As the FBI continues to leak like a sieve, it might be helpful to look back at a time in our not-too-distant past when an FBI leak led to a presidential impeachment. Paul Glastris wrote that story in the Nov/Dec 2011 edition of the Washington Monthly.
As a reporter who was on the scene in Arkansas during the lead-up to the 1992 presidential election, Glastris saw up close and personal how the “vast right wing conspiracy” in that state was operating at the time. He reminds us that New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth published a front-page story about a failed real estate venture put together by Jim McDougal called Whitewater, implying that it was a sweetheart deal for the Clintons. Later, Gerth would admit that the story contained errors. But by then it was too late.
What Gerth got wrong set the stage for years of senseless investigations. His article inspired a mid-level functionary with the Resolution Trust Corporation, a temporary federal agency that oversaw the liquidation of failing S&Ls, to formally ask the FBI to open a criminal case. The FBI, finding the referral highly dubious, declined. But when the referral was later leaked to the Washington Post—ten months into Clinton’s presidency—it not only reignited the Whitewater story but gave respectable Washington license to take seriously conspiratorial charges that right-wing operatives had been pushing for months (Did Vince Foster, a partner in Hillary’s law firm, kill himself because he knew something damaging about her representation of McDougal’s S&L? Was David Hale, an indicted municipal judge in Arkansas, telling the truth when, to avoid prosecution, he claimed that Bill Clinton had muscled him into providing a loan to McDougal’s S&L?).
Over the following months, demands for the appointment of a special prosecutor for Whitewater came not only from the Republicans and the right wing, but from both the editorial pages at the Times and the Post. Eventually Clinton, much to his subsequent regret, relented. The rest—Ken Starr, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment—is history.
We can surely find ways that the current situation is different. But there is one important thing we can take from that story: it was the collusion between the leak and major publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post that led to the eventual impeachment of a president.
Over the last few months, we’ve watched too many in the press respond similarly to allegations about Hillary Clinton’s email and the operations of the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State. Much as reporters like Gerth bought into the Whitewater story, we’re witnessing something similar today, as Jesse Berney points out.
You start with the assumption that Hillary Clinton is corrupt.
After all, there have been whispers and accusations and investigations and allegations and scandals with ominous names like WHITEWATER and BENGHAZI for years. Even if you can’t describe exactly what she’s done wrong, there must be something to all these stories, right?
And if she’s corrupt, then we definitely need to investigate her. Virtually everything she does is suspect. Any mistake she makes can’t simply be an accident or a lapse in judgment; there must be some criminal intent behind it…
And when you investigate endlessly, you find evidence…
And with all that suspicious evidence, the conclusion is clear: Hillary Clinton is corrupt. And if she’s corrupt, we have to investigate her. And if we investigate her, we’ll uncover evidence. And if we find evidence, it must be suspicious. So she must be corrupt. So we have to investigate her.
That is why so many of us were insistent during the flurry of stories about the Clinton Foundation that it was important for the media to go beyond simply raising questions and start reporting the facts about the answers they found in their investigations. It is not only important for the public to have those facts, reporting on them is the way for the media to avoid being used as merely tools by nefarious characters.