WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton's confidant Sidney Blumenthal played a quiet role in shaping, and sometimes steering political coverage, in the early days of The Daily Beast.
Blumenthal's role, early employees said, was touched with a bit of the conspiratorial haze that has emerged as a point of controversy in Clinton's campaign. He wasn't listed on the site's masthead, and the site's founder, Tina Brown, said she had "no idea" whether or not he was on Clinton's payroll while helping to shape the site's political coverage. In one case, he commissioned a hit piece on a potential Clinton rival, Caroline Kennedy, though his name appeared nowhere on the story.
Brown, who founded The Daily Beast, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Blumenthal had been a "part time consultant" in 2008 and 2009 and had "assigned and connected us to some writers as asked."
"He was supposed to find writers for ideas and stuff like that," said one former Beast writer who recalled Blumenthal shaping coverage that tended to be "stuff from Democrat-(or 'Democrat-')-in-exile people who were skeptical of and/or outright didn't like Obama" — work like this piece by Michael Lind about the "Democratic suicide" under Obama. The employee suggested Blumenthal was responsible for bringing in Democratic political strategist Doug Schoen, who has written semi-regularly for the Beast since 2009. Contacted by BuzzFeed News, Schoen said Blumenthal had "never edited me" at the Beast or anywhere else.
In the winter of 2008-2009, the Daily Beast ran two pieces that were critical of Caroline Kennedy, one referring to her as a "puppet" and the other describing her candidacy as an "insult." Kennedy was seeking at the time to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate — the scion of a rival dynasty who, if she had she had been appointed to the Senate, would immediately have been seen as a likely national Democratic figure of a new generation. The author of the pieces, current New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel, who was at Politico at that time, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Blumenthal had commissioned and edited them. (He also said that Blumenthal's editing had been "intelligent and incisive.")
One former Daily Beast employee described Blumenthal as having been a "recruiter." Blumenthal, the employee said, had a preferred group of writers from whom he would draw submissions, including Scott Horton, the attorney who won a National Magazine Award in 2011 for a Harper's story about Guantanamo. Horton didn't respond to a request for comment.
Blumenthal could be somewhat of a headache for the Beast staffers. Though not officially on staff as an editor, he would send in pieces that he said had been edited, expecting them to be published as-is.
Blumenthal's involvement with the Beast didn't last for a long time; one former staffer estimated it as being around six to nine months. It appears to have been a result of his longtime friendship with Brown, for whom he worked at The New Yorker in the 1990s.
Leaked emails obtained in the Guccifer hack provide a glimpse into the Brown/Blumenthal relationship; in an email dated December 27, 2012, years after Blumenthal's ambiguous role with the Beast had ended, Brown emailed him: "How are you, sid. Are u done with lincoln? [Blumenthal has been working on a biography of Abraham Lincoln.] So want your politics brain back! Is there an aspect of BUSH you might want to do for when he goes ?the Bush clinton relationship?" The email was sent during a health scare in which George H.W. Bush was hospitalized; news organizations routinely plan out obituaries and other coverage before an aging subject has died.
"Even if Bush does get through this crisis, mark me for the piece," Blumenthal writes.
The emails also show Blumenthal reaching out to Brown for David Petraeus' contact information in 2013; she gives it to him, but says "u must never ever say came from me."
But they weren't that close: When the deal to combine Newsweek and The Daily Beast closed, Brown, a source said, had a congratulatory call with a man she thought was her new owner, Sidney Harman. "Get me Sidney," she told one of her assistants. When she learned she had actually been put on the line with Blumenthal, not Harman, she hung up.
It's unclear to what extent Blumenthal was involved with the Clinton Foundation during his quasi-employment at The Daily Beast. It has recently come to light that Blumenthal was being paid $10,000 a month by the Clinton Foundation while he was advising Hillary Clinton on Libya during her tenure as Secretary of State. He is also a paid adviser to two organizations run by Clinton ally David Brock: American Bridge and Media Matters. (Politico reported that Blumenthal was added to the Clinton Foundation payroll in 2009. It's unclear if that overlapped with his time at the Beast.)
Brown told BuzzFeed News she had "no idea" if Blumenthal was working for the Clinton Foundation or CGI at the time. Asked if he was on the Clinton Foundation payroll during 2008 and 2009, a Clinton Foundation spokesperson said "The dates you have are not accurate."
A spokesperson for the Clinton Foundation didn't respond to follow-up questions about whether Blumenthal was on the payroll there during his time at the Beast. Blumenthal didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Blumenthal said "we are not making any further statements."
This story has been updated to add information from a Politico report.