The loyal aide has spent decades at the presidential contender’s side with unparalleled access. But with a powerful Republican senator raising questions about her role in the Clinton-era State Department, Abedin finds herself the latest victim of the Stop Hillary movement.
By Jacquelyn Martin/A.P. Images.
Faced with an unending scandal about her use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton decided last September to “reset” her presidential campaign. As Amy Chozick wrote in the New York Times, the new Hillary would display her “humor” and her “heart,” the qualities that her friends say rarely come across in public appearances.
The reset reached its zenith on October 3 when Hillary appeared on Saturday Night Live as “Val,” a bartender to whom Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, pours her heart out. The six-minute segment ends with “Hillary” and “Val” bonding as they sing “Stand by Me,” the Ben E. King classic. “Hillary” gets so carried away with her manic crooning that she doesn’t realize “Val” has disappeared and been replaced by cast member Cecily Strong, playing a character known as “Huma.” “I was just hanging out with my best friend Val,” Hillary says. Huma tells Hillary there is no one there. “I think you’ve had one too many, Hillary, let’s go,” Huma says.
Huma, as anyone who follows politics knows, is 40-year-old Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s “shadow,” as Politico once described her. She began working for Hillary in 1996, when she was a 19-year-old intern fresh from George Washington University assigned to the First Lady’s office. Abedin had wanted to be a journalist like her hero Christiane Amanpour and was hoping to work in the White House press office. “Take a chance,” her mother told her. “Don’t fall in love with Plan A.” Huma took the advice. “Sixteen years later, I wouldn’t change a thing,” she told a dinner audience in 2012, at a Fortune conference. “And I got to meet Christiane Amanpour.”
Over the years Huma has served in several positions, with increasingly important-sounding titles. She has been Hillary’s “body woman,” her traveling chief of staff, a senior adviser, and a deputy chief of staff when Hillary was secretary of state. Now, based in Brooklyn, she is the vice-chair of Hillary’s 2016 presidential campaign. But whatever the title, the job she performs for Hillary has always been essentially the same: confessor, confidante, and constant companion. It’s safe to say that over the years Abedin and Hillary have spent more time together than either has with her husband.
A former adviser to Bill Clinton describes her as “a mini Hillary.” Wherever Hillary goes, Abedin goes. In November 2008, when Hillary flew to Chicago to meet with President-Elect Barack Obama to discuss becoming secretary of state, she took Huma along. During Hillary’s grueling, nearly 11-hour congressional testimony in October about Benghazi, Abedin was there. She has been referred to as a “second daughter” to the Clintons. Others have described Hillary and Huma as like sisters.
Whoever wants to curry favor with Hillary has to go through Abedin, as thousands of recently released e-mails make abundantly clear. For the quotidian matters of the schedule, she speaks for Hillary, and people adept at getting access to Hillary know it. “Everybody fights to be at the center,” the former adviser says, “and Huma controls a lot of that dynamic.”
“I’m not sure Hillary could walk out the door without Huma,” Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald told Vogue’s Rebecca Johnson eight years ago. “She’s a little like Radar on *M*A*S*H. If the air-conditioning is too cold, Huma is there with the shawl. She’s always thinking three steps ahead of Hillary.” It’s still true today. Nothing Hillary-related is too big or too small for Abedin’s purview. Take, for example, the secretary of state’s December 2009 struggle to get a faxed document:
Abedin: Can you hang up the fax line? They will call again and try fax.
Clinton: I thought it was supposed to be off hook to work?
Abedin: Yes, but hang up one more time. So they can reestablish the line.
Clinton: I did.
Abedin: Just pick up phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up.
Clinton: I’ve done it twice now. Still nothing.
In January 2013, Abedin was concerned that Clinton might miss an early-morning call from Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India. Abedin discussed the call with Monica Hanley, another Clinton aide.
Abedin: Have you been going over her calls with her? So she knows [S]ingh is at 8?
Hanley: She was in bed for a nap by the time I heard that she had an 8am call. Will go over with her.
Abedin: Very imp[ortant] to do that. She’s often confused.
In her new position as vice-chair of Hillary’s campaign, Huma has even taken to being a stand-in for her boss at campaign-related events. In October, she and Vogue’s Anna Wintour were off to Paris together for a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser at the home of James Cook, an American businessman.
But, for all her proximity to the white-hot center of American politics, Abedin is every bit as unknown to the general public as her boss is world-famous.
Abedin and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally, 2008.
By Charles Dharapak/A.P. Images.
Follow the Faith
Abedin was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her mother, Saleha Mahmood Abedin, is Pakistani; her late father, Syed Zainul Abedin, was Indian. Both were intellectuals. When Abedin was two years old, the family moved to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where, with the backing of Abdullah Omar Nasseef, then the president of King Abdulaziz University, her father founded the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, a think tank, and became the first editor of its Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, which stated its mission as “shedding light” on minority Muslim communities around the world in the hope of “securing the legitimate rights of these communities.”
After Syed died, in 1993, his wife succeeded him as director of the institute and editor of the Journal, positions she still holds. She has also been active in the International Islamic Council for Da’wa and Relief, which is now headed by Nasseef and was banned in Israel on account of its ties to the Union of Good, a pro-Hamas fund-raising network, run by Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Google Abdullah Omar Nasseef, the man who set up the Abedins in Jidda, and a host of right-wing screeds pop up. Though he is a high-ranking insider in the Saudi government and sits on the king’s Shura Council, there are claims that Nasseef once had ties to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda—a charge that he has denied through a spokesman—and that he remains a “major” figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. In his early years as the patron of the Abedins’ journal, Nasseef was the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, which Andrew McCarthy, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, claims “has long been the Muslim Brotherhood’s principal vehicle for the international propagation of Islamic supremacist ideology.”
Google Yusuf al-Qaradawi and you’ll find even more right-wing hysteria. Says McCarthy, who has conducted something of a personal crusade on the question of the Abedin family’s purported connections, “The Union of Good is a designated terrorist organization and Qaradawi is the leading global jurisprudent”—a term McCarthy prefers to “cleric”—“of the Muslim Brotherhood, who has issued fatwas calling for suicide bombings in the Palestinian territories and in Israel and has called for the killings of American soldiers in Iraq.”
It turns out the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs is an Abedin family business. Huma was an assistant editor there between 1996 and 2008. Her brother, Hassan, 45, is a book-review editor at the Journal and was a fellow at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, where Nasseef is chairman of the board of trustees. Huma’s sister, Heba, 26, is an assistant editor at the Journal.
In June 2012, then congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four conservative congressmen wrote to the State Department warning that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government. The letter specifically cited Abedin: “Huma Abedin has three family members—her late father, her mother and her brother—connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations,” they wrote. But a month later Senator John McCain, no friend of the Clintons, took to the Senate floor to denounce Bachmann’s letter as an “unwarranted and unfounded attack” on Abedin. “I know Huma to be an intelligent, upstanding, hard-working, and loyal servant of our country and our government.”
“There are few things that President Obama and John McCain agree on. One is that … Bachmann’s lies about Huma are baseless and bigoted fear-mongering,” says Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill.
The Washington Post once described Abedin as “notoriously private.” That’s a fiction, of course. Like many other political operatives, she appears in the media when it suits her agenda. (Appearing in Vanity Fair is not on it; the Clinton campaign declined to make her available despite repeated requests.) The campaign has put the fear of God into many who might speak about her. One longtime Clinton observer explained that, along with Chelsea, Abedin is “the third rail” of the Clinton political world. “I’m being very candid with you,” this person says. “It’s a situation where everyone’s afraid to comment for fear that they’ll be misquoted, for fear of saying something they may think is laudatory that others may not. You can’t imagine the paranoia…. It’s a paranoia that clearly affects how everyone responds to Huma.”
There is a long list of usually chatty Clinton surrogates and supporters who have gone mute on the subject of Huma Abedin. The ones who didn’t get the memo, or choose to ignore it, stick close to the prescribed script. Michael Feldman, the managing director of the Glover Park Group, a communications consulting firm, says that after 20 years Abedin has become part of the “institutional memory” and now occupies “a really important and unique place in an organization.” Bob Barnett, the lawyer who brokered the Clintons’ multi-million-dollar book deals, says Huma is “now one of the key glues that holds Clintonworld together…. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She knows their strengths. She knows their weaknesses. She knows the roles they’ve played, and that history is priceless to a person in public life.” “Huma is a terrific leader. She’s multifaceted, has a great strategic sense, and she’s a wonderful colleague. She’s an integral part of the team, and her competence is only exceeded by her humility,” says Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
Notes on a Scandal
When Anthony Weiner, then in his second term as a congressman from Queens, New York, first saw Abedin around Washington, in 2001, early in Hillary’s Senate term, “I was like, ‘Wow, who is that?’ ” he told The New York Times Magazine’s Jonathan Van Meter in 2013 for an in-depth story about their courtship and marriage.
At a Democratic Party retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, in August 2001, he asked her out for a drink. She said she had to work, but Hillary promptly gave her the night off and urged the two young folks to go out and have fun. In the event, Abedin, who doesn’t drink alcohol, ordered tea and then retreated to the bathroom. She was slow to return. “She ditched me,” Weiner recalled to Van Meter.
They kept running into each other, but Abedin wasn’t interested. She thought he was a brash, ambitious, camera-hogging New Yorker. But opposites began to attract during George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, at which Weiner found himself sitting between Senators Clinton and Obama. “I appreciate you looking out for my boss,” Huma texted him. By 2008 their relationship had become romantic, and they were married on July 10, 2010, with President Clinton presiding.
Abedin with husband Anthony Weiner, in New York City, 2013.
By Elinor Carucci/Trunk Archive.
In May 2011, Abedin accompanied Hillary and Obama on a trip to London that included a state dinner at Buckingham Palace. Abedin was invited to the festivities and afterward, in her “spectacular” room at the palace, wrote to Weiner: “I cannot believe what an amazingly blessed life that we live, these incredible experiences we’ve both had.” It was like a fairy tale.
A few days later, though, the fairy tale became a nightmare when Weiner called and left a message for his wife, who was in Washington: “My Twitter was hacked.” In fact, despite what he told Abedin and the media, Weiner had mistakenly tweeted a photograph of his erection, meant for a 21-year-old college student in Seattle, to his 45,000 followers. Reporters besieged him.
Desperate for privacy, he and his wife, then pregnant, spent the first weekend of June at a friend’s house in the Hamptons. As they were packing up the car to return to New York City, Weiner confessed, “It’s true. It’s me. The picture is me. I sent it.” Abedin was devastated. “It was every emotion that one would imagine: rage and anger and shock,” she told the Times.
At a news conference on June 6, Weiner tried to come clean. He admitted he had sent explicit messages to six women during the previous three years, but said he had never actually met any of them. One longtime State Department official says that inside Foggy Bottom some people’s initial reaction was that Abedin might have driven Weiner to sexting because she “was never around. She gave so much to Hillary Clinton, what did she have left for him? It was politically incorrect, but we did wonder.”
Abedin turned to Hillary. After all, who better to give advice on a husband’s extramarital escapades? The next day Huma returned to work at the State Department. “My compass was my job,” she said. “It was where I could go and life was normal.”
“Huma didn’t really want me to [resign], frankly,” Weiner told Van Meter. “Her frame was: ‘We’ve got to get back to normal somehow.’ ” But between Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s call for his resignation and the fact that the Clintons were now disgusted with him, according to Politico, he believed he had no choice. He resigned the following day, which meant the end of his $174,000 salary, leaving the couple to make do with Abedin’s $155,000 State Department compensation.
The Money Trail
After the scandal broke, Clintonworld seemed to go into overdrive to help Huma financially. A key first step was finding the family a new place to live. Soon after he resigned from Congress, Weiner sold his Forest Hills condominium for $430,000. Then Abedin sold her Washington condominium, for $620,000, at a loss of $29,000. Thanks to the generosity of Jack Rosen, a longtime Clinton supporter and New York developer, the couple moved into a sunlit, 12th-floor, 2,120-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment in one of Rosen’s buildings, at 254 Park Avenue South. The monthly rent has been estimated to have been at least $12,000. (In an interview, Rosen says the apartment was made available to the couple in part because of his relationship with the Clintons and they paid a market rental rate.) How Weiner and Abedin could afford the rent had the press wondering, although Weiner had started a consulting firm, Woolf Weiner Associates. The couple reported a combined income of $496,000 for 2012. (While Woolf Weiner remains a corporate entity, last July Weiner joined MWW, a public-relations firm. Two months later he was gone. “I was either not consulted or ignored on every part of this excellent summer adventure,” he tweeted.)
The next step was to sign off on Abedin’s 2012 request to become a “special government employee,” or S.G.E., at the State Department. This would allow her to continue to get paid while working from home, in New York City, as a consultant with expertise that no other person could supply on a “myriad of policy, administrative and logistical issues,” according to her application for S.G.E. status. At the same time she could care for her new baby son, Jordan, born on December 21, 2011. She became an S.G.E. in early June 2012 and was paid $62.06 per hour.
By then, Abedin was also acting as a consultant to Teneo Holdings, a global strategic-consulting and investment-banking firm co-founded by her old friend Douglas Band, who did the same thing for Bill Clinton that she did for Hillary. For the seven months she worked at Teneo, she was paid $105,000.
In addition to the State Department and Teneo jobs, Huma was hired as a consultant to the William J. Clinton Foundation to help plan for Hillary’s “post-State philanthropic activities,” and as a personal employee of Hillary’s.
The potential for conflicts cropped up immediately. In April 2012, after her maternity leave and while she was waiting to get her S.G.E. designation, Teneo asked her to intercede on behalf of its client Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in obtaining a seat on the President’s Global Development Council. That year, the Rockefeller Foundation paid Teneo $5.7 million for public-relations work. “[Rodin] is expecting us to help her get appointed to this,” reads the subject line of an e-mail between two Teneo officials. “[Senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett’s] team is aware of the request, but has not made a commitment,” another e-mail explains. A few months later Band e-mailed Abedin: “Judy Rodin. Huge [Clinton] foundation/cgi [Clinton Global Initiative] supporter and close pal of wjc [Bill Clinton]. Teneo reps her as well. Can you help?” (There was no reply from Abedin in the e-mail chain, and Rodin did not get the appointment.)
In July 2012, Huma, Weiner, and Jordan, then six months old, posed for People magazine in their Park Avenue South apartment, which had been listed for sale at more than $3 million. In the piece Abedin proclaimed, “Anthony has spent every day since [the scandal] trying to be the best dad and husband he can be. I’m proud to be married to him.”
Soon thereafter, Weiner announced he was running for mayor. But it turned out he had again sent sexual messages to a woman on social media, starting in July 2012, after the People story appeared. He ended up losing badly in the Democratic primary. For many in Clintonworld, this was the end of their involvement with Anthony Weiner. “The Clintons have put him in exile,” one longtime Clinton insider says.
But not Huma. She quickly returned to Hillary’s side. Daniel Halper, online editor at the conservative Weekly Standard and the author of Clinton, Inc., an unflattering portrait of the Clintons, theorizes Huma had little choice after the second sexting fiasco but to stick with Hillary. “She started sort of easing her way out,” he says. “It would have helped if she was the First Lady of New York and would’ve had her own gig going, but, of course, her husband completely fucked her over. But, at that point, there was no way for her to exit gracefully.”
Corn State Critic
In June 2013, Huma’s various roles caught the attention of Iowa Republican senator Charles Grassley, then the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a June 13 letter to Abedin, he claimed that Teneo had paid her for gathering “political intelligence” on behalf of its clients. (Teneo disputes this assertion.) He noted that, in addition to her $135,000 State Department compensation, she had also been paid “as much as $355,000” for her other consulting. He said he was “concerned” that her S.G.E. status “blurs the line between public and private sector employees.” He asked her to provide him information about her various jobs. In her July 5 response, she denied providing any advice or insights to Teneo clients about the State Department.
But these answers did not mollify Grassley. Specifically, he objected to Abedin’s becoming an S.G.E., because he believed she provided no irreplaceable expertise and therefore her designation as one had violated Congress’s intent when it created the program, in 1962. The State Department dismissed his concerns. Her appointment as an S.G.E. “was consistent with employment and ethics rules,” it said. “She was retained for her expert knowledge of policy, administrative, and other matters.”
Grassley, now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remains unsatisfied and has cited another Abedin-related beef: he claims she had worked 244 days as an S.G.E., far more than the 130 days allowed by the federal S.G.E. law. “If there’s a reason for more than 130 days, then she shouldn’t be an S.G.E.,” he says. “She ought to be a full-time employee.” But, according to someone close to Abedin, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General “miscalculated” the amount of time Huma worked as an S.G.E. and Grassley and his staff are “wrong” about the implications of her working more than 130 days as one. In her interview with the O.I.G,. Abedin recalled receiving verbal approval for the time she spent working.
Grassley continues to probe Abedin’s potential conflicts of interest when she was getting four different paychecks at once. “We know she set up dinners for Secretary Clinton and her private-sector employers and e-mailed private-sector employees from government accounts,” he says.
During the course of his looking into Abedin’s S.G.E. status, the senator stumbled upon an O.I.G. “criminal” inquiry, commenced in October 2013, about whether Abedin knowingly got paid for hours she did not work while she was on vacation and maternity leave. The heavily redacted report of the inquiry, dated January 2015, is titled “Huma Abedin. Embezzlement.” Essentially, the O.I.G. found that Abedin was paid $33,140.03 (or $20,331.42 after taxes) in a lump sum as a result of her possibly submitting “false or inaccurate time records resulting in pay received for work hours which should have been charged to sick and/or annual leave.” (The Department of Justice declined to prosecute.)
The report makes clear that there was confusion about whether she had been authorized to take a maternity leave and whether she should have been paid for a “babymoon”—an August 2011 trip Abedin, then pregnant, and Weiner took to Italy. During that trip, she said in an interview with investigators, “Every day we had calls. We had emails. I was—I feel like I was constantly on conference calls. I have clear memories of walking around and just being on a conference call the whole time as we were walking.” The 161-page report concludes that the State Department wants her to repay $10,674.32, which equates to 62 days of work. As of this writing Abedin has not done so, pending an administrative appeal.
In Clintonworld, the reaction to Grassley’s relentless assault on Huma is one of resignation. “It’s understood that if you live in that white-hot center in Clintonland you’ll be the subject of investigations, you’ll be the subject of personal attacks,” explains the longtime Clinton observer. “You expect it to come, and it’s handled. She’s done nothing wrong and has nothing to be apprehensive about. It doesn’t mean she still won’t be attacked.” Another says simply, “Senator Grassley would not be pursuing Huma if she was not a key senior aide to Secretary Clinton.”
Grassley says that charge is ridiculous and that he has no plans to give up this fight until he gets more information from Abedin and the State Department. The Judiciary Committee’s lawyers have been trying to schedule a meeting with Abedin’s lawyer, Miguel Rodríguez, but that meeting keeps getting postponed. (Each side says the other is to blame.) “I have to go by my reputation,” Grassley says. “I don’t give up. You know the old saying ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat’?”
But Rodríguez says, “Neither the law nor the facts support Senator Grassley’s baseless allegations and extrapolated conclusions. It is disappointing that the senator and his staff continue to focus a politically motivated campaign on Ms. Abedin, who has been known her entire professional life for hard work, integrity, and her sterling reputation. It is people like Ms. Abedin whom we should all want in public service.”
Whether it’s palatable for the vice-chairman of Hillary’s presidential campaign to be embroiled in allegations of conflicts of interest, obtaining patronage jobs, or misrepresenting time worked remains to be seen. Asked if at some point Huma becomes a liability to Hillary, the long-term Clinton insider replies, “It’s like anything else. I don’t think so, but you know I don’t have any idea. Hillary is very loyal, but she’s obviously pragmatic.”
It’s all gotten more complicated since the simpler days of 2011, when one Saturday morning, just before noon, Huma sent Hillary a copy of an A.P. story about gunmen who tried to assassinate the head of the Libyan Army. Hillary replied about an hour later: “Did you get info from Chelsea about the wall lamps?”
Chelsea had sent Huma the link. Huma replied, “They are beautiful, but way out of my price range!”
“Did you look at all the ones in the link to the brand?” Hillary asked later that afternoon. “Can you call me at home?”