The WikiLeaks release of John Podesta's emails reveals what the inner circle really worries about.
By Gabriel Debenedetti
10/08/16 07:48 PM EDT
When WikiLeaks published what it said was a trove of emails from the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta on Friday evening, it did more than just create a political headache for the Democratic nominee.
The release also provided rare insight into the behind-the-scenes decision-making process of a massive and notoriously tight-lipped political operation that for more than two years has been singularly dedicated to delivering the White House to Hillary Clinton.
The emails reveal a meticulously controlled environment at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters as it took on Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. It’s a campaign with a penchant for caution, saddled with an outsized reliance on a tight group of Democratic operatives near the top for routine and delicate tasks alike. Those senior officials oversaw the extraordinarily close choreography of the candidate’s most-scrutinized political moments in the early going, from a high-profile speech in Iowa to the tortured rollout of Clinton’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Ever vigilant for land mines, they saw one budding problem long before the official launch of Clinton’s candidacy.
In an email dated May 10, 2014 — over 11 months before Clinton announced her bid in New York — campaign manager-in-waiting Robby Mook wrote to Podesta, who was then still a top adviser to President Barack Obama, to express concern over the optics of a meeting of top Clinton Foundation donors at the Goldman Sachs headquarters.
“I flagged for Tina and Cheryl as well but it’s a little troubling that Goldman Sachs was selected for the foundation event,” wrote Mook — presumably referring to longtime family aides Tina Flournoy and Cheryl Mills — and underscoring a worry that the candidate-to-be’s ties to the financial industry would be a problem for her down the line.
The Clinton campaign has declined to confirm the authenticity of the email documents — which were released by avowed Clinton critic Julian Assange’s group shortly after the publication of a recording of Donald Trump making vulgar remarks about a woman, in a crippling blow to the Republican’s presidential bid — but immediately tied their release to federal officials’ formal implication of Russia in hacks apparently designed to swing the election toward Trump.
“Earlier today, the U.S. government removed any reasonable doubt that the Kremlin has weaponized WikiLeaks to meddle in our election and benefit Donald Trump’s candidacy,” said spokesman Glen Caplin. "We are not going to confirm the authenticity of stolen documents released by Julian Assange who has made no secret of his desire to damage Hillary Clinton.”
Nonetheless, the exchanges in the emails appear to confirm that the political caution often ascribed to Clinton extends to her political lieutenants.
In fact, the release underscores the campaign’s longstanding worries about a series of revelations or developments that could undermine her campaign, from her financial industry ties to questions about the Clinton Foundation.
When it came to the publication of the book “Clinton Cash,” which top aides feared could poison the foundation’s work in the public eye, for example, they tried to see whether Clinton ally David Brock could find an advance copy as early as March, before she launched her campaign.
The concerns about her relationship with Wall Street — and the finely detailed planning to neutralize the issue once Clinton’s campaign got up and running in April 2015 — was on display yet again this January, when research director Tony Carrk emailed Podesta, his assistant, and three top communications aides excerpts from the candidate’s paid speeches to financial firms that had become a central issue in her surprisingly bruising primary against Sanders.
Carrk’s nearly 5,000-word message breaks down potentially troubling pieces of the addresses into sections such as *CLINTON SAYS YOU NEED TO HAVE A PRIVATE AND PUBLIC POSITION ON POLICY*, *CLINTON IS AWARE OF SECURITY CONCERNS AROUND BLACKBERRIES*, and *CLINTON TALKS ABOUT HOLDING WALL STREET ACCOUNTABLE ONLY FOR POLITICAL REASONS*.
Despite that framing, the rundown revealed few if any real bombshells aside from Clinton’s ease with Wall Street titans and her avowed preference for free trade in an election cycle so focused on her professed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. If anything, it raised questions about whether her refusal to release transcripts of those speeches was worth the heavy political cost of withholding them.
When it came time for Clinton to appear in public at critical moments of her primary, tight choreography was the rule, the emails show.
In the leadup to October 2015’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa — a highly anticipated moment in which Clinton sought to recreate some of the spark that vaulted Obama into the lead in the state in 2011 — Clinton’s top staffers held an extended discussion about her speech, including long riffs about the jokes she sought to tell, according to the emails.
After close Clinton aide Huma Abedin wrote to say Clinton was concerned about her speech, speechwriter Dan Schwerin shared a copy of Obama’s address from 2007, and Podesta brought up the question of the jokes, questioning an apparent suggestion to mention Clinton’s email trouble. Instead, he suggested a pivot to her Benghazi hearings.
“I couldn’t talk on the call, but I agree with Joel [Benenson], let’s not go back to emails. Re Jen [Palmieri]’s point on this being a partisan crowd salesmanship not partisanship is a hard shot at the Republicans, so I think it’s fine. On freshening things up, what about: I used to be obsessed with Donald Trump’s hair, that was until I got to spend 11 hours staring at the top of Trey Gowdy’s head[?]"
Over the ensuing 15 emails, top aides including Schwerin, Mook, communications director Palmieri, chief strategist Benenson, top policy aide Jake Sullivan, media advisers Mandy Grunwald and Jim Margolis, and Iowa state director Matt Paul weighed in, eventually starting to move on when Margolis revealed that former President Bill Clinton had a thought, as well: “You all think wjc’s joke is too much about her kinda wishing after hour 8 that Bernie would come through the door with his damn email line ...? I think it’s funny and confident and the room would love it.”
“It’s a joke that would work and room would love it,” responded Benenson. “However one caveat: I think it gives Bernie the credit for putting the email crap behind us instead of her — she crushed the debate and she crushed at the committee. And while crowd may love it question for comms team is whether reporters would take it as proof that Bernie ‘saved’ her campaign from the email tempest. Maybe I’m being too literal here but that was my thought process. If others think I’m overthinking this, we can use it. Line could be — I don’t if you all saw it but the hearing went on for 11 hours. Eleven hours. I was kind of expecting around hour # 8 Bernie Sanders would burst in and shout — ‘enough about your damn emails Hillary!!’”
In the end, Clinton didn’t mention her emails or Gowdy.
As that episode demonstrated, even in a campaign that now employs over 800 people and directs the activities of thousands of Democrats across the country, it is a noticeably tight brain trust — which includes Bill Clinton — that is entrusted with the decisions.
Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the run-up to Clinton’s launch, as March 2015 revelations about her emails started to cast a cloud over her political ambitions.
After receiving an update on the coverage, Benenson, Podesta and Mook wrote to ask which members of Congress could be recruited to speak up about the “audacity of members of congress asking others to release their emails when they don’t ?” in the words of Benenson. “Do we have some D who can [look] squarely at Gowdy and demand he release all his emails for the last two years to people can see for themselves how politically motivated his investigations are?”
After Mook suggested Rep. Elijah Cummings, Podesta shot back, “Better off with an H R C warrior. Who is her most fearsome House ally?” In response, Mook rattled off the names of Reps. Nita Lowey, Steve Israel and Sheila Jackson Lee.
Then Margolis — a longtime senior Democratic strategist and ad-maker — swooped in to make clear he had already started the outreach to elected officials.
“After i suggested this earlier in the week i talked to few people on the Hill. The challenge is getting a member of congress to do it … because they think they will be called upon to make the same disclosure. I pointed out that they don’t believe private emails should be made public, so there is no hypocrisy. But there is nervousness just the same,” he wrote. “Maybe a retiring senior like [Barbara] Mikulski. I’ll keep working it, too.”
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/hillary-clinton-campaign-229386#ixzz4McBV2NfZ
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