How Hillary Clinton's Optics Problem Could Hurt Her and Her Party

Appearances of conflicts of interest don't seem to faze Democratic nominee

Hillary Clinton should start announcing now what rules she'd put in place to avoid conflicts of interest in a potential Clinton administration, Jonathan Allen writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Hillary Clinton doesn’t give a damn about political optics — and that could hurt her and her party if she wins the presidency.

It’s a recurring theme in her public life that is thoroughly reinforced by one chain, in particular, among the thousands of emails pilfered from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account and released to the public by WikiLeaks.

The thread in question reveals a weeklong battle by campaign manager, Robby Mook, to get former President Bill Clinton to cancel a planned speech to the powerhouse Wall Street bank Morgan Stanley.

At the time, in the early months of 2015, Hillary Clinton was preparing to launch her campaign, and her husband’s speech was on the calendar for a few days after her target announcement date. The political risk was evident to Mook, as it should have been to anyone paying attention to the broad and deep national antipathy toward both institutions and bankers since the 2008 financial collapse.

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On March 7, 2015, he sent a message to Podesta, asking him to lobby Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, to cancel the Morgan Stanley speech and others like it: “We’d like to lock in the 12th [of April] for rolling out planning phase. Can you ask Tina to yank WJC's paid stuff?”

To Mook — and, by implication, Podesta — the speech was a looming unforced political error.

Hillary Clinton didn’t see it that way. The Clintons made millions of dollars giving speeches, and she obviously doesn’t believe that she’s corrupt. From her perspective, the danger of criticism was not a good enough reason for her husband to cancel the appearance.

As the emails show, she pushed back hard — and at least one of her aides thought she’d be furious if she believed the ask had come from her own campaign.

In a flurry of messages on March 11, 2015, Mook informed a small group of his colleagues that the speech would be canceled.

Huma Abedin, the campaign’s vice chairwoman and the aide closest to Hillary Clinton, wrote back, asking “Did you ask them to do that?” Mook replied that Podesta had made the request.

Abedin’s response, using Hillary Clinton’s initials, was telling.

“HRC very strongly did not want him to cancel that particular speech. I think if John is getting involved in this scheduling matter, he must feel strongly,” Abedin wrote. “I will have to tell her that WJC chose to cancel it, not that we asked.”

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She has a close relationship with Morgan Stanley executive Tom Nides, who served as her deputy secretary at the State Department, and would become a key fundraiser for the campaign. That may or may not explain why this “particular speech” mattered to her more than others. That Hillary Clinton would have been angry about her own team pressuring her husband not to give the speech is revealing in its own right.

In a follow-up, Mook laid out his concern that Bill Clinton’s speech would hamstring his wife from the opening days of the campaign.

Hillary Clinton was unmoved.

“HRC is reiterating her original position,” Abedin wrote six and a half hours later. “She does not want him to cancel.”

Mook pressed his case again.

“I know this is not the answer she wants, but I feel very strongly that doing the speech is a mistake. … It will be three days after she’s announced and on her first day in Iowa, where caucus [goers] have a sharply more negative view of Wall Street than the rest of the electorate,” Mook wrote back.

Hillary Clinton finally relented, apparently based on the belief that her husband agreed.

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The peek behind the curtain into her reluctance to sacrifice her husband’s speech in the name of her presidential aspirations is a reminder of Clinton’s stubborn approach to political optics. She just doesn’t care that others will criticize her over the appearance of conflicts of interest — or really on any other matter. She’s even been known to say that she knows she’s not bombing the right targets if she’s not taking incoming fire. Most politicians — including the ones she’ll need in Congress — prefer to avoid political blowback.

If she wins the presidency, her willingness to accept risk may well factor into lawmakers’ thinking about whether they'll want to follow her into battle. They tend to care a lot about political optics. That’s how they keep their jobs.

One thing Clinton could do to help herself: Start announcing now what rules she’ll put in place to avoid possible conflicts of interest in her administration. That would show she cares about optics and give lawmakers more reason to believe she won’t walk them into political oblivion.

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. 

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