Experts say Trump’s attacks on Clinton over Weiner drama a stretch

FILE - In this July 23, 2013 file photo, Huma Abedin, alongside her husband, then-New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, speaks during a news conference in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

Often content to remain in the background of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin has been increasingly thrust into the spotlight recently.

For the third time in five years, a sexting scandal involving Abedin’s husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, dominated the media Monday. According to the New York Post, Weiner's offenses this time included sending a photo to a woman of himself in his underwear with their toddler lying next to him.

Abedin issued a statement on Monday morning announcing that she was separating from Weiner and asking for privacy. The couple had reportedly been estranged for some time and Abedin had been seen without her wedding ring on the campaign trail.

Weiner’s previous transgressions, and Abedin’s forgiveness for them, were the subject of a documentary released earlier this summer, “Weiner.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been attacking Weiner for years, calling him a “sick puppy” and a “psycho” on social media, despite having donated to his congressional campaigns.

Trump has tried to drag Weiner’s personal conduct into the election before, alleging many times that Abedin poses a national security threat because she might tell her “pervert sleaze” husband classified information.

In a statement Monday, Trump claimed that Clinton showed bad judgment by “allowing Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information.”

“It is possible that our country and its security have been greatly compromised by this,” he said, with no evidence.

Experts doubt this line of attack against Clinton will resonate. Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, said Trump’s reasoning that Abedin would have shared sensitive material with her spouse is flawed.

“Are we to assume that he’s telling all the confidential information that he got at his security briefing to Melania?” she asked.

There is also a risk of the criticism backfiring among voters who already think of Trump as sexist.

“To the extent that he attacks her on the sins of her husband, that doesn’t do well with most women,” Dittmar said.

Leonie Huddy, a professor of political science at Stonybrook University, said Abedin remains an obscure figure outside of Trump’s far right base.

“Most people will not know much about her… In that sense, I don’t think she is a liability to the campaign,” Huddy said.

Concerns about Abedin’s activities when she worked for Clinton at the State Department might carry more weight with voters than any assaults on her personal life, particularly if they reinforce doubts voters already have about Clinton’s integrity and trustworthiness

Abedin has worked closely with Clinton since securing an internship at the White House in 1996 while she was a student at George Washington University. She became Clinton’s personal aide and later an adviser to the First Lady’s 2000 Senate campaign.

After working for Clinton in the Senate, she served as traveling chief of staff on the unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. When Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, Abedin was appointed deputy chief of staff.

Her relationship with Weiner developed throughout these years. They met during a Democratic retreat on Martha’s Vineyard in 2001.

Abedin and Weiner began dating in 2008. She told Vogue she was attracted to his dedication and passion for helping people. In 2010, they married with Bill Clinton officiating.

Weiner’s first scandal, involving a picture of his crotch he accidentally posted to Twitter, derailed his congressional career in June 2011. He publicly apologized to his wife, who was pregnant at the time.

Abedin gave birth to their son, Jordan, in December 2011.

In 2013, she described the challenges she went through to forgive Weiner in an interview with the New York Times Magazine.

“It was the right choice for me,” she said. “I didn’t make it lightly.”

Months later, Weiner announced that he would run for mayor of New York. He lost the Democratic primary after admitting that he had continued sexting with other women, but Abedin again forgave him.

Through it all, Abedin remained close to Clinton, becoming vice chair of her 2016 campaign. Their work together when Clinton was secretary of state is now under fresh scrutiny, though.

Serving as a gatekeeper to Clinton, Abedin appears to have become a clearinghouse for requests on behalf of Clinton Foundation donors. Emails released recently by conservative watchdog groups portray her as constantly fielding inquiries about meetings and favors from Doug Band, then an executive at the foundation.

Clinton supporters say Abedin often turned down those requests or told Band they must go through official channels, but Republicans have seized on any appearance of impropriety. Each batch of emails released brings new allegations, keeping the controversy in the headlines.

“I think that it just continues the questions,” Dittmar said. “It’s another area in which the Clinton campaign has to answer for at least perceptions that there was a conflict of interests.”

It may not create a new issue for Clinton, but it becomes another aspect of the existing Clinton Foundation problem.

“It is good fodder and good attack material for the people who really dislike Hillary Clinton,” Dittmar said, but it may not change any minds.

As one of the staffers sending emails to Clinton most often, Abedin has been at the center of the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private server for communication when she was secretary. Abedin sent or received many of the messages that were later found to contain classified information.

Freedom of Information requests for Abedin’s State Department emails have uncovered dozens of work-related emails that Clinton failed to turn over to investigators, contradicting Clinton’s public claims.

Other elements of Abedin’s State Department work have raised questions.

Sen. Chuck Grassley has pushed for more information about the unique arrangement that enabled Abedin to remain a “special government employee” at State while also working with a consulting firm started by Band and interacting with the Clinton Foundation.

A judge ruled Monday that the department must provide Judicial Watch with all documents related to that arrangement by October 14, so more details may be made public before the election.

The State Department Inspector General’s Office also investigated Abedin for allegedly inappropriately collecting about $10,000 in pay for unused leave time for days that investigators concluded she did take off. Her attorneys have disputed that finding, insisting that she continued working even while on maternity leave and on vacation in Italy.

Criticism of Clinton over the accommodations made for Abedin could underscore the sense among many voters that the Clintons play by their own set of rules.

Like the Clinton campaign’s attacks on Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon for alleged sexism and racism, Dittmar said this could have an impact if it makes voters think differently about the candidate’s own values and actions.

Abedin has been subject to less credible allegations as well, some of which Trump hinted at in an interview with KIRO radio Monday.

“Take a look at where she worked, by the way, and take a look at where her mother worked, and works. You take a look at the whole event,” Trump said.

This appears to be a reference to the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, an academic publication founded by Abedin’s father and edited by her mother. Abedin was listed as an assistant editor from 1996 to 2008, but the Clinton campaign has said she played no role in the actual editing.

Although conservative media have highlighted some of the more inflammatory pieces published in the journal, experts told Sinclair that there is nothing radical about it at all and it has published a variety of viewpoints. According to CNN, people familiar with it said it is scholarly, nonpartisan, and its content “does not raise red flags.”

Abedin’s faith and her family’s indirect links to terrorist organizations have been questioned in the past, but there seems to be little evidence to support any concerns.

In 2012, Rep. Michele Bachmann and other lawmakers sent a letter to federal agencies alleging that Abedin and others may have infiltrated the government on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, defended her against that smear.

The Washington Post described the supposed connections Trump supporters have made between Abedin’s family and the Muslim Brotherhood as “so tenuous as to be obscure.”

“This is a preoccupation for those on the fringe right,” Huddy said.

For other voters, though, it may just look like Trump is singling her out over her race and religion, which Dittmar said would play into Clinton’s depiction of him as racist and bigoted.

Despite these controversies, Abedin remains one of the most trusted figures in Clinton’s orbit. Clinton has described her in the past as being like a “second daughter,” so there is little reason to expect the campaign’s support for Abedin to waver.

Dittmar said now may be a risky time for Trump to hit Clinton over Abedin even for legitimate reasons while there is public sympathy for the personal turmoil she is going through. It may look like “you’re hitting her when she’s down.”

“If you start hitting her on other stuff right now, you have to trust that voters can distinguish between the attacks.”

With more of Abedin’s emails and more State Department records expected to be released between now and November, questions about her role and her facilitation of requests from the Clinton Foundation will linger.

The “Weiner” documentary is scheduled to make its TV premiere on Showtime just weeks before the election, potentially reviving that story in the media then as well. The value of Abedin as a political target for Trump remains uncertain, though.

“He will find that it doesn’t have much traction and is likely to drop it,” Huddy said.

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