How Hillary Clinton could give Donald Trump the political gift of the century

On the frightening possibility of a potential Clinton indictment

Donald Trump could benefit from Hillary Clinton's shortcomings.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Hillary Clinton absolutely eviscerated Donald Trump in a ferocious speech last week. As I listened, I couldn't help but think, "She's going to win in a landslide."

Then I remembered the indictment hanging over her head.

It's a familiar feeling — knowing about, then forgetting, then being reminded of Clinton's many, many faults.

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Last August, a few months into the low-boiling controversy surrounding Clinton's use of an unsecured personal email server during her tenure as secretary of state, I penned an angry column calling her "the Democratic Party's ticking time bomb" and predicting that some scandal — the emails, massive conflicts of interest at the multi-million-dollar slush-fund that goes by the name of The Clinton Foundation, her husband's presence on the passenger manifest of a private plane (nicknamed "The Lolita Express") owned by a billionaire who'd pled guilty and served time for procuring underage prostitutes — would blow up between then and the November 2016 election. The only question, I predicted, was when it would happen: before the convention or after the convention; before the debates or after the debates; before the election or after the election.

But then something very unexpected happened: Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee.

How could it be that the only thing standing in the way of Trump ascending to the presidency is a candidate so morally compromised that any number of possible scandals could easily derail her campaign at any moment?

My unwillingness to accept this frightening reality led me to pen a recent column in which I rose in full-throated defense of Clinton against her Republican critics. Yes, she had faults. Sure, she'd made mistakes. But the accusations against her were "trivial," "petty," "penny-ante." At least compared to Trump's massive faults. Faced with the prospect of giving the most powerful job in the world to a man grossly unsuited to it, the unwillingness of more #NeverTrump conservatives to throw their support to Clinton seemed peevish and irresponsible. These center-right critics needed to get over their qualms, acquire a sense of moral and political proportion, and embrace the only person standing in the way of a historic disaster.

Six days after I wrote that column, the inspector general's office at the State Department issued its long-awaited report on Clinton's email practices when she ran the department.


It was bad. Very bad. And certainly much worse than "trivial," "petty," and "penny-ante." Don't believe me? Read the fiery editorial published in the normally blander-than-unsalted-butter USA Today. The editorial says Clinton "broke the rules" by "ignoring repeated warnings about email security." And so she did.

But what about breaking the law? The Justice Department will be considering that question as soon as FBI director James Comey completes his investigation. Experts believe that "it is difficult to imagine her not being indicted, unless Comey’s expected recommendation for that is abruptly overruled at 'Main Justice' (i.e., by Criminal Division Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, or by Attorney General Loretta Lynch) or at the White House by President Obama (who customarily does not intervene in such things and would do so here either secretly or at no small political peril)."

In other words, there is a non-negligible chance of Clinton being indicted — of another time bomb detonating, this time with a much higher and more deadly yield.

If it happened before the Democratic National Convention, Bernie Sanders would presumably reap the benefits by becoming the party's nominee.

If it happened after the convention but before the election, it's hard to know what the party would do, since there would be no mechanism to decide. In one scenario, President Obama and the Democratic National Committee could tap Clinton's running mate (whoever it is) to take over at the top of the ticket. In another, they could turn elsewhere, perhaps asking Joe Biden or (God forbid) John Kerry to jump in. (Of course, the left wing of the party might rise up in outrage if Sanders or Elizabeth Warren weren't asked to take over.)

And then there's the distinct possibility that Clinton, in the most thoroughly Clintonian act of all time, would put her own ambition ahead of the good of the party and the country by refusing to bow out and continuing to run while under indictment. This would be the political gift of the century to Trump in his contest with "Crooked Hillary" and could be one of the very few things that would guarantee his victory.

Or maybe not. It's certainly possible to imagine Trump proving himself so manifestly unelectable that Clinton somehow manages to prevail despite the indictment. In that case, the stage would be set for a criminal trial of a sitting president. Unless, of course, the outgoing president pardoned her. That would spare the country an unprecedented ordeal, but it would also undermine even further the public's already waning faith in the fairness of American institutions — and do nothing at all to prevent the incoming president's immediate impeachment at the hands of a Republican Congress.

That, or something very much like it, may be what awaits us over the coming months — and all because the Democratic Party appears ready to choose as its nominee a candidate with an established record of poor judgment in both policy and personal matters.

Do I think a Clinton presidency would be anywhere near as disastrous for the country as a Trump presidency? No, not even close. In that sense, I stand by what I wrote last month: Faced with these options, the choice for Clinton should be obvious to all.

But that doesn't mean we should be happy about it — or blind ourselves to the likely consequences.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.