Walk of shame, huh? I’ll take it,” says Huma Abedin, reading the name of the lipstick on the makeup artist’s table. It is a bright, cool day in Manhattan and we are at a photographer’s studio, where Abedin is having her photo taken for this interview. Having watched her from afar for so long, first as Hillary Clinton’s elegant, silent assistant, then as the mostly silent and increasingly unhappy spouse of the former congressman Anthony Weiner, I had expected her to be quiet, anxious and guarded, but Abedin, 45, is none of those things. Someone so beautiful could come across as imperious, but with her big, open-mouthed laugh and “Oh gosh, you know better than me!” air, she veers closer to goofy. After 25 years of working for Clinton, she has a politician’s knack for making those around her feel comfortable. She leans forward keenly when spoken to, and makes sure to use everyone’s name when talking to them. She tells us, twice, that she ate “so much comfort food over the weekend at the hospital”, where she waited while Bill Clinton was being treated for a urological infection; he was discharged the day before our interview. “Just burgers and fries, burgers and fries. Food is my weakness,” she says rolling her eyes at herself. Everyone is instantly disarmed. But then she picks up that lipstick and at the word “shame” the makeup artist and I look down awkwardly and Abedin becomes – as she has been for so long, she tells me later over lunch – “the elephant in the room again”. “I lived with shame for a very, very long time,” as she puts it.
The question Abedin hears most is: why? Why did she stay with Weiner after he accidentally tweeted a photo of his crotch while sexting women online in 2011, leading to his resignation from Congress? Why, when he ran for New York City mayor in 2013, did she assure voters that she had “forgiven him”? And why did she stay with him when it then emerged he was still sending women photos of the contents of his trousers? Why did she only separate from him but not divorce him when, in 2016, he sent a woman a photo of himself aroused while lying in bed next to his and Abedin’s toddler son, Jordan? And why were there official emails between her and Hillary on Weiner’s laptop, thereby prompting the then director of the FBI, James Comey, to announce the fateful reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails days before the 2016 election?
Well, her new memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, makes a good fist of answering most, if not all, of these questions. Having started the book believing that Abedin’s choices were so unrelatable as to be incomprehensible, I finished it feeling as if I probably would have often done the same. This is the first interview she has given about her book: “And I’m glad it’s not a TV one, because that’s really not me, being in front of the camera,” she says. I ask why she decided to write the book at all, given that it would, inevitably, thrust her right back into the bright glare of public scrutiny.
“I think if I’d written this book when people wanted me to write it, in the midst of all the heat and intensity, it would have been a much more bitter book. I needed the time. But I feel like I’m somebody who’s been in the public eye on and off for the past 20 years and someone else has been writing my story, and it felt like the right time for me to write it,” she says.
In order to understand what she did, Abedin says, as she eats her omelette and chips in a downtown restaurant, you have to understand where she came from. People tend to start with her long relationship with Hillary Clinton, who she has worked for since she was 20 years old, and think that shaped how she handled her own husband’s very public betrayals of her. It’s true that it’s hard not to boggle at the symbolism that she was working at the White House when the president, after initial denials, finally admitted he’d had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Abedin loathes this line of thinking. “I know that people want to make this comparison” – between Bill Clinton’s scandal and Weiner’s – “because it seems to the outside world so similar, but to me it wasn’t,” she insists. Instead, she says, to really understand how she, a devout Muslim, was married to an American Jew who ended up in prison for sex offences, you have to go back to her beginnings.
Abedin was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the daughter of two professors, both India-born Muslims. When she was two, her parents were offered jobs at the university in Jeddah and so the family moved to Saudi Arabia. Her parents raised her to be devout but also modern; she has no problem, she writes, with women who opt to wear the hijab as long as they have “the choice”. When she was 17, her father died from progressive renal failure, which her parents had kept hidden from the children for most of their childhood. I ask what she learned from her father and she says: “To make your own choices, but be thoughtful about them, not rash.”
Her mother encouraged her to go to university in the US and she went to George Washington University in Washington DC. She’d spent her summers in the US, so the culture shock wasn’t too great, but because of her faith she doesn’t drink alcohol, which differentiated her from the other American students. There was something else, too: “As was expected of any girl with my background, I would lose my virginity to the man I would marry,” she writes, and that is exactly what she did, waiting until she married Weiner at the age of 33.
She applied to be a White House intern while still at college, and was assigned to the first lady’s deputy chief of staff. She was offered a permanent position even before she graduated. “I officially became a member of a lifelong club known as Hillaryland,” she writes. From the moment she arrived, Abedin was in awe of the Clintons, Hillary especially, and it’s an impression that has not waned in the 25 years she has spent working alongside her. She tells me that one of the reasons she wrote her memoir “was to show the world that she’s this incredible person, and I wanted to present her as a human, away from the caricatures”. But it’s hard to see the human when so many of the descriptions of her in the book sound like a press release (“Diplomacy is about meeting the world with open eyes, attuned listening and small gestures of outreach. It was second nature to Hillary Clinton”). This is also how she talks about her in person. The only criticism Abedin allows of Hillary in the book is of her occasionally unfortunate taste in clothes (“the coat that looked like a carpet that HRC thought was colourful and fun”). Meanwhile, her attendance at Donald Trump’s wedding to Melania Knauss (“When the invitation came [Hillary] figured, why not? When someone is getting married, you go”) and even her vote for the war against Iraq (“she was clear about her reservations”), which Abedin advised against, are justified. From very early on, the two women developed a close relationship based on mutual respect, and it’s easy to see why Abedin – a young woman who lost her father and was living far away from her mother – would cleave to the Clintons.
“I wasn’t necessarily politically motivated. It felt like [being part of] the cause, and every day you were doing something important,” she says, and that cause was the Clintons.
Yet her devotion to the cause occasionally crashes up against historical fact, and in the case of the Clintons in the late 1990s, that means Lewinsky. Abedin does her best to get around this when recalling how rumours of the president’s affair with the intern began. “Given all the manufactured stories that had come before this one – that the Clintons were murderers, thieves – it seemed very likely that this one could be untrue,” she writes.
Come on, I say. By the time Lewinsky came along, the president had already been accused of sexual impropriety by Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones (the latter of which he still denies). There must have been some part of Abedin that thought Lewinsky was telling the truth.
“No,” she replies before I finish the question.
“For me, as an intern, it seemed not possible. We never saw [the president]! You would turn on the TV and it was Ken Starr this, Ken Starr that, Whitewater this, Whitewater that – but when you turned away from the TV and you looked at your desk, really important work was continuing. Northern Ireland, the Middle East peace process. The other stuff was just distractions on TV. Maybe if I hadn’t been an intern it would have been different, but I knew how it was [in the White House] and it seemed impossible,” she says. Throughout our time together, she never says Lewinsky’s name. I ask how the Clintons feel about Ryan Murphy’s recent dramatisation of the scandal in Impeachment: American Crime Story. “It’s not a conversation that we discussed internally,” she replies crisply.
When the Democrats gained seats in the 1998 midterm elections, despite the impeachment, Abedin knew exactly who to credit. “It was Hillary Clinton’s effort, her struggle and her strategising, her broken and open heart that had saved the presidency … Hillary Clinton was the saviour, not the liability,” she writes, channelling her internal Barbara Cartland.
As I read this sentence out loud to her, Abedin quotes it along with me. “Her broken heart, yeah,” she says smiling a little.
This idea that Hillary had, through forgiveness and loyalty, fixed her husband’s transgression and saved his career seems to echo your later belief that you could fix your husband and rescue his political career, I say to her.
“Yes, yes, yes!” she says excitedly, as if she’d never put those ideas together.
So did seeing how Hillary handled her husband’s infidelity – silently, stoically – influence how Abedin later dealt with Weiner?
“If it did, it was subconscious. I think what really drove me was I was desperately in love with my husband. I think all of the ugliness from the outside, it made us into a bubble. I didn’t know who I could trust, and so much of the conversation was so embarrassing, so we kind of receded into our corner,” she says.
The first time Weiner asked Abedin on a date was in 2001. She declined, saying she was busy working for Hillary. So he loudly asked Hillary to give Abedin the night off, and Hillary, to Abedin’s horror, told her to go have fun. She managed to shake off the obnoxious congressman that night, but they bumped into one another frequently at political events. She was the quiet, well-liked aide who hid from the spotlight; he was the brash congressman who yelled about his political causes to any passing camera. And yet, by 2007, they were friendly, and she was falling for him. He was not fazed by her job, which was extremely demanding, given that Hillary was now a senator and also running for the presidency. “Other men would find this whole Clinton world really overwhelming and more than they could handle,” she says. Also, unlike other men, he had no problem with what she describes as her “limitations” – her decision not to have sex until she was married. The man who would soon be routinely described as a sex addict in the media didn’t even kiss her until a year into their relationship. “And he was fine with that,” she says. She’d always assumed she’d marry a Muslim, so he gave up alcohol and pork, and fasted during Ramadan alongside her. When he proposed, in 2009, she accepted. “It was a real journey for me to get to a place where I could allow myself to marry someone outside my faith. But he was my first love, and my greatest soulmate … Then everything exploded. He didn’t just break my heart, he ripped it out and stomped on it over and over again,” she says calmly.
The first warning sign came as they were discussing their wedding plans and she handed him his BlackBerry to call his dad. Her eye was caught by an email from a woman. It was “fawning, flirtatious and very familiar”, she writes. He insisted it was “just a fan”. Because he was known for being a straight talker – to a fault – she believed him. But later, she would remember what he said to her right before she saw that email: “I’m broken and I need you to fix me.” Has she ever asked him what he meant?
“Often I’ll raise things with Anthony, and I think there’s a lot he doesn’t remember. But I think, in hindsight, it really was a self-realisation that something didn’t feel right, and my guess is that committing to me, committing to being married, exposed those vulnerabilities: ‘Am I good enough to be in a relationship with somebody?’ That’s what a lot of people who have these insecurities feel,” she says.
Soon after, they got married and their wedding was officiated by none other than … Bill Clinton. “Every wedding is a wonder,” intoned the man who, just over a decade earlier, had been impeached for lying about infidelity. I tell Abedin that often when she describes Weiner in the book – “charming, charismatic and clearly attractive to lots of women” – it sounds like she could be describing Bill. Was that part of his appeal?
“No! Not at all!” she gasps. She was, she says, just deeply in love with him.
Only 10 months into their marriage, Weiner texted Abedin to say his Twitter account had been hacked. This, of course, was a lie, and after a few days he had to admit, to his wife and then the public, that the person who had posted a photo of Anthony Weiner’s crotch to Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account was Anthony Weiner. The media cackled. Abedin cringed. Then the New York Times found out she was pregnant and, even though she was still in her first trimester, they printed it, and that’s how the Clintons and most of her friends found out. But she didn’t leave him. It was, Weiner told her, just an online thing, like a computer game, and he was sorry. It’s not like he had sex with someone else, she told herself. Abedin had barely dated at all before Weiner and he was, she writes in the book, her “first and only”. I ask if she thinks this inexperience caused her to be naive about her husband. “I don’t think I was naive – I think I wasn’t rash. Also, because I lost my father when I was young and that was such an important relationship in my life, I thought: ‘Am I going to deprive this child of a father, without giving him another chance?’ I feel I made a very thoughtful decision about it.” He resigned from Congress, they went into therapy, and six months later their son, Jordan, was born.
A few months after that, it was Abedin who was in the spotlight when five Republican members of Congress, including former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, wrote a letter saying Abedin should be investigated for possible terrorist “infiltration” of the state department. “Abedin has three family members – her late father, her mother and her brother – connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organisations,” they wrote.
This was complete nonsense: none of Abedin’s family had any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. Looking back now, Abedin sees this episode as a precursor to the heightened Islamaphobia that would soon unfold in the US: “Michele Bachmann was the appetiser for what came next, and I was the experiment.”
For so long, Abedin had been, she says, “the token Muslim in American politics”. Hillary trusted her expertise on the Middle East and she often acted as translator on trips to the region. But now American politicians and some foreign ones were questioning her loyalty. Senator John McCain gave a speech to the Senate defending her: “Huma represents what is best about America … I am proud to call her my friend.” More Republicans, including Lindsey Graham and the then House speaker John Boehner, spoke up for her, and the scandal faded. It was a testament to how well liked Abedin was in the American political world, whereas her husband was totally isolated.
When Weiner mooted the idea of running for mayor of New York in 2013, Abedin was enthusiastic. He was such a good politician, and what had happened in 2011 had clearly been an aberration, she thought. “I couldn’t imagine Anthony would do anything to risk it all again,” she writes. Abedin, for the first time, made a public statement defending her husband. “I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him,” she said at a press conference to persuade voters. Hillary was horrified and I ask Abedin why. After all, Hillary had stood by her husband after his infidelities. “Hillary has always approached how she tried to help me from the perspective of a friend, and she felt that I didn’t need to do what I did,” she says.
I ask if Hillary ever mentioned to Abedin their shared experience of being married to chronically unfaithful husbands.
“No. No. I don’t think she – I don’t want to be talking about private conversations with her. But she has this incredible empathy, compassion and problem-solving gene that she can’t shake. There’s no, ‘This is what I did so you should do this.’ No. She didn’t have to. I’d seen what she’d gone through,” she says.
Soon after Abedin made her public statement of forgiveness, it emerged Weiner was still sexting. Abedin doesn’t include this detail in the book – and who could blame her – but this time he was doing so under the unforgettable alias “Carlos Danger”. New Yorkers rejected the possibility of Mayor Danger.
No one could understand why she stayed – not even the Clintons, although they never said so explicitly. But no one in her family was divorced, and she just couldn’t picture it for herself. She told Weiner in 2014 that she wanted a separation, but they still lived together. Outsiders tutted, but he made life easier for her. Abedin was extremely busy working for Clinton, now secretary of state and, imminently, presidential nominee. He was happy to stay home and look after their son while Abedin travelled the country. Anyone who has been married with kids will know that, for pragmatic purposes, you sometimes tolerate more than you should.
A month after Hillary was named the Democratic nominee in the 2016 election, Weiner called Abedin. He told her the New York Post was publishing a picture of him and Jordan. She assumed it would be a paparazzi photo of the two of them in the park. It wasn’t. It was a photo taken by Weiner showing himself aroused and in bed, and next to him lay their sleeping toddler son, and he had sent it to a woman on the internet. Abedin threw him out of their apartment and publicly announced their separation. Strangers called Child Services saying they were concerned for Jordan’s safety, so now, while going through a very public scandal, and a separation, and helping to helm an especially fevered presidential campaign, she was also being investigated by Child Services. Just one of those things would drive most people to a nervous breakdown. How on earth did she not collapse?
“God,” she replies. “My faith has carried me through this life and, when I was at my lowest moments, that’s where I went. I think the average American doesn’t know about Islam, but, no question, that is where I find my balance.”
Things were about to get even worse for Abedin. A few weeks later, it was alleged that Weiner had been sexting a 15-year-old girl – a federal offence. “Each time I thought Anthony had reached a new nadir, he shocked me by going even lower,” Abedin writes.
Maybe he was testing you to see how much you could take, I say.
“I think the isolation and the shunning from society made him retreat more into these spaces and, as a result, it felt as though whatever it was Anthony was dealing with, it was not being treated properly and we both had to get to the bottom,” she says. He went into rehab and that was when doctors first told her that Weiner had an “addiction”. Does she think he’s a sex addict?
“There are certain questions for him to answer, not me. What I do know is that somebody who intentionally loses everything and falls into the same pattern again, that’s not behaviour you can control,” she says.
It’s an addict’s behaviour, but maybe not to sex, I say. Maybe he was addicted to self-destruction, or even public shame. She nods emphatically.
Because Weiner’s alleged victim was underage, the FBI seized his laptop. When they found emails on it from Abedin to Hillary containing classified information, Comey announced he was reopening the investigation into Hillary’s emails and whether she used a private server for official communications. The election was less than two weeks away. Abedin’s two worlds – her Clinton world and her tattered marriage – had collided in the most spectacular fashion. Within days, Comey cleared Clinton, but the damage had been done.
Abedin says she’s put all her anger behind her, but she still sounds pretty angry when talking about Comey. “Do I believe [the reopened investigation] was the singular factor in her loss? No. Do I believe it was a factor? Yes, I do,” she says. The first thing she heard after Clinton gave her concession speech on 9 November was reporters shouting, “Do you blame yourself, Huma?” She says she still has no idea why her emails were on her ex-husband’s computer. I ask how she felt when President Trump thanked Comey after winning the election. After a long pause she says: “I’m not sure I have a word you can print.”
Almost exactly a year after that, Weiner was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Before he was incarcerated, the two of them attempted to file for divorce, but because of the enormous media interest, Abedin reluctantly withdrew the petition. (They are currently finalising details of their divorce.) She had expected to spend that year working as chief of staff to the first female president; instead, she was shuttling her son to prison for visits with his father in a country that was enacting a so-called Muslim ban, and she still laughs at the dystopian absurdity of it. Were she and Hillary bitter after the election?
“Bitterness is not the word, but I was angry. There was also a lot of ‘I told you so’ [to the public and media]. Like, ‘I told you this Muslim ban was going to happen!’”
Jordan is now nine and I ask if he has his father’s all-too-recognisable surname; she says he does. How has she explained that photo of him lying in bed next to his father?
“That’s a conversation that, when he’s at an age when it’s appropriate, we’re going to have. He knows there are moments when there are [photographers] around and he’s had to deal with the gaggles,” she says. The first thing Jordan asked her when she told him she had written a book was: “Does that mean those men are coming back?”
After Weiner was released, and registered as a sex offender, he got an apartment in the same building as Abedin, to make things easier for Jordan. This remains the status quo. In 2019, after he told Abedin he was dating again, she did the one thing she had always resisted: she looked through his old phone. It turned out that, after 2013, while they were still married, he hadn’t just been sexting women – he’d been having sex with them, sometimes in their family home. With a therapist, they then went through a disclosure process, in which he told her everything. Knowing the truth at last helped her to shake off the anger, the shame and the resentment, and to move on. These days she says they are “more than civil to each other” but when I ask what he’s doing now for a job, her voice hardens: “You’d have to ask him. I assume he’s doing stuff.” (According to a New Yorker interview in December 2020, he’s running a company that makes “countertops out of concrete and crushed Heineken bottles”.) Abedin, meanwhile, is still working for Hillary. “She’s doing a show for Apple TV, she and her daughter have set up a production company, and there’s all these amazing projects,” she says brightly. It was always about the cause. I ask her if she’s seeing anyone and she goes all fluttery: “Oh my goodness. This is a question I was not prepared for. No, I’m not seeing anyone. I don’t really go on dates. That’s kind of sad, now that I think of it. But if you have any leads, I’ll take them.”
What is she looking for in a partner?
She thinks for a moment: “Somebody not in politics, don’t you think?”
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