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Why Donald Trump brought up Sidney Blumenthal at the second debate

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Seeking to rebut Hillary Clinton's attacks on him for spreading the birther lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, Donald Trump sought to divert the blame to another source: longtime Clinton loyalist Sidney Blumenthal. The Clinton campaign, Trump alleged, started the birther meme, and spread around imagery of Obama in traditional Somali garb, in what he claimed was a vicious bit of race-baiting — at the instigation of Blumenthal.

This is mostly wrong; the Clintons did spread that imagery and tried to deny it was racist, but there's no evidence the Clintons spread birther memes. But many viewers could be forgiven for leaving the conversation wondering: Sid who?

Blumenthal has been a subject of right-wing ire for decades now, but he's more recently come back to prominence after emails of his to Clinton were released as part of the State Department's dump of her emails. While he never served as a formal aide to Clinton during her time as secretary of state, the emails confirmed that Blumenthal stayed in close contact with Clinton, and she took his advice seriously.

Blumenthal was constantly sending advice on everything from European politics to climate change, as well as private intelligence from Libya — including memos related to the attack of September 11, 2012, when Islamist militants killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

And while Clinton has insisted the missives were "unsolicited," the emails show she regularly sought Blumenthal's counsel. In a reply to a missive from Blumenthal about the 2010 coalition negotiations in the United Kingdom, she wrote, "I shared your emails w Bill who thought they were ‘brilliant’! Keep ‘em coming when you can."

Blumenthal's emails to Clinton described then-House Minority Leader John Boehner as "louche, alcoholic, lazy, and without any commitment to any principle"; attacked the Tea Party for wanting to "divide the nation" until "it won't look or feel like America"; assailed his former employer, the New Republic, as a "preferred outlet for the highest level Likud/neocon propaganda"; forwarded a piece on the Koch Brothers by the New Yorker's Jane Mayer with the subject line "Yes, there is a vast right wing conspiracy"; sent Clinton a number of articles by his son, the anti-Israel journalist Max Blumenthal; and passed along a memo from his close friend and prominent Clinton ally David Brock describing a plan to impeach Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

To his detractors, this all feels familiar. Blumenthal's time in the White House in the late 1990s earned him a reputation on the American right as something like the first family's Rasputin, a vicious, mudslinging partisan who'd stop at nothing to defend Bill and Hillary Clinton. "Sid Vicious" was one common nickname; his own White House colleague Rahm Emanuel gave him the nickname "grassy knoll," owing to his penchant for identifying and decrying various conservative conspiracies against the president. Of course that guy would be involved in the email scandal.

clinton wars cover

(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

But Blumenthal is far more fascinating than this caricature makes him out to be. The one key thread running through all his work — his career as a journalist at the New Republic and the New Yorker, his time at the Clinton White House, his work on the Hillary campaign and as an outside correspondent during her time at State — is a desire to rebuild American liberalism in such a way that it could take on the post-Reagan right and win. Blumenthal is someone who saw the country's politics fundamentally transform in the 1980s and yearned for a liberal movement and a Democratic Party that was capable of adapting and defeating the New Right. He eventually concluded that the Clintons were the best hope for achieving that kind of transformation. His Clinton loyalism isn't a form of personal fealty. It's an allegiance born of perceived ideological and moral necessity.

Who, exactly, is Sidney Blumenthal?

sidney blumenthal shades Juana Arias/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Blumenthal during his time as a White House senior adviser. (Juana Arias/the Washington Post/Getty Images)

Sidney Blumenthal is a journalist and political adviser. He is probably best known for his time as assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton from August 1997 to January 2001, during which time he was deeply involved in Clinton's defense against impeachment charges brought by Republicans in Congress. He also served as an adviser on Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign.

Before joining the administration, he worked for decades as a political journalist, starting in Boston area alt weeklies before moving to Washington, DC, to work for, at various points, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker. After the Clinton administration ended he returned to writing, spending years as the Washington editor of Salon and then becoming a columnist for the Guardian.

Blumenthal is the author of several books, including The Clinton Wars — a mammoth, 853-page memoir of his time in the White House — The Permanent Campaign, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and most recently A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1849, the first volume in a planned four-volume biography of Lincoln, which is scheduled to be released next April.

He's also had a small side career in show business, serving as a consultant for the Robert Altman-directed, Garry Trudeau-penned HBO series Tanner '88, which tracked a fictional congressman's bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, and producing the films Max and Taxi to the Dark Side, the latter of which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

What was Blumenthal's writing like before he joined the White House?

Pat Caddell, the pollster for Jimmy Carter who was emblematic of the consultant class Blumenthal described, in 2011.

Gage Skidmore

Blumenthal was a prolific writer in his first decades as a journalist, with two books standing out as particularly illustrative of his interests and of where his career was headed.

The Permanent Campaign, released in 1980, argued that regional party bosses were being supplanted by a cadre of professional campaign consultants, using as examples the crop of then-new Massachusetts politicians (Barney Frank, Ed Markey, John Kerry) who won despite their lack of ties to the Irish Democratic machine.

A consequence of the increased power of campaign consultants was a blurring of the line between campaigning and governing, creating the titular "permanent campaign" dynamic. The decline of industrial-era bosses and rise of poll-driven consultants, Blumenthal argued, mirrored the broader transition in the economy from manufacturing to computing and information technology, "where white-collar workers outnumber blue-collar, computers are the archetypal machines, knowledge is a vital form of capital, much heavy industry is exported to the more dynamic Third World countries, and America becomes the home office of the world."

The book's predictions hold up remarkably well, both on politics and on the economy at large. Crucially, Blumenthal didn't view the permanent campaign dynamic as necessarily a bad thing. "While many bemoaned the emptiness of image making and the lack of principle in polling, I saw these techniques as inevitable and neutral," Blumenthal writes in The Clinton Wars. He would go on to engage heavily in this variety of politics in his time at the White House, where image making was a key part of his portfolio.

rise of the counter-establishment

(Union Square Press)

The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, first published in 1986, is a history of the conservative movement, written at the height of its ascendancy. It was released when Blumenthal was writing for the style section of the Washington Post on the "conservative beat"; he had originally been hired for the national reporting team, but was moved to a more analytical part of the paper when it was revealed that he had worked as a speechwriter for Gary Hart's 1984 Democratic presidential campaign, while simultaneously giving Hart glowing coverage in the New Republic. Hart was, in many ways, the proto-Clinton, a modernizer who wanted the Democratic Party to embrace the new information economy and discard some of its liberal orthodoxies. Unsurprisingly, Blumenthal took a shine to both.

The basic argument of Rise of the Counter-Establishment is that the conservative movement emulated what it perceived as a loose but effective conspiracy of elite institutions — the Brookings Institution, the Ford Foundation, the New York Times editorial page — and so created a much more cohesive and effective counter-establishment — the American Enterprise Institute, the Olin Foundation, the Wall Street Journal editorial page — to combat it. "They imitated something they had imagined," Blumenthal wrote, "but what they created was not imaginary." The book, the conservative writer Tevi Troy notes, "provided a blueprint for what would be called the vast right-wing conspiracy" during Blumenthal's time in the White House. It laid out who, exactly, the enemy was that a new generation of Democratic politicians had to defeat.

How did Blumenthal get to know the Clintons?

Then-President Bill Clinton attends Renaissance Weekend at Hilton Head on January 1, 1998.

Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

Blumenthal first met Bill Clinton in 1987 at Renaissance Weekend, an annual convening of various luminaries in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The Democratic presidential primaries were mere weeks away, and after much consideration Clinton had opted not to run that cycle. In Clinton Wars, Blumenthal remembers the then-governor being remarkably candid about his ambition for the office, but Blumenthal recalls being won over by the fact that Clinton was reading William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged, a then-new, now-classic sociological work on deindustrialization's effect on inner cities, particularly isolated poor black communities. "After a few days' exposure to him," Blumenthal writes, "my initial impression of a young man in a hurry was evolving and deepening … He was a charismatic if loquacious speaker who had an easy facility with the arcana of public policy."

Blumenthal wound up touting Michael Dukakis heavily in that election cycle, leading Christopher Hitchens to write with a mixture of amazement and disdain of his "ability to put a radical shine on the most wretched Democratic nominees." But in 1992, he was sympathetic to Clinton, writing a cover story in the New Republic (to which he'd returned from the Post) titled "The Anointed," which touted him as the frontrunner, a visionary beloved of party elites capable of reviving liberalism in the post-Reagan era.

Clinton, Blumenthal writes, was part of a group of Democrats interested in "rethinking … the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party"; Blumenthal calls this project "the Conversation." He favorably compares Clinton to Dukakis (a "mere technocrat") and his 1992 rival Bob Kerrey ("bereft of much of a rationale beyond his biography"), who were both, Blumenthal is eager to note, not part of the Conversation. They weren't in the in-crowd, they didn't know the right people, and they weren't policy savants like Clinton. They weren't trying to remake liberalism the way Blumenthal thought it needed to be remade. But Clinton — like Hart before him — was.

Critics alleged that the distinction was more personal than it was ideological or substantive. "Blumenthal has yet to analyze, however, his own role in 'The Conversation,'" Jacob Weisberg wrote in the New Republic a year later. "Most of those quoted in his story are not just sources but long-standing personal friends. And he sees his advocacy journalism as an extension of that friendship."

By Blumenthal's telling, he hadn't fully been won over when "The Anointed" was released. His "road to Damascus" moment, according to Clinton Wars, came after the story went to press, when the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke just before the New Hampshire primary. Clinton was slipping once the allegations of an affair emerged, and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas was looking like the frontrunner. "But then in Dover," Blumenthal writes, "in a bandbox of an Elks lodge, I watched Clinton lift himself back to political life … His performance, upon which the fate of his entire campaign depended, was the most electrifying political moment I had witnessed since I was a boy in the Chicago Stadium," where Blumenthal had seen John F. Kennedy speak in 1960.

How did Blumenthal write about Clinton in his first term?

Bosnian Muslim refugees flee Srebrenica in a United Nations truck on March 31, 1993. Blumenthal attacked Clinton's slow response to the ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs.

Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Early in Clinton's first term, Blumenthal, by then at the New Yorker, was often deeply critical of the president, who clearly, in Blumenthal's eyes, was not living up to the promise he had identified in "The Anointed." A piece in January 1993 described a chaotic transition process with "the sort of murderous atmosphere that had led to the assassination of James Garfield by a disgruntled job seeker." A May piece lambasted Clinton's unwillingness to take military action to stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, declaring, "There are few things more dangerous to a President's and a nation's credibility than the suggestion of commitment without putting force behind it."

As the term progressed, Blumenthal's coverage grew ever more positive. Clinton was, in Blumenthal's view, growing into the effective liberal modernizer Blumenthal always thought he could be. In January 1994, Blumenthal published a piece evaluating Clinton's first year, based on a long interview with the president. While Blumenthal wrote that Clinton "had the worst first week of any President since William Henry Harrison," he overall paints a glowing portrait of the leader who pushed through a controversial budget plan, the Brady Bill gun control measure, and NAFTA. Clinton, Blumenthal reported, "feels he has gained a grasp of his office and its powers."

Paula Jones

Paula Jones attends President Clinton's deposition in her sexual harassment suit against him on January 17, 1998.

Jamal A. Wilson/AFP/Getty Images

A piece in June on Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit against the president dismissed it as an unsubstantiated far-right witch hunt. Scandals like Jones's, he argued, were "destructive of all partisanship — partisanship in the sense of vigorous public combat about competing visions of society … In the tabloid haze, public life evaporates."

Behind the scenes, Blumenthal introduced Clinton to Tony Blair, then an up-and-coming British politician whom Blumenthal profiled for the New Yorker before his election as prime minister. Blair, like Clinton, faced the challenge of modernizing his nation's left party in the wake of an iconic and transformative conservative national leader (in his case, Margaret Thatcher), a challenge that Blumenthal found intellectually invigorating. Later, in the White House, Blumenthal would take a keen interest in developing the pair's trans-Atlantic "Third Way" model as a coherent ideology and approach to left politics.

Blumenthal gained a reputation as the most pro-Clinton member of the Washington press corps. To his fans, this was perfectly normal, a continuation of a long tradition of DC journalists developing close relationships with the White House. "George Will consorted with Ronald Reagan, to no detriment to his career," Rutgers historian David Greenberg wrote in his review of Clinton Wars. "David Frum cashiered his service as a speechwriter to the incumbent into a best-selling book, The Right Man — only to return to writing pro-Bush pieces." But to his critics, Blumenthal was doing the administration's job for them. When he finally joined the White House in 1997, his former employer, the New Republic, asked whether he'd "get his back pay."

This is a lot of '90s history to take in. Can we lighten the mood by delving into a ridiculous DC feud to which Blumenthal was party?

This Town by Mark Leibovich

Blue Rider Press

Of course. In addition to his journalistic, political, and film production careers, Blumenthal is a playwright, authoring, most notably, This Town, which was set in the White House press room — where, per Blumenthal's summary in The Clinton Wars, "a small pack of archetypal, frustrated journalists compare their respective speaking agents and fees while projecting their anxieties onto the president and his staff, who are being unhelpful in advancing their careers." The reporters then go on to invent a sex scandal involving the White House dog. Blumenthal brags in his memoir that the play was staged at the LA Theatre Works and the National Press Club in DC.

The play caused a minor bit of trouble for New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich when his 2011 book on DC political culture, This Town, was in progress. Leibovich writes in the book that when Blumenthal caught wind of the project, he sent Leibovich's editors an email with the subject line "Re: Mark Leibovich: Potential Plagiarism Problem." Here's Leibovich's account of the correspondence:

Blumenthal, whom I think I have met once, began the email by demanding that I acknowledge that he "wrote a widely produced and reviewed satirical play, entitled 'This Town," on the Washington press corps … and that is the origin of the phrase and concept." He boasted that his play had been "prominently staged at the Washington Press Club." He concluded that "of course, titles, unlike trademarks, can't be copyrighted, but they shouldn't be plagiarized. Perhaps Leibovich is unaware of the problem. Perhaps he was born yesterday. But he should not open himself up to a silly plagiarism problem."

The key word here is "silly," though admittedly my credentials are suspect because I have never had anything "prominently staged at the Washington Press Club." Still, I feel bad to have inflicted hurt unto Blumenthal by overlooking a play that's been forgotten by nearly everyone, in "this" or any town. And by Sidney's own Wikipedia page too. So, in good faith, I will acknowledge that Blumenthal apparently wrote a play in the nineties called This Town, and future editions of this book will hereby be known as the New Testament.

What was Blumenthal's involvement in the Clinton impeachment?

Blumenthal after testifying before a federal grand jury on February 26, 1998.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Blumenthal had a wide portfolio in the West Wing, working on "matters as varied as the State of the Union speech, press freedom in Argentina and Turkey, the recent US visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a presidential bid to highlight the coming millennium," according to a 1998 LA Times profile. But he is best remembered for his role in helping Clinton weather the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment proceedings.

Blumenthal's most notable public role in the proceedings was as a witness, first at a federal grand jury for independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then at the actual impeachment trial in the US Senate. He was first called to testify by Starr in February 1998, one month after the Lewinsky scandal went public. He agreed to answer any and all questions about his contacts with the press, but declined to answer questions about his private conversations in the White House, as the Clinton administration was claiming that executive privilege exempted aides from having to testify on such matters.

Blumenthal was asked if he had been digging up or disseminating dirt on members of Starr's staff so as to discredit his investigation into the scandal, and if Clinton had asked him to do so; he vehemently denied the accusations. "Ken Starr's prosecutors demanded to know what I had told reporters and what reporters had told me about Ken Starr's prosecutors," he told members of the media upon exiting the courthouse. "If they think they have intimidated me, they have failed."

Starr called him back in June after a federal judge ruled that executive privilege could not prevent Blumenthal from testifying. Blumenthal recounts in The Clinton Wars being asked specific questions about the president's sex life in this appearance:

[The prosecutor] asked me, "Did you specifically ask the President whether he had received oral sex from Monica Lewinsky?" "No." "Did the President state anything to you about receiving oral sex from Monica Lewinsky?" "No." "Did you prepare the President and/or First Lady for responding to any questions that might arise because of the nature of the Lewinsky case about sexual addiction?" "No."

He also was asked about when he first discussed the Lewinsky story with the president and first lady. Blumenthal testified that Hillary had told him that "the President was being attacked, in her view, for political motives, for his ministry of a troubled person."

[President Clinton] said, "Monica Lewinsky came at me and made a sexual demand on me." He rebuffed her. He said, "I've gone down that road before. I've caused pain for a lot of people and I'm not going to do that again." She threatened him. She said that she would tell people they'd had an affair, that she was known as the stalker among her peers, and that she hated it and if she had an affair or said she had an affair then she wouldn't be the stalker any more.

In his book, Blumenthal writes that he believed Clinton really hadn't been involved with Lewinsky until shortly before the president admitted it publicly. He was disappointed in his friend, but felt that "[i]f Clinton's presidency were destroyed as a result of Starr's work — a partisan investigation targeting Clinton for alleged crimes, having failed for years to discover any wrongdoing and now invading his private life — the effect on the Constitution and American politics would be poisonous. The presidency would be shattered as an institution and the devastation to democracy would be irreparable." It wasn't a matter of defending Bill. It was a matter of defending the republic itself.

Even when he spoke to Hillary, the two "dispensed with the extraordinarily difficult personal problem at the start. As her friend, I wanted to respect her privacy. I said that whatever 'issues' anyone had, and hers was worse than anyone's, we had to think about the politics. That was her reasoning as well."

Blumenthal wound up being one of only three people deposed as part of the US Senate's trial of Clinton. The other two were Lewinsky and Vernon Jordan, a friend of Clinton's who helped Lewinsky find a job after her White House internship ended. The deposition was lengthy and included a few bizarre tangents, such as a portion when House prosecutor Rep. James Rogan (R-CA) asked Blumenthal to explain the plot of Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon.

But the crux came when Blumenthal was questioned about whether he had been tasked by the White House with spreading rumors about Lewinsky being a "stalker." He had already told the grand jury that Clinton told him Lewinsky was known as a stalker among her peers and resented the label. The question was whether Blumenthal spread this further in the press.

House prosecutor Lindsey Graham (R-SC), now a senator and presidential candidate, asked Blumenthal about a January 30, 1998, AP article by Karen Gullo, which wrote, "Little by little, ever since the allegations of an affair between President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky surfaced 10 days ago, White House sources have waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to portray her as an untrustworthy climber obsessed with the President."

Graham asked, "Do you have any direct knowledge or indirect knowledge that such a campaign by White House aides or junior staff members ever existed?" Blumenthal said no, and that senior White House staff "felt very firmly that nobody should ever be a source to a reporter about a story about Monica Lewinsky's personal life, and I strongly agreed with that and that's what we decided." Graham pressed him again on stories suggesting that Lewinsky was a stalker, and Blumenthal insisted, "I don't know about any White House sources on these stories."

Christopher Hitchens at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on May 1, 1999, shortly after the end of his friendship with Blumenthal.

Karin Cooper/Getty Images

Blumenthal's testimony didn't wind up having much bearing on the Senate's verdict, but it did create a side issue for him personally after his friend, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, signed a sworn affidavit saying that Blumenthal had called Lewinsky a stalker repeatedly in a March 19, 1998, lunch with Hitchens and his wife, seemingly contradicting the claim that he'd never called her a stalker in conversations with reporters.

Blumenthal pushed back immediately, issuing a statement saying, "My wife and I are saddened that Christopher chose to end our long friendship in this meaningless way." Blumenthal's friend and supporter Joe Conason, then at the New York Observer, contested Hitchens's statement by noting that the term "stalker" had appeared in press stories about Lewinsky at least 430 times before the lunch occurred, suggesting that Blumenthal wasn't a source and was simply discussing information in the public domain.

But the incident led to calls for Blumenthal's prosecution by the Justice Department on perjury charges, as well as a motion from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who would vote against Clinton's conviction, to have the Senate investigate "possible fraud on the Senate by alleged perjury in the deposition testimony of Mr. Sidney Blumenthal." Nothing came of the matter, and Hitchens eventually promised to withdraw his affidavit if Blumenthal were ever put on trial. The two remained distant for years, but reportedly reestablished contact shortly before Hitchens's death from cancer in 2011.

What other disputes with conservatives did Blumenthal engage in at the White House?

Then-House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), who spearheaded the impeachment of Bill Clinton, on September 28, 1998.

Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

While the impeachment was taking place, it was discovered that Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), one of the leading social conservatives in the House and the lead House manager for the impeachment hearings, had engaged in an extramarital affair in the 1960s. Many Republicans claimed Blumenthal was behind the story:

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) blamed the Hyde story on White House assistant Sidney Blumenthal. "I think this is Sidney Blumenthal's MO," LaHood said. "Blumenthal is a sneak. He's out to destroy people's careers, and he ought to be fired." Asked what proof he had, LaHood cited the "process of elimination."

…Blumenthal said in a statement last night that he "was not the source or in any way involved with this story on Henry Hyde." He said that he did not "urge or encourage any reporter to investigate the private life of any member of Congress" and that when asked in the past by reporters about any rumors, he told them "this was wrong, they shouldn't publish it."

At the very beginning of his tenure at the White House, Blumenthal had to deal with a nasty smear from the Drudge Report (which had not yet helped break the Lewinsky story). The site claimed that he had abused his wife and covered it up — an accusation that, by all accounts, is patently false. It retracted the claim the next day, but Blumenthal filed a $30 million defamation suit. Eventually, four years later, the suit was settled with Blumenthal paying Drudge $2,500.

During his time in the administration, Blumenthal was also a central figure in recruiting the unlikeliest Clinton loyalist to date: David Brock, the former American Spectator reporter and anti-Clinton muckraker who has since become a liberal stalwart, founding the media watchdog group Media Matters and the Democratic Super PAC American Bridge. After the Drudge story, Blumenthal called Brock to ask if he knew anything about who planted it.

"Without hesitation," Blumenthal writes, "he told me of conversations he had had with Drudge and others in which he had learned how Drudge had been prompted by a small group of right-wingers to post the libel about me on his website." They became friends, and Blumenthal became a counselor to Brock as he broke from the right, a move announced in a 1997 Esquire article titled "Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man." Politico's Thrush calls Brock's conversion "Blumenthal’s greatest coup — and the one that cemented his standing as a Clinton loyalist." Blumenthal had helped flip a key member of the counter-establishment he had chronicled a decade prior. He was putting his analysis of the right into practice, and getting major results.

What was Blumenthal's role in Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign?

Blumenthal stayed close to the Clintons through the 2000s, when he wrote Clinton Wars and served as Washington correspondent for Salon. In November 2007, he officially joined Hillary Clinton's primary campaign as a senior adviser. Publicly, his service on the campaign is best remembered for an incident in which he was caught driving 70 miles an hour, drunk, in a 30 mph zone in Nashua, New Hampshire. The serious charge — "aggravated drunken driving" — was pleaded down after the arresting officer was called up for service in Iraq, rendering a trial impossible.

But more consequential were allegations by Obama campaign officials (confirmed by some journalists' accounts) that he was involved in spreading some of the most vicious, race-baiting attacks of the primaries.

In Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report that Blumenthal was "obsessed" with the "whitey tape": a hoax originated by ex-CIA officer and ardent Hillary supporter Larry Johnson claiming there was a videotape of Michelle Obama railing against "whitey" at Trinity Church, which the Obama family attended in Chicago. (Johnson later added for good measure that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was present at the event.) It was a ridiculous rumor. "I mean, ‘whitey’?" Michelle later commented. "That’s something that George Jefferson would say."

But according to Halperin and Heilemann, Blumenthal and Hillary alike were convinced the tape was real. Blumenthal also, according to Occidental College political scientist Peter Dreier, sent around emails to "an influential list of opinion shapers" hyping links between Obama and Chicago developer Tony Rezko, Weather Underground militant turned education researcher Bill Ayers, and Frank Marshall Davis, a black left-wing poet whom Obama knew a bit when he was a teenager. One email read:

The record on Obama's fabled "judgement"? So how would he conduct himself in those promised summits without preconditions with Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, Chavez, Castro, and Assad? Let's look at how he did with Tony Rezko.

While the Clinton camp obviously disputes these reports, Blumenthal was nicknamed "Sulfur-Breathing Spawn of Hell" in the Obama campaign headquarters.

What was Blumenthal's role while Clinton was secretary of state?

Tyler Drumheller, former CIA European Division Chief

Blumenthal's source, Tyler Drumheller.


Blumenthal's purported role in the anti-Obama attacks wound up costing him a job at the State Department under Hillary. After reports surfaced that she was planning to bring him on as a counselor, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, "Hell no. If she hires him, I'm out of here." Senior adviser David Axelrod added, "Me too." Emanuel was left to deliver the bad news to Clinton, who accepted the verdict.

However, Blumenthal and Clinton stayed in contact during her time in office. Emails released by the State Department suggest he was constantly sending advice and analysis on everything from European Union internal politics to the 2010 British elections to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the rise of the Tea Party in the US. The emails also suggest that she enlisted his help in crafting speeches and handling the press. Most controversially, he passed along intelligence on the situation on the ground in Libya in 2011 and 2012, as the US was intervening in the country's civil war. He emailed her at least 25 memos on the country, many of which she passed along to her aide Jake Sullivan.

"From time to time, as a private citizen and friend, I provided Secretary Clinton with material on a variety of topics that I thought she might find interesting or helpful," Blumenthal wrote to Politico in a statement provided by his attorney. "The reports I sent her came from sources I considered reliable." Clinton characterized his correspondence as "unsolicited" but welcome. "He sent me unsolicited emails which I passed on in some instances and I say that that’s just part of the give and take," Clinton said, adding that she sometimes passed them along to "make sure [she wasn't] caught in a bubble" and only getting information "from a certain small group of people." The "unsolicited" part may be true for the Libyan intelligence, but she definitely sought Blumenthal's counsel while at State.

The source for most of Blumenthal's emails was a man named Tyler Drumheller, who was the CIA's division chief for clandestine operations in Europe. Drumheller was a vocal critic of the Bush administration, claiming that it ignored intelligence casting doubt on its claims concerning Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Blumenthal had championed Drumheller's story in his role as a journalist at Salon.

The Washington Post's David Ignatius reports that "A principal of Alphom" — the consulting firm where Drumheller worked before passing away in August — "told me that Blumenthal had approached Drumheller and said his friend Clinton was 'looking for information' about Libya." Leaked emails between Drumheller and Blumenthal suggest that the two worked closely on gathering intelligence in Libya. "A May 14, 2011 email exchange between Blumenthal and Shearer shows that they were negotiating with Drumheller to contract with someone referred to as 'Grange' and 'the general' to place four operatives on a week-long mission to Tunis, Tunisia, and 'to the border and back,'" ProPublica's Jeff Gerth and Gawker's Sam Biddle report.

According to the New York Times's Nicholas Confessore and Michael Schmidt, the emails to Clinton often contained information others in the State Department knew to be false. For example, the late Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens disputed a memo arguing that the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was about to make gains in parliamentary elections, when it in fact fared quite poorly. Another diplomat noted that the memo "confused Libyan politicians with the same surname."

Blumenthal also passed along information related to the Benghazi attack, sending Clinton an email the day after the attack blaming it on protesters angry about a vehemently anti-Islam YouTube video titled "The Innocence of Muslims," which was sparking worldwide protests around that time. Clinton passed the email on to Sullivan. But while this was the initial theory of the intelligence community, it proved to be false, as militants actually showed up specifically to attack the US mission in Libya. A day later, Blumenthal followed up with an email stating that Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group, had pre-planned the attack and used the protest as a cover, which contradicted the administration's public statements at the time. That's mostly right; Ansar al-Sharia members were involved but they weren't the only attackers, and the attack was one of opportunity, rather than being preplanned.

Benghazi attack STR/AFP/Getty Images

The US mission in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Confessore and Schmidt article also reported that Blumenthal was working as a consultant for the Constellations Group, which was pursuing business leads in Libya at the time. This was fervently denied by Blumenthal's friend Conason, who claimed in a Politico piece that "he was never paid a penny."

Adding to the controversy was the fact that Blumenthal was for several years earning $10,000 a month from the Clinton Foundation, including the years he was passing along these memos (he was also, and continues to be, affiliated with Brock's Clinton-aligned group American Bridge). Conason claims that Blumenthal's work for the foundation "chiefly involved conferences, speeches, and books relevant to the former president’s legacy" and did not "have any bearing on Libya matters." Blumenthal was also, in the period at question, working hard on his soon-to-be-released series of Lincoln biographies, taking up much of his time.

Blumenthal testified before the House Benghazi Committee on June 16. He has asked the committee to release his full testimony, complaining that numerous leaks that given the public a misleading impression of the proceedings. The questioning reportedly focused on Blumenthal's ties to David Brock and Media Matters, and allegations that he and Clinton coordinated to have Brock's groups rebut criticisms of her Libya policy.

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