On Monday, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin announced that she was separating from her husband Anthony Weiner. The cause of the split: a third sexting scandal, revealed by the New York Post, in which Weiner sent graphic photos of himself lying next to his sleeping toddler son.
The political press went bananas with the story. News of the Weiner-Abedin breakup led the home pages of the New York Times, CBS News, CNN, and just about everywhere else you looked (including Vox). "HUMA-LIATION," ran Fox News’s headline. The Washington Post explained "11 ways to think about the Weiner-Abedin split."
Anthony Weiner's texts cast a new cloud over Hillary Clinton's campaign https://t.co/fB8FaVZhAF— The New York Times (@nytimes) August 30, 2016
The story has the ingredients for a media feeding frenzy — including a politician’s fall from power, lewd sexual messages, and the frenetic pace of New York City’s tabloid culture. And, of course, Abedin isn’t just any old Clinton campaign staffer — she’s widely recognized as Clinton’s righthand woman. But does that really make Weiner's sex life relevant to Clinton's presidential campaign?
Who is Anthony Weiner, and why is he at the center of 2016 presidential campaign coverage?
Weiner is in some ways a strange figure to be at the center of a national controversy around the 2016 campaign.
He resigned from his congressional seat in 2011, five years ago. His 2013 New York mayoral bid, torpedoed by his second sexting scandal, ended with a miserable fifth-place finish. He currently holds no elected office or political power, and mostly is seen gabbing on Bill Maher or other late night shows.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way: Back in the oughts, Weiner was building up a strong reputation as quickly rising New York politician. (He was popular in the south Brooklyn congressional district that reelected him seven times.)
Weiner was also becoming a national name. A physically fit hockey player who liked talking tough, Weiner made his name on cable news as a liberal bomb thrower — a kind of answer to the alpha-male Fox News cable talking heads that had dominated the airwaves. He was putting a proud, combative face on left-wing politics.
His persona was something of an extreme version of his first boss in politics. Weiner began as a congressional aide to powerful New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. Schumer, too, used the outside game to boost his national recognition, courting the press and appearing frequently on TV.
Weiner’s marriage to Abedin elevated him to the higher reaches of the Democratic Party; Bill Clinton officiated their wedding. It seemed like he was getting the party’s blessing — and that there was no ceiling for his political ambitions. It also put a target on his back.
How the first Weiner bomb went off
Weiner’s first big undoing came in May 2011.
The crisis began when Weiner accidentally tweeted a photo of a bulge in his underwear, sending a link of it to a 21-year-old college student in Washington State.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Weiner spent several surreal weeks saying he couldn’t confirm or deny if it was his underwear in the photo. Weiner said he couldn’t say "with certitude" if the underwear was his.
In one exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, worth rewatching just for the sheer brazenness of his lying, Weiner floated the possibility that he’d been hacked because his last name was Weiner:
WEINER: I can tell you this: Photos can be manipulated to look like something else. We’re going to try to get to the bottom of this. This has turned into an international whodunnit. What it really was, I think, was a prank. I’m treating it like a prank and trying to get back to work I’m trying to do. I understand you’re trying to pursue the story.
BLITZER: Well, we’re just trying to resolve this once and for all. You would know if this was your underpants, wouldn’t you?
WEINER: … I’ve said it the best I can: We’re going to try to get to the bottom of this. But I just want to caution you: Photos can be manipulated.
That June, the conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart posted another photo of Weiner — this time, of Weiner posing shirtless in front of a mirror. It was impossible to deny.
"I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters, and the media," Weiner said at a press conference. "To be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it."
Weiner refused to resign initially, but the pressure from his colleagues became unrelenting. Unlike his old boss Schumer, Weiner was not enormously popular with his colleagues, who saw him as a brash show horse. Plus, he was a favorite conservative target, having built his reputation on MSNBC.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for him to step down. ("When you are this self-destructive, there is obviously something deeper going on with you," one Pelosi adviser told the New York Times.) Weiner eventually resigned after President Barack Obama suggested that he should.
All of this political infighting, the fact that the party's big wigs were actively involved, and the fate of a rising Democratic star gave the press a legitimate reason to cover Weiner's sexts. The media may have jumped at the titillating aspects of Weiner's demise. But they at least had a plausible public service explanation for their wall-to-wall coverage of the scandal.
A comeback gone terribly wrong
Weiner began crawling back a few years later when he entered the 2013 New York City mayoral race.
The entrance was the culmination of a long campaign by Weiner to rehabilitate his public image. He and Abedin posed for a front-page spread on the cover of People magazine with their son Jordan. "I feel like a changed man," Weiner said.
Weiner faced a barrage of criticism at first, but the uproar over his earlier controversy seemed to be ebbing. Weiner, a documentary about the mayoral race released earlier this year, suggested that the campaign had turned a corner and moved beyond the controversy. At one point it looked like he might actually have a shot at winning — one poll put him in first place.
Then came the second wave of sexting revelations. A 22-year-old woman named Sydney Leathers revealed that Weiner had sent her sexts under the alias of "Carlos Danger." This time, it wasn’t just Weiner’s boxers — his whole penis was bared (and picked up by the international press).
The sexts were endlessly derided as making Weiner look like a "freak," as John Oliver, Republican lawmakers, and others put it. ("What’s wrong with you?," MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell asked him on the same network that had catapulted him to fame, before encouraging Weiner to seek psychological help.) Bill Maher read Weiner’s sexting exchanges on-air.
Several of his campaign staffers quit in protest. Public opinion firmly turned against Weiner, and he limped meekly to a nearly last-place finish in the race.
Again, though, there was a legitimate, if stretched, justification for unending Weiner coverage — it was directly relevant for the future leader of America's biggest city. After Weiner went down to defeat, though, there was only one arguably plausible reason for remaining relevant to the public eye: his wife.
Why Huma Abedin is seen as the center of Hillary-world
As Weiner’s star faded, his wife Huma Abedin’s had continued to rise.
Abedin is a longtime loyalist to Hillary Clinton. She started her political career as an intern to Clinton in the East Wing.
In a profile titled "Hillary’s shadow," Politico detailed how Abedin rose up through the ranks of Hillaryworld to become Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department. The piece makes clear that now there are few staffers with more direct access to Clinton than Abedin on the campaign trail:
"For all intents and purposes, (Abedin is) No. 3 on the campaign, after [campaign chairman John] Podesta and [campaign manager Robby] Mook," explained a Clinton campaign aide …
Clinton and Abedin, according to top officials who worked with them at the State Department, also share a visible bond that comes from having spent the majority of the past two decades side by side.
"With the miles and days on the road, you become family," said Phil Gordon, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, who worked closely with Abedin at the State Department."Hillary Clinton has seen her grow over the past 20 years. The two of them have probably spent more time with each other than with their families."
As a result, Abedin has also been at the center of many of Clinton’s most prominent controversies. Abedin testified in front of Congress about the attacks on the Benghazi compound, has had her emails subpoenaed as part of the Clinton server investigation, and faces accusations about serving as a go-between for the Clinton Foundation and the state department.
All of these stories have collectively elevated Abedin to a boogeyman on the right. And it’s allowed Republicans and the media to try to turn Abedin’s personal life — and, by extension, Weiner’s genitalia — into a campaign story.
Is the Weiner-Abedin scandal really a campaign story?
Almost immediately after Abedin announced her break with Weiner, Donald Trump rushed to explain how the latest sexting scandal was really an indictment of Hillary Clinton’s judgment.
"Huma is making a very wise decision. I know Anthony Weiner well, and she will be far better off without him," Trump said in a statement. "I only worry for the country in that Hillary Clinton was careless and negligent in allowing Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information. Who knows what he learned and who he told? It’s just another example of Hillary Clinton’s bad judgment. It is possible that our country and its security have been greatly compromised by this."
This statement reflects a trope, particularly among conservative media, that Abedin and Clinton are suspect because of Weiner’s sexual indiscretions.
But as Judd Legum notes at ThinkProgress, this is more than a little rich. Trump himself has been married three times, and has hired one campaign CEO who was charged with domestic violence and another accused of attacking a reporter.
It’s also dangerous for another reason: Because it suggests that it’s legitimate to hold wives accountable for the infidelity of their husbands.
"Suggesting that Weiner’s conduct reflects poorly on Abedin and, by extension, Clinton, involves embracing a longstanding sexist trope — that a husband who cheats is a reflection of some deficiency in their spouse," Legum writes.
At Slate, Jim Newell makes a similar argument that Weiner's penis can't be plausibly recast as a "campaign issue," noting that Weiner's fall from grace should be riveting in its own right without the attempts to shoehorn it into being revealing about Clinton's candidacy.
"There’s a horserace out there, and all of us saps are here watching it," Newell writes. "But not everything under the sun has to be fed into it, and a scandal on one side does not require an equal and opposite scandal to be manufactured for the other."