trump asked at a rally this weekend. “Huma’s been a problem.”
In private conversations, some Democrats voice similar thoughts, wondering if this is the year Ms Abedin, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, has finally become a liability — either through the continuing problems caused by Mr Weiner or through scrutiny over the aide’s role in the private server investigation.
While Ms Abedin has been a near-constant presence at Mrs Clinton’s side, particularly during the 2016 campaign, she was absent from the trail on both Saturday and Sunday, staying behind in New York as Mrs Clinton and other aides criss-crossed the state of Florida.
The latest development “starts to raise [the question] of whether they can bring her into a new administration”, admitted one former member of Mrs Clinton’s 2008 campaign and Bill Clinton’s White House.
However, he added that Mrs Clinton was unlikely to sever ties with Ms Abedin unless she was forced to. “No way she ever gets rid of her. Short of her [Ms Abedin] going to prison,” he said.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate minority leader Harry Reid, said the Clintons valued loyalty and Ms Abedin was “about as loyal as they come”.
“She’s done everything they want her to do for them over the years. She’s been there from the very beginning — starting as an intern. She’s the ultimate loyalist. If you read the WikiLeaks [emails], she is the ultimate body person doing everything that she can do to protect Clinton.”
Some Democrats suggested the new FBI probe would blow over as quickly as it emerged, especially once the agency provided more information about it.
Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a Democratic think-tank, noted that George W Bush had gone on to win the 2000 election just days after it emerged that he had once been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. “That was an October surprise,” Mr Bennett said. “This is some sort of weird processing thing . . . a tempest in a tea pot.”
Still, there are looming questions about Ms Abedin and her future. Asked on Sunday why Ms Abedin had failed to hand over Mr Weiner’s computer to authorities in the first place, Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta struggled to answer, except to say that Ms Abedin had “complied to the best of her ability” to turn any relevant electronic devices with State Department emails over to authorities.
“If proper authorities want to ask her questions, they will ask her questions,” Mr Podesta told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “But she’s been fully co-operative in this investigation.”