Colin Powell: Hillary Clinton’s Officer and Gentleman

General's once-private emails help Democratic nominee against critics

Former Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) onstage at A Capitol Fourth concert at the U.S. Capitol, West Lawn, on July 4, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts)
Former Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) onstage at A Capitol Fourth concert at the U.S. Capitol, West Lawn, on July 4, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts)
Posted September 15, 2016 at 5:00am

A four-star general has come to Hillary Clinton’s rescue on the political battlefield.

Colin Powell finds Donald Trump deplorable and Clinton guilty of chronic “hubris,” according to leaked emails first published by BuzzFeed and The Intercept. But while the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of State hasn’t endorsed Clinton for president, he’s done more than that for her on issues of crucial importance to her campaign.

Powell made the case for her innocence in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist assault in a way that even she would not have dared to do in public. In a private email exchange with fellow former secretary of State Condi Rice, he laid blame for the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans mostly at the ambassador’s feet.  

“Benghazi is a stupid witch hunt. Basic fault falls on a courageous ambassador who thoughts [sic] ‘Libyans now love me and I am OK in this very vulnerable place,’” he wrote to Rice late last year. “But blame also rests on his leaders and supports back here. [State Department official] Pat Kennedy, Intel community, [State Department] and yes, HRC.”

“Completely agree,” Rice wrote back, affirming the idea that Stevens was first and foremost responsible for the American presence in a dangerous spot.

Clinton could never come out and say Stevens bore blame for the same reason that Powell only chose to say it in private: It’s unseemly to fault a man who died in service of his country. But it’s true that Stevens ran his own schedule, made his own threat assessments and ultimately decided to be in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Of course, terrorists are responsible for the murders of Stevens and his compatriots. But Powell, as much as anyone, is in a position to know how ambassadors operate and how culpability should be distributed. 

His verdict is perhaps more generous than Clinton’s own assessment, that she takes responsibility for what happened. It’s important to remember that Powell’s email to Rice was sent after Clinton’s testimony before the select committee on Benghazi — after her private email server was disclosed and after several other congressional panels had looked into the Benghazi attacks and took no action against Clinton.

Powell’s emails also make clear that he was infuriated that Clinton’s team wrapped him into the email story by saying he had advised her to set up a personal server — and that he thought she should have just come clean on the server when the story broke. But Powell’s own privately emailed words serve to at least muddy the case that Clinton’s instincts for privacy were unique.  

“I didn’t have a BlackBerry,” Powell wrote to Clinton when she asked him how he communicated, according to an email released by congressional Democrats. “What I did do was have a personal computer that was hooked up to a private phone line (sounds ancient). So I could communicate with a wide range of friends directly without it going through the State Department servers. I even used it to do business with some foreign leaders and some of the senior folks in the department on their personal email accounts.”

Much as Powell objects to being thrust into the middle of political debates over Benghazi and Clinton’s emails, his privately expressed thoughts — now in the public domain — are far more supportive of Clinton than anything he has said publicly. Even if he’s not sure he wants her to be president — and even if he resents her dragging him into the email affair — Powell’s instincts on personal email and his judgment of Benghazi make her look a lot better.  

Throw in his unstintingly harsh assessments of Trump, and Powell has made a pretty compelling argument that Clinton isn’t as bad as her critics charge, and Trump is worse than many of his adversaries say.  

All of it comes on the heels of the worst few days of Clinton’s campaign, as she tries to recover both physically and politically — from pneumonia, her spell on Sunday, her dishonesty about the pneumonia, and her ill-advised characterization of “half” of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”  

There couldn’t have been a better time for a four-star general to come to her rescue — even if he didn’t want to.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.