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What the resurfacing of Sidney Blumenthal says about Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a stop at Moo's Place May 22, 2015 in Derry, New Hampshire.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a stop at Moo's Place May 22, 2015 in Derry, New Hampshire.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Old Clinton hands don't fade away. They always resurface.

That's the case with Sidney Blumenthal, the Clinton scandal veteran and purveyor of opposition research who turned up in a trove of Hillary Clinton emails at the center of the House Benghazi Committee's investigation into the attack that killed four Americans in Libya in 2012.

As the New York Times first reported, Blumenthal sent Clinton a big batch of memos about the situation on the ground, many of which she forwarded to other State Department officials and many of which were deemed off-base by the agency's own experts. According to the Times, Blumenthal was, at the same time, advising associates who were trying to win business from the transitional Libyan government Clinton had helped install by pushing for a coalition war to oust Qaddafi.

His pet theories included a warning that the al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa would use American weapons to retaliate against the US for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Memo from Sid Blumenthal to Hillary Clinton.

The State Department

The emails, which were released Friday as part of a larger disclosure by the State Department, don't provide much texture to Clinton's decision-making on Libya or how she assessed the situation in Benghazi in real time. The real question is what was in the emails Clinton destroyed after determining unilaterally that they did not deal with government business. But the emails released by State do show that Blumenthal, who had no connection to the US government, acted as an unofficial adviser to Clinton on Libya — and that she sent her own aides to chase down his leads, no matter how implausible.

More saint than sinner

Blumenthal's ability to access Clinton when she was secretary of state is a reminder that it's damn near impossible to be excommunicated from Clinton's orbit, especially if one has been bloodied defending her and her family in Washington's political wars.

Even after President Obama promised to let Clinton pick her own team at State, the White House drew a line at hiring Blumenthal. That's because they suspected him of peddling the nastiest "opposition research" about Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary.

But he's seen much more as a saint than a sinner in a Clinton world that values loyalty above all other traits. That's why his proximity to Clinton didn't come as a shock to people in her inner circle.

He was among her most ardent and vicious defenders during the Clinton White House years. Back then, his aggressive tactics included digging into reporters, and he was frequently accused of pushing negative storylines about officials who investigated Bill Clinton. As a former reporter, he could be counted on to have a view of how to manipulate the press, and in the emails released Friday he appeared to take credit for placing a story by Craig Unger in Salon in an email to Clinton.

An email from Sidney Blumenthal to Hillary Clinton says "got done and published" in the subject line.

The State Department

He's a walking reminder of the bloodsport politics that defined the Clintons in the 1990s.

Longtime Clinton advisers say one her great strengths and weaknesses is that she seldom casts anyone aside. That means she gathers information from a vast array of sources. But it also means political players like Blumenthal who have burned through their goodwill with many other Washington figures can still gain influence through her.

Blumenthal, who wrote a book about his years as a White House defender called The Clinton Wars, stands out because he's well known in Washington and because he was emailing Clinton about Libya and Benghazi, the very topics at the center of Republican inquiries into Clinton.

Some of the dozens of emails Blumenthal sent Clinton on Libya and the Benghazi attack.

The State Department

But former advisers frequently send Clinton long memos on all manner of issues, from politics and communication to policy. She likes to absorb it all. In that way, and perhaps only in that way, her communication with Blumenthal is orthodox for her. And there's nothing wrong, per se, with him sending her memos. That said, she kept her longtime adviser working for her, against the will of the Obama White House, while he worked for the Clinton Foundation.

The New York Times, "Clinton Friend's Memos on Libya Draw Scrutiny to Politics and Business," May 18, 2015

Why Clinton won't cast him aside now

Now there's even more reason for her to hold Blumenthal close: he will appear before the Benghazi committee. If she cut him loose, he might be less inclined to keep her best interests at heart when testifying.

Clinton gave him a vote of confidence during a Tuesday press conference.

"He has been a friend of mine for a long time. He sent me unsolicited emails, which I passed on in some instances," she said. "When you're in the public eye, when you're in an official position, I think you do have to work to make sure you're not caught in the bubble and you only hear from a certain small group of people. And I'm going to keep talking to my old friends, whoever they are."

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