The BP oil spill turned five years old on Monday, and as my colleague Tim McDonnell reported, we're still paying the price: There's as much as 26 million gallons of crude oil still on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But the story of the Deepwater Horizon wasn't just about environmental devastation—it was also a story about regulation.
In Louisiana, where many politicians rely on oil and gas companies to fill their campaign coffers (and keep their constituents employed), environmental consequences often take a back seat to business concerns. But sometimes, things go even further. Take the case of Republican state Sen. Robert Adley—the vice-chair of the committee on environmental quality and the chair of the transportation committee (which oversees levees)—who played a leading role in trying to stop a local levee board from suing oil companies for damages related to coastal erosion. As Tyler Bridges reported for the Louisiana investigative news site The Lens, Adley doesn't just go to bat for oil companies—he works for them as a paid consultant. He even launched his own oil company while serving as a state representative, and he didn't cut ties to the company until nine years into his stint in the senate:
"He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years," said Don Briggs, the industry association's president. "I've never seen him carry one that he didn't truly believe was the right thing to do."
Adley's numerous ties to the oil and gas industry have led critics to say he is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.
Adley said calls that he should recuse himself from the issue because of his industry ties are "un-American" and "outrageous."
"It's what I know," Adley said. "Is it wrong to have someone dealing with legislation they know?"
For the time being, at least, voters in northwest Louisiana have decided that the answer is no.
The culling, conducted by the agency's Wildlife Services division, is controversial. That's because—much like the actual kill list—the USDA's operations are shrouded in secrecy, prone to collateral damage, and symptomatic of an approach that often uses force as something other than a last resort. (A 2012 Sacramento Bee series explored the problems with the USDA's methods in detail.) One of the problems with culling wildlife is that once you've gotten into the business of killing some animals to save other animals, it's awfully hard to get out of it.
I met Larry Nichols, the self-described smut king of Arkansas, at a breakfast joint in Conway, not far from the spot where he claims Bill Clinton loyalists once fired on him and a reporter for London's Sunday Telegraph. "You have to understand," he said, looking up from his coffee, "you're in Redneck City." Nichols had declared war on the Clintons in 1988, when Bill was governor, after being canned from his job at a state agency for placing dozens of long-distance phone calls on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras. As he hunched over the table in four layers of winter clothing, Nichols indulged in the caginess that had once seduced a small army of conservative journalists seeking dirt on the Clintons—the lurching, twangy, conspiratorial tones of someone with a secret he wasn't sure how to spill. For a moment, I felt as if I'd taken the wrong exit off I-40 and ended up in 1995.
But Nichols, who did as much as anyone in Arkansas to paint an image of the 42nd president as a womanizing, cocaine-snorting, dirty-dealing, drug-running mafioso, was ready to move on. "There is nothing you're gonna find here," he told me. "Pack your shit and go home. Good God, man—that was 20 years ago."
With Hillary Clinton the odds-on favorite in next year's Democratic presidential primary, all that was past is suddenly new again. The reinvestigation of the Clintons was already well underway by January, when Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus boasted to Bloomberg that he had dispatched a team of operatives to Little Rock to investigate the former first lady and secretary of state. "We're not going to be shy about what we are doing," he said. "We're going to be active. We're going to get whatever we have to in order to share with the American people the truth about Hillary and Bill Clinton." Last year, America Rising, an opposition research firm/political action group that works with Republican candidates, placed a full-time researcher in Little Rock, where she pored over newly declassified documents at the Clinton Presidential Library.
But 20 years after the so-called Arkansas Project, the multimillion-dollar campaign financed by conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife that turned Whitewater and Troopergate into household names, opposition researchers face a conundrum: Considering that the first expedition for dirt on the Clintons culminated in impeachment proceedings, are there any stones left unturned in Little Rock?
"There is nothing you're gonna find here. Pack your shit and go home. Good God, man—that was 20 years ago."
Few pieces of political turf have been excavated as thoroughly as Arkansas was in the 1990s, when conservatives scoured the Ozarks for evidence of everything from plastic surgery (to fix Bill's supposedly cocaine-ravaged nose) to murder (a list of suspicious deaths, promoted by Nichols, became known as "Arkancides") and, of course, womanizing. In the state capital, the return of the oppo researchers has been met with a sigh. "Bill and Hillary left here in December of 1992 and never came back," said Max Brantley, a longtime political columnist at the Arkansas Times. "Kenneth Starr ran everything through that grand jury. There may be something, but I can't imagine what." Rex Nelson, a former aide to Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, told me there was nothing left to unearth about the Clintons, "unless there's ancient relics buried in the dirt under the Rose Law Firm," where Hillary was once a partner.
In their quest for fresh muck, the diggers have fixated on a new chamber of secrets: archives. With a 40-year record to pore over, oppo researchers and journalists have been gifted an almost unprecedented trove of papers from former Clinton associates, and tens of millions of pages from the couple's years in Arkansas and Washington, DC, some of which have only recently been made public. "Every chief of staff, every top official for any Clinton office dating back 40 years has donated their papers to a university," said Tim Miller, a cofounder of America Rising. "We've gone to other libraries where staffers from the Clinton White House, or Clinton governor's office, have donated papers, or authors have written profiles on the Clintons." (Shortly after I spoke with him, Miller took a job with Jeb Bush's campaign. Throw in material related to Bush, a former governor and kin to two presidents, and next November's race might feature the longest collective paper trail in history.)
Last year, the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet that wears its animus toward the Clintons as a badge of honor, hired an oppo researcher to help dig through special collections at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. It came away with a series of journal excerpts from longtime Hillary confidante Diane Blair in which the first lady was quoted as calling Monica Lewinsky a "narcissistic loony toon." The story made national news. "When those stories hit, we got busy for a week or so," said Geoffrey Stark, the reading room supervisor at the university library's special collections. The quiet basement room, with its oil paintings of homegrown artists and politicians looking on in judgment, filled up with reporters hungry for whatever scraps were left behind.
The Republican intelligence gathering has also spawned Democratic counterintelligence operations. Leaving nothing to chance, Correct the Record, a pro-Hillary group fronted by David Brock, the former right-wing journalist turned Clinton loyalist, dispatched a staffer to Fayetteville to scan the archives. Twenty-one years after he had blown open Troopergate, the bombshell that purported to detail how Bubba's security detail facilitated his sexual liaisons, Brock was returning to Arkansas to put the genie back in the bottle. Correct the Record spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod confirmed that the group has been visiting the archives, but said, "We aren't getting into the specifics of tactics or strategies."
I got a blank stare when I mentioned Whitewater at the farm-to-table café across the street from the former headquarters of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
Yet even the field marshals of the new invasion recognize that the Clintons have moved on to bigger things. Miller expects the Arkansas cache to be used more as supporting evidence rather than the main indictment. The Whitewater scandal of 2016 won't be set in Arkansas; given Republicans' fixation on the family's international nonprofit, the Clinton Foundation, it might not even be in the United States. "For me, the big difference between 2016 and 2008, from a research standpoint, is that their network of influence has grown exponentially," Miller explained. "When you're talking about crony capitalism and special deals in the '90s, a lot of times the beneficiaries are, like, Arkansas lawyers. Now their influences are the global elites." And what's not in the Clintons' archives may turn out to be just as damaging, as Hillary found out in March, when it was revealed that she had skirted public recordkeeping requirements by conducting all of her State Department business with a private email address.
The Arkansas the Clintons left behind isn't just old news—it hardly exists anymore. One morning in February, using the Whitewater report as my Lonely Planet guide, I spent a few hours walking through a Little Rock neighborhood known as SoMa, searching for remnants of the real estate deals that compelled special investigator Kenneth Starr to set up shop in town. In testimony, the area was described as "a slum district," but it has since flowered into a yuppie paradise. I got a blank stare when I mentioned Whitewater at the farm-to-table café across the street from the former headquarters of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the bank wrapped up in the Clintons' scheme to turn a patch of land on the White River in the Ozarks into a summer resort. The young employee behind the counter seemed to think I was asking about whitewater rafting.
Now, in a salute to history, a subpoena-serving firm occupies the office that the state government once leased from the Clintons' Whitewater banker pal. Next door at the Esse Purse Museum, I'd missed a special exhibit called "Handbags for Hillary," a joint installation with the Clinton Library of pocketbooks given to the first lady (including one made out of socks, in honor of the family cat). The closest I came to scandal was at the Green Corner Store, purveyors of artisanal ice cream that, I was told, is whipped up in the very building "where Bill met Jessica Flowers." (Bill's alleged paramour was in fact named Gennifer.) The soda jerk who poured my small-batch lavenderade hinted that Hillary faces a more immediate challenge from another woman: She's torn between Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
If the conspiracy-slinging Clinton antagonists are a bit quieter this time around, that's also because—cue the ominous voice-over and shaky-cam footage—many of the loudest ones are now dead. John Brown, a sheriff's deputy who alleged that the Clintons had murdered several Arkansans over a cocaine-trafficking operation, died in prison. Jim Johnson, the segregationist former Arkansas Supreme Court justice who lent a semblance of gravitas to the 1994 conspiracy flick The Clinton Chronicles, committed suicide five years ago. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, who sold 60,000 copies of the film, died in 2007. Parker Dozhier, the trapper and bait shop owner whom Scaife paid to find dirt on the Clintons, is, like his benefactor, dead.
"Kenneth Starr ran everything through that grand jury. There may be something, but I can't imagine what."
Others have gotten out of the game. David Brock broke bad. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Sunday Telegraph scribe who reported in a gossip- and conspiracy-laden book that Bill liked to dance around in a black dress after doing cocaine with his brother, went back to Europe. "I think Hillary was a good secretary of state," he said in an email, although he stands by his earlier work. (He doesn't recall being shot at with Nichols.) When I reached Larry Patterson, the retired state policeman whose grudge against Bill over a forgotten transfer compelled him to talk to Brock for the Troopergate story, he was curt. "Sir, the Clintons have taught me a lesson," he said. And then he hung up.
Of the original band of Clinton hunters, only Nichols kept up the ruse, doing interviews with fringe right-wing radio hosts, even boasting in 2013 that he had been Bill's personal hit man, which he now says he didn't mean and wouldn't have said if he hadn't been on painkillers.
But something strange has come over him. After six years of watching Barack Hussein Obama cower in the face of Islamists, Nichols believes the family he spent two decades tarring as cold-blooded crooks might just be the only people who can save the country. "I'm not saying I like Hillary, you hear me?" he said, defensively. "I am not saying I like Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm not saying anything I've said I take back. But God help me, I'm going to have to stand up and tell conservative patriots we have no choice but to give Hillary her shot."
"I know she won't flinch," he continued. "That's a mean sonofabitch woman that can be laying over four people and say"—he paraphrased her now-infamous response to hostile congressional questioning on the deaths of four Americans in Libya—"'What the hell difference did it make?'" He was against Clinton because of Whitewater. Now he's voting for her because of Benghazi.
Last week it was Ted Cruz. On Wednesday it was Rand Paul. And now, meet your newest presidential candidate: former Rhode Island Republican senator turned former Rhode Island Democratic governor Lincoln Chafee! Bet you didn't see that one coming.
Chafee said the launch of his exploratory committee will be made via videos posted on his website, Chafee2016.com.
"Throughout my career, I exercised good judgment on a wide range of high-pressure decisions, decisions that require level-headedness and careful foresight," said Chafee. "Often these decisions came in the face of political adversity. During the next weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts about the future of our great country."
Lincoln Chafee, of the Rhode Island Chafees, won't be the next president, although he does enter the Democratic primary with strong name recognition among people who use "summer" as a verb. Chafee's father, great-great grandfather, and great-great uncle all previously served as governor of the state. Lincoln ran for the family seat only after losing his spot in the Senate in 2006 to Sheldon Whitehouse (of the Rhode Island Whitehouses), whose father had roomed with Chafee's father at some college in New Haven before entering the diplomatic corps (like his father before him).
But there is something worth highlighting in his announcement interview:
Chafee said his focus will be on building a strong middle class coupled with environmental stewardship. Chafee, who voted against former President George W. Bush's Iraq War, noted that Mrs. Clinton voted for it. He said he aims to send a clear message that "unilateral military intervention has damaged American interests around the world."
Did you catch that? It's easy to forget now that she's the email-destroying, dictator-courting villain of Benghazi, but there was a time when Hillary Clinton's biggest weakness was something else entirely: Iraq. Clinton's support for that war (and her inability to assuage its opponents) was the fuel for Sen. Barack Obama's rise in the polls in 2007. Eight years later, the issue has been all but erased from the political debate.
Don't bet on Chafee being the man who brings it back.
Jeb Bush isn't the only likely presidential candidate with a brother problem.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general revealed that an agency official had intervened in 2014 to help longtime Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe, now the governor of Virginia, obtain EB-5 visas (a steppingstone toward a green card) for employees of his electric-car company. Also named in the report was Tony Rodham, the youngest of Hillary Clinton's two brothers, whose company McAuliffe enlisted to secure those visas.
The inspector general chided the DHS official who oversaw the visa program for pressuring his staff to process the request from Gulf Coast Funds Management, where Rodham serves as CEO, despite an "incomplete business plan, insufficient economic impact analysis, and lack of support for estimating direct employment." Watergate it wasn't—McAuliffe and Rodham had just asked for a favor. But for Hillary Clinton, the news may have evoked a familiar dread.