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Cheryl Mills’s Loyalty Problem

Why Hillary Clinton's right-hand woman might hurt more than help

Getty/Michael Buckner

If you made a word cloud of profiles about Cheryl Mills in the Beltway press—and there have been several—“loyalty” would loom very large. That loyalty specifically extends to two people: Bill and Hillary Clinton, both of whom she has worked for. “She is incredibly loyal to the president,” an anonymous White House aide told the Washington Post in 1999. “If something’s on the other side of a brick wall and the Clintons need it, she’ll find a way to get to it: over, around, or through.” During Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign, a different New York Times reporter noted that Mills was “especially close” to the former president. When Hillary hired her to be her chief-of-staff and counselor at the State Department, Politico reported, “Mills had a quality both Clintons seem to value most: loyalty.” Around the same time, a former campaign staffer averred to The New Republic, “Cheryl is extremely loyal to both Clintons.”

Mills, at the time a 27-year-old lawyer, joined the Clintons' transition team in 1992, and became associate counsel to the president the following year. Her big moment in the national spotlight—and her most visible show of loyalty—came near the end of that decade, when she dramatically took to the U.S. Senate floor to defend her boss in his impeachment trial. Though she proffered various legal arguments, what resonated most was her personal testimony, almost like that of a character witness, which derived much strength from the fact that she was a young black woman. “I stand here before you today because America decided that the way things were was not how they’re going to be. We the people decided that we all deserved a better deal,” she said, and then added, “I stand here before you today because President Bill Clinton believed I could stand here for him.”

Mills’s relationship with the Clintons plays a crucial part in the GOP-fueled controversy over the State Department's handling of the 2012 attack on the Benghazi, Libya consulate that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Yet her loyalty and tenacity—the instinct to pounce, rather than come clean—may have prevented her from dealing with the Benghazi fallout in a maximally transparent way. And that, in turn, has given the GOP one more issue to seize on during President Barack Obama's increasingly complicated second term.

In testimony before a House committee last week, Gregory Hicks, who had been the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Libya at the time of the attack, said that when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republican from Utah, traveled to Libya not a month after the attack to investigate potential failures prior to it, including whether the State Department should have acted on advance warnings of an attack, Hicks’s State bosses ordered him not to speak to Chaffetz. When he did so anyway—in one instance without a State lawyer, who reportedly lacked sufficient security clearance—Mills angrily reprimanded him over the phone, he alleges. “She—demanded a report on the visit,” Hicks testified. “She was upset.”

Hicks’s full testimony may not be the full story. For one thing, State insists that having a lawyer present at such debriefings is standard protocol. For another, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, complained that parts of Hicks’s pre-hearing testimony had been omitted from the record (committee Republicans retorted that Cummings’s access to the transcript of this testimony proved it was on the record). And Hicks was equivocal on the extent to which he could measure the level of Mills’s displeasure (contra some news reports which erroneously used words like “yelled”). “The statement was clearly not direct criticism,” Hicks told Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat, “but the tone of the conversation, and again, this is part of the Department of State culture, that fact that she called me and the tone of her voice, and we’re trained to gauge tone and nuance in language, indicated to me very strongly that she was unhappy.” Firmer indictments have been uttered.

Caveats aside, though, it seems pretty clear—assuming Hicks, who testified under oath, was being truthful—that Mills was not pleased about Hicks and Chaffetz's speaking. Whether she delivered a reasonable reprimand or an invalid tongue-lashing is irrelevant to the facts of the case.

But not to Republican members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who sought to paint Mills as an intimidator who attempted to silence a public servant. And they did so because of Mills's relationship with Hillary Clinton, a link that Rep. Jim Jordan, among other Republicans, went out of his way to make. “She is the fixer for the secretary of state. She is as close as you can get to Secretary Clinton, is that accurate?” he asked Hicks (according to a transcript from ProQuest). For those who didn’t hear Hicks’ affirmative reply, Jordon later said, “Cheryl Mills is the counselor to the secretary. She is chief-of-staff to Hillary Clinton. Is it the perception that [Mills] is speaking on behalf of the secretary herself?” “No,” replied Hicks. Undeterred, Jordan pressed on: “Everyone in the State Department understands, this is the person right next to Secretary Clinton.” (Could you repeat that, Rep. Jordan?)

Not to be outdone, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina suggested that Chaffetz, “one of the more decent human beings I’ve ever met,” had never been known to “inspire that strong of emotion in anyone other than Ms. Mills.”

The obvious deliberateness with which the committee Republicans drew the Clinton-Mills connection further demonstrates what is already almost indisputable: that oversight and government reform was not the hearing’s sole objective; taking down Hillary Clinton, who may very well be the next Democratic presidential nominee, is also on the agenda. As Obama himself put it yesterday, “The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations.”

Republican spelunking expeditions into the scandals of a Democratic president are, of course, quite familiar to Mills. Given her experience battling for Bill Clinton in the late '90s, she might be exactly who the Obama administration would want defending it (although Secretary of State John Kerry brought in his own chief-of-staff). Certainly few would defend a Clinton as relentlessly as Mills.

At the same time, it is fair to ask: Did Mills learn the wrong lessons—or no lesson at all—from the Monica Lewinsky saga? “In the Clinton administration,” the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty wrote in January, after Hillary Clinton testified on Benghazi, Mills “was one of the most influential voices behind the scenes. The internal clashes usually centered on whether to turn over what the president’s enemies were demanding, or to hunker down and fight. [Mills] almost invariably led the resistance, an inclination that Hillary Clinton shared.”

However upset Mills was with Hicks—and however justified (or unjustified) she would have been to have been upset—it is hard to escape the sense that Clinton and Mills, veterans of the impeachment battle, were determined to give little quarter to Republicans hungry for a second-term scandal. But the ‘90s playbook was not necessarily the best one to follow. If Bill Clinton had admitted that Lewinsky was telling the truth immediately, it may have saved him a lot of trouble. And while nobody has credibly claimed the Obama administration sustained a lie anywhere near as long as the Clinton administration did, there are legitimate questions over how long the Obama administration withheld known details about the Benghazi attack, and how slowly it acknowledged lapses by various agencies.

Mills may consider those questions even less substantial than those that surrounded Bill Clinton's dalliances—and she may be right—but it was nonetheless something Congressional Republicans were likely to pounce on, and therefore something worth responding to in a way that would not give the appearance of a cover-up. Anyone not looking through loyalty-tinted glasses would have seen that. It would be a bitter irony if Mills’ loyalty harmed, in any lasting way, her patrons’ chance to re-enter the White House.