Before any of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s creepy sexting even came to light, his wife had attracted unwanted attention for her boss, Hillary Clinton.
Huma Abedin is a favorite target of Republicans. They accuse her of being a Saudi spy, a self-dealing insider, the mastermind behind a plot to hide Clinton’s email.
But the noise around Abedin was so often distorted by conspiracy theories that the public seemed to tune it out — until Weiner suddenly appeared back in the spotlight with the revelation of his most disturbing Twitter message yet: an illicit photo in which his son was a prop, sent privately to another woman. Abedin announced Monday that she and Weiner would separate.
Now, Clinton’s campaign finds itself unable to duck unwanted attention drawn to Abedin, a 40-year-old aide closer to Clinton than anyone else on her payroll.
Abedin, who has been referred to as Clinton’s “second daughter,” is the gatekeeper to the nominee. Even Bill Clinton sometimes can’t get to his wife without working through Abedin, who carries Hillary Clinton’s cellphone in her purse. Abedin’s imprimatur can be found all over Clinton’s world: on emails she sent to Clinton trying to explain how to use a fax machine, high-stakes diplomatic efforts in Libya (Abedin got hauled before the House committee on the Benghazi attacks for questioning) and the care and feeding of billionaire donors.
Yet Abedin almost never speaks publicly, meaning her work for Clinton is opaque to voters.
Operatives and pundits ascribe to her the motives that suit their own agendas. The media outlet that has most aggressively targeted her is the right-wing website Breitbart News, which first uncovered Weiner’s sexting. More recently, it has taken to suggesting Abedin is spying for Saudi Arabia and working to spread sharia law. Breitbart’s leader recently decamped from the outlet so he could run GOP nominee Donald Trump’s campaign.
The media attention erupting around Abedin right now, though, is not Breitbart’s making. It is the kind of spectacular staff drama the Clinton operation had been so good at avoiding during her presidential run over the last year and a half, the kind associated with previous campaigns of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
By contrast, Clinton’s current team is disciplined, tight-lipped and uncharacteristically dull.
Trump wasted no time pouncing after Abedin said she was separating from Weiner. Her announcement followed a New York Post story detailing an unsettling private message Weiner sent on Twitter last year, in which he tried to impress a woman with an image of his and Abedin’s toddler son sleeping alongside him — and with the outlines of Weiner’s genitals clearly visible through his underwear in the photo.
“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,” Trump said in a statement Monday. “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.”
Abedin’s and Weiner’s relationship has been strained since his second round of publicly revealed sexting sunk his mayoral bid in 2013. They scarcely saw each other amid the rigors of the presidential campaign, during which Politico noted Abedin was frequently seen without her wedding ring. Abedin is almost always within steps of Clinton, and Clinton is almost always on the road.
But that close proximity to Clinton — paired with Abedin’s upbringing in Saudi Arabia — has fueled the many conspiracy theories.
“Why aren’t we talking about Huma and her ties to the Muslim Brotherhood?” said Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, during a CNN appearance last week. “Why aren’t we talking about the fact that she was an editor for a Sharia newspaper?” That same day, Roger Stone, a longtime Trump insider, accused Abedin of being a “Saudi asset.”
Fact checkers at the Washington Post looked into the charges and found them to be “bogus.” The allegations stem from Abedin’s upbringing in Saudi Arabia and a staid academic journal her mother publishes that Islamic scholars say is decidedly not radical.
The accusations that Abedin is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the political organization that briefly gained power in Egypt after the Arab Spring but is also classified as a terrorist group by some countries, has been uniformly panned as absurd by experts who track and study such groups.
But the Clinton campaign has been unable to easily swat away some of the other charges that swirl around Abedin. She operates in that controversial nexus of Clinton’s government work and the Clinton family foundation. At one point while Clinton was secretary of State, Abedin was being paid both by the government and a consulting firm founded by one of the top executives at the foundation. During that time, it was not always clear whose interests she was representing — the public’s, the foundation’s, or her own.
Congressional Republicans have been investigating the arrangement for years. More recently, Abedin’s name has surfaced in emails disclosed as part of Clinton’s private email server controversy. They show her working to help donors and other foundation friends get access to Clinton while she was secretary of State.
Some inside the Clinton orbit acknowledge that has created some anxiety, particularly for the high-level operatives who joined it only as this election cycle got underway. They have worked determinedly to keep the staff’s profile low. The flamboyant advisors who in the past had been known to possess the power to rattle the entire operation with a few whispers in the candidate’s ear are gone. Though that’s not Abedin’s style, she also doesn’t need to play by the same rules that everyone else on the team does.
That much was clear when Abedin, a fashion aficionado and a style icon in her own right, was profiled in Vogue — for the second time. The story for the magazine’s high-profile September issue, which Abedin agreed to be interviewed for, came at a time when others in the campaign already wanted less attention on her, not more.
Now Abedin herself is asking the media to back off.
“During this difficult time, I ask for respect for our privacy,” she said in a statement Monday.
But as long as Abedin remains a vital part of the Clinton operation, her life is almost certain to remain very public.
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