In October and November, WikiLeaks released an avalanche of tens of thousands of other messages, hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s gmail account that provided an unprecedented window on the inner workings of a presidential campaign.
With brutal candor, voters got to see the office politics, the egos, the cliques, the evolving attempts to package a candidate who admits she is not a natural political performer like her husband or Barack Obama. The hoard offered insights that would not normally see the light of day until memoirs published years or decades hence.
The Clinton campaign has blamed the Russian government for breaking into Podesta’s account and passing on the material to WikiLeaks in an attempt to help Donald Trump win the general election.
Clinton’s handling of classified information as secretary of state had cast a shadow over her entire campaign and been a source of much angst at her headquarters. When the issue first reached public attention in March 2015, Podesta wrote of three fellow Clinton aides: “Speaking of transparency, our friends [David] Kendall, Cheryl [Mills] and Philippe [Reines] sure weren’t forthcoming on the facts here.”
The message was sent to Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington, who showed up frequently in the emails. She wrote back: “This is a Cheryl special. Know you love her, but this stuff is like her Achilles heal [sic]. Or kryptonite … Why didn’t they get this stuff out like 18 months ago? So crazy.”
Podesta replied: “Unbelievable.”
Tanden added: “I guess I know the answer. They wanted to get away with it.”
Both Tanden and Podesta were unswervingly loyal to Clinton, but could be described as critical friends. In another exchange in September 2015, Podesta warned that the campaign has “taken on a lot of water that won’t be easy to pump out of the boat. Most of that has to do with terrible decisions made pre-campaign, but a lot has to do with her instincts. She’s nervous so prepping more and performing better. Got to do something to pump up excitement but not certain how to do that.”
Tanden assented: “Almost no one knows better [than] me that her instincts can be terrible.”
When the seemingly innocuous leftwing senator Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere to challenge Clinton in the Democratic primary, there were fears of a repeat of her shock defeat by Obama in 2008. Tanden warned Podesta against attacking Sanders too aggressively.
“Just game out what that does to Hillary,” she wrote in August last year. “When we went after Obama, she got killed for it. Reaffirmed all her negatives, strengthened him. We had no idea it was kryptonite for us to do that, but it was. I don’t know if it was Obama or Hillary (I suspected Hillary), but it’s really something to focus group beforehand.”
In December, when Tanden wrote in praise of the Paris climate deal, Podesta responded: “Can you believe that doofus Bernie attacked it?”
Then, in March this year, Clinton strategist Minyon Moore opined: “I think Sanders is a rule breaker and has no institutional loyalty to the Democratic Party; we should expect him to ignore the rules and persist in his quest to flip superdelegates despite overwhelming evidence that reflects his considerable weaknesses with the Democratic base and no doubt in the general.”
Tanden, meanwhile, pulled no punches when Clinton’s campaign hesitated over whether to condemn Democratic activist David Brock for demanding Sanders’ medical records. She wrote: “Hillary. God. Her instincts are suboptimal.”
A stout defender of Clinton in public, in private Tanden injected some bracing honesty that suggests the candidate is not surrounded by sycophants. After the former first lady described herself as a moderate, Tanden asked of Podesta:
“Why did she call herself a moderate?”
He wrote back: “I pushed her on this on Sunday night. She claims she didn’t remember saying it. Not sure I believe her.”
Tanden replied: “I mean it makes my life more difficult after telling every reporter I know she’s actually progressive but that is really the smallest of issues. It worries me more that she doesn’t seem to know what planet we are all living in at the moment.”
In fact, just as WikiLeaks’ release of US embassy cables often showed diplomats’ judgment in a flattering light, so the Podesta emails have illuminated a micromanaged campaign operation with a laser-like focus and little by way of ill-discipline or even foul language. The nerve centre is, however, all too aware of its candidate’s weaknesses and sensitive to media criticism, and as prone as any other office to personality clashes, terse exchanges and mutual exasperation.
I suspect the Guardian lacks true insight into how Americans think. The email treasure trove also lifted the lid on the complications of celebrity endorsements. In August 2015, Betsy Jones, assistant to the hip-hop star Q-Tip, wrote to Podesta to propose a meeting with Clinton “to discuss ways he can be used as bridge to the hip-hop generation during the 2016 presidential campaign”. Q-Tip “even served as DJ for Chelsea Clinton’s 25th birthday party in 2005”, she noted.
Podesta forwarded the email to colleagues, one of whom was Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin. “Q-Tip? Seriously?” she wrote. “I am so old.”
Another, Kristina Schake, weighed in: “I’ve actually seen Q-tip in concert and if this meeting happens I would like to staff her.” She elaborated: “With both the Beastie Boys and the Chemical Brothers!”
But then the conversation took a darker turn when another member of Clinton staff, presumably responsible for background checks, raised concerns over Q-Tip: “There are a couple of altercations he pleaded guilty to, but they were from a while back. However, more recently shouted ‘pigs’ at NYPD officers while protesting the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson.”
It took a while, but the meeting did go ahead.
The emails revealed campaign surrogates sometimes go rogue. Lanny Davis, a lawyer and former special counsel to Bill Clinton during his presidency, put his foot in it when talking about Clinton’s email server on TV. Later that day Robby Mook, who became campaign manager, emailed Podesta: “We gotta zap Lanny out of our universe. Can’t believe he committed her to a private review of her hard drive on TV.”
Podesta ran a tight ship and had an unenviable job. Countless people wanted to give him advice or meet him for dinner. In September 2015, columnist Brent Budowsky wrote a long, panicked email about visiting a university campus where Sanders had a booth but Clinton did not. “This is happening at every major campus in America,” he warned darkly.
Referring to a Politico story about attacks on Sanders by Clinton surrogates, Budowsky went on: “The way NOT to handle Bernie is to telegraph how afraid the Clinton campaign is of him, and then dispense covert talking points that cannot be put in writing that embody the oldest politics that will only infuriate many liberal Democrats and give an already-biased media a legitimate story line to push.”
Podesta gave a characterically brisk response that ended: “Why do you think that story is not just a bunch of hyped up BS intended to have exactly the kind of reaction you are exhibiting?”
Voters aren’t stupid … despite what Clinton and her elitist crowd believe. Reading this drove some voters who might have voted for her to decide not to vote for her. Some stayed home. Some voted for Trump because they saw him as the only alternative.
The people have a right to know what our public officials … or would-be public officials … are doing. They are not private individuals. I think if we knew what was going on behind the scenes, voters would reject a lot more candidates. WikiLeaks did us a favor.
I’m not a Trump supporter. I worry about him being our president. But I worried more about Hillary being our president. And it turned out, according to their own emails, Hillary’s people were worried too. And that was something the voters had a right to know.