10/18/2015 10:38 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2016

Hillary: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Whenever it appears that frontrunner Hillary Clinton has finally caught a break, along come reminders of the unexploded time-bombs that still lie waiting, just up the campaign trail. Take the email scandal (please). As Bernie Sanders pointed out during the CNN debate, in an uncharacteristic moment of courtliness, people are sick of it. The Republican use of it becomes more blatantly political by the day. So it's over, right?

Well, not quite -- because it's still not clear what exactly was legal or illegal, and who is vulnerable to prosecution for what. We do know, however, that this question is being actively pursued by the FBI.

As the New York Times reported Saturday, when President Obama went on CBS's 60 Minutes last Sunday and sought to downplay the email affair -- saying flatly that "This is not a situation in which American's national security was endangered" -- FBI investigators were not amused, since that is exactly the question that is still under investigation.

The White House quickly backed and filled, insisting that the president was not seeking to influence an ongoing investigation. But imagine if the FBI finds something that is potentially actionable.

Senior FBI officials still feel burned by the 2012 Petraeus affair, in which the former CIA director, David Petraeus, faced possible felony charges for providing classified information to his lover. In that case, the FBI recommendation for criminal prosecution was overruled by Attorney General Eric Holder and Petraeus was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges. Just as he did last week, President Obama was publicly been dismissive of Petraeus's culpability, which critics saw as a political fix of a criminal case.

To be clear, I don't think the evidence to date suggests that Clinton was guilty of anything worse than bad judgment. But the FBI may have a different view -- and so this scandal is not going away any time soon.

The risk is that during primary season, or even worse, during the general election, some tidbit is unearthed suggesting that there was a real security lapse. Or the FBI could recommend indictments of a Clinton underling, be overruled by the Justice Department, and the whole mess could leak into public view circa May or October.

Even more potentially damaging are the continuing reports of conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation and its assorted deals and favors done by Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state. Some of these deals merely involved pet charity projects of Bill Clinton; others involved ways for the Clintons or their allies to cash in personally.

Even if candidate Clinton is whistle-clean for the remainder the election, details of past deals are there to be investigated, like hidden items on a treasure hunt. Any number can play -- the Republican Party, other Democrats doing opposition research, and of course the press.

The Boston Globe reported another one in Sunday's paper.

As the Globe reported, Bill Clinton, beginning in 2007, had been pushing for a major initiative to modernize the health system in Rwanda, a nation ravaged both by HIV and by genocide. After his wife became secretary of state, $27 million was diverted from other nonprofit groups fighting HIV-AIDS so that government of Rwanda could launch Bill Clinton's pet project. The official who handled the deal, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby, a close protégé of the Clintons, subsequently joined the board of the Clinton Foundation, the Globe reported.

In this particular case, there was no personal gain. But there are others that resulted in business deals for allies of the Clintons, speaking fees, donations, or all of the above.

The most unsavory one reported to date was a uranium deal that in which Bill Clinton helped an investor gain a Kazakhstan mining deal that ended up giving the Russians increased control of US uranium. In that case, the investor, Frank Giustra, donated $31.3 million to the Clinton Foundation, and Bill Clinton personally received a $500,000 honorarium for a speech in Moscow. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had to approve the initial deal.

Are these the last of such deals to be unearthed? Maybe. Do these reports help Republicans sow doubt about whether the Clintons can be trusted? Yes, indeed.

Here's the problem. At the CNN debate, Hillary Clinton demonstrated a mastery of the issues and the format. She was relaxed, knowledgeable, well prepared without seeming scripted. She showed herself to be a real leader. On that basis, she should win the nomination.

It also remains to be seem how much of her movement on the issues was a genuine shift in a progressive direction, and how much reflects tactical feints necessitated by the more leftward mood of the Democratic electorate. Progressives, in coming months, will be seeking commitments that she does not intend to appoint as her core economic advisers yet another generation of protégés of Robert Rubin and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party.

This sort of infighting, however, is not likely to be conclusive. It's inside-baseball. She can co-opt progressive critics by claiming to be getting advice from a broad spectrum of economists. She can profess opposition to the TPP trade deal without doing any real heavy lifting to try to defeat it. Classic Clinton, and she will probably get away with it.

But her real vulnerabilities have less to with her positioning and repositioning on the issues than with the unexploded bomblets that may or may not go blow up her candidacy. There is no good protection against that risk, either for Clinton or for the Democrats, because it's hard to know just what's there, or how much damage it could do.

This is one of the reasons why Joe Biden has not called it quits yet. Biden is expected to announce his decision soon. But if that decision is not to run, don't be surprised if Biden keeps the door open a sliver, just in case some new disaster hits the Clinton campaign.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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