WikiLeaks released yet another batch of hacked emails from inside Hillary Clinton’s campaign Wednesday, and with them came another round of embarrassing headlines and new glimpses of internal anxiety over the candidate’s weaknesses.
Republican Donald Trump and his allies seized on the emails, which reveal comments by an aide about Catholics, a line from a paid speech in which Clinton might be seen as playing down the threat of terrorism and an internal dispute over potential conflicts of interest posed by the Clinton Foundation.
The drip-drip-drip of damaging attention is likely to continue. WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization, has released new messages from the personal email account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, for five straight days and has promised to issue tens of thousands more.
The correspondence reveals a campaign that has struggled all year to improve a flawed candidate. As far back as March, aides were keenly aware that she was resistant to the media, perhaps out of touch with regular Americans and unable to convey a clear message to voters.
A month before Clinton launched her campaign, her aides worked to corral her well-known love for granular policy details into a message that would both capture her agenda and present a forward-looking, aspirational vision for her presidency.
Nearly a year later, a similar struggle cropped up as they attempted to revise her core campaign message.
“Do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?” asked Clinton adviser Joel Benenson.
Benenson contrasted the simplicity of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s anti-Wall Street message with Clinton’s multitiered campaign slogans.
Seven months later and on the cusp of Election Day, the concerns laid out in these emails and others largely remain. Clinton has proven to be a lackluster candidate who has struggled to win over the liberals who gravitated to Sanders during the primary, and who remains ahead in large part due to Donald Trump’s historic weaknesses.
“Right now I am petrified that Hillary is almost totally dependent on Republicans nominating [Donald] Trump,” Brent Budowsky, a political columnist and former political adviser, wrote in a March 2016 email to Podesta and Roy Spence, an ad maker for the campaign. “She has huge endemic political weaknesses that she would be wise to rectify.
“Even a clown like Ted Cruz would be an even money bet to beat and this scares the hell of out me,” Budowsky added.
Indeed at least one aide, Benenson, believed that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, posed the greatest threat to Clinton if he were to become the Republican nominee.
Hovering over the trickle of embarrassing emails are suspicions both within the Clinton campaign and in intelligence circles that Russia is behind the hack. One intelligence official on Wednesday said that the government is investigating the cyber incident as part of a broader inquiry into Russian hacking of political organizations such as the Democratic National Committee. Clinton and her allies have linked the hacking to an attempt by the Russians to influence an American election.
“By dribbling these out every day, WikiLeaks is proving they are nothing but a propaganda arm of the Kremlin with a political agenda doing Putin’s dirty work to help elect Donald Trump,” said Clinton spokesman Glen Caplin. “The FBI is now investigating this crime. The unanswered questions are why Donald Trump strangely won’t condemn it and whether any of his associates are involved.”
Regardless, the emails are likely to be a source of headaches for Clinton from now until Election Day. The Clinton campaign has declined to confirm the authenticity of the emails, nor has it denied it.
At a Wednesday afternoon rally in Lakeland, Florida, Trump called the WikiLeaks revelations “big stuff” and repeatedly slammed his Democratic rival over them.
“The Hillary Clinton documents released by WikiLeaks make more clear than ever just how much is at stake on Nov. 8. She would be the most dishonest and the most corrupt person ever elected to high office,” Trump told the crowd.
His campaign held a conference call with reporters singling out an exchange showing campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri describing people who convert to Catholicism.
“I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable, politically conservative religion – their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals,” Palmieri wrote, according to WikiLeaks. Palmieri, who is Catholic, said Wednesday aboard Clinton’s campaign plane that she has no recollection of the email.
House Speaker Paul Ryan seized on the email in a statement denouncing the Clinton campaign’s “disdain” for the Catholic faith, although he cited a portion of the email not written by Palmieri or any other Clinton staffer.
The emails also show the campaign’s internal struggle with how best to address the controversy surrounding the use of an email server while Clinton was at the State Department and her resistance to her aides’ counsel about how best to but the issue aside.
In March 2015, Nick Merrill, now Clinton’s traveling press secretary, wrote to Palmieri suggesting that Clinton sit down with comedian and writer Larry Wilmore, who was already scheduled to appear with Bill and Chelsea Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative event.
“HRC is not slated to join, but maybe she should,” Merrill wrote, suggesting Wilmore could make a joke about hearing Hillary Clinton is a big emailer. The idea never saw the light of day.
As the email issue persisted, top aide Huma Abedin asked Clinton’s advisers in May 2015 whether Clinton could “survive not answering questions from press” at events during the first leg of the campaign when she rolled out new policy.
“In the fall, starting to do avails at message events, interviews, and Q and A with press but having had a series of policy proposals already announced and reported on that she could point to,” Abedin suggested, seemingly to relay Clinton’s thinking to a number of top aides.
Podesta disagreed in no uncertain terms.
“If she thinks we can get to Labor Day without taking press questions, I think that’s suicidal,” Podesta wrote. “We have to find some mechanism to let the steam out of the pressure cooker.”
A similar debate re-emerged in 2016, after Clinton went months without answering questions from her traveling press, only to change course after Labor Day with more frequent news conferences.
Still unable to lay the email issue to rest in 2015, Clinton’s aides talked about their effort to persuade Clinton to use the decision to turn over her server to the Justice Department as an “opportunity” for her to be seen as having dealt with the issue.
“It is clear that she is not in same place (unless John has a convo with her and gets her in a different place),” Palmieri wrote in August 2015.
To this day, Clinton’s email server is a major part of Trump’s case against her and is regularly cited by voters as among the reasons they don’t trust her.
The battle with Sanders also proved challenging. Campaign aides sought to balance the need to reduce the damage his candidacy did to hers by bringing the primary to an end while also not alienating his liberal supporters, whom she planned to rely in during the general election.
In the wake of Sanders’s resounding defeat of Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the emails show top Clinton advisers discussing ways to slow the momentum of the senator from Vermont, a self-described “democratic socialist.”
In one email, Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald discusses several possible lines of attack, including one under the header: “FREE STUFF FOR EVERYBODY.”
“Combined, Sanders proposals would put the government in control of more than half of the American economy, but Sanders has never told anyone who would pay for all of this or how it would work,” she wrote.
Others warned against attacking Sanders too hard – and risking turning away his supporters.
The emails show that Clinton’s campaign also worried about the influence of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, over the left wing of the party and the possibility that she might endorse Sanders.
In October 2015, as Sanders was attracting huge crowds on the campaign trail, Grunwald asked whether Clinton should modify her views on a proposed banking regulation to mollify Warren.
“I am still worried that we will antagonize and activate Elizabeth Warren by opposing a new Glass-Steagall,” Grunwald wrote. “I worry about defending the banks in the debate.”
An excerpt of one of Clinton’s paid speeches show some aides were concerned that her comments seemed like an admission that she is “out of touch.”
And Clinton mused about her own shortcomings and challenges with being a more authentic candidate in an off-the-record interview she had with New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich in the summer of 2015.
“I’m trying to let people into my life,” she said, according to the transcript. “I’m trying to relate to people – not relate to them, you know, talk about being a grandmother – talk about, you know, the experiences I had growing up and all that. Talk about my own mother. And in that way, kind of make connections.”
The leaked emails also offer a glimpse of the often plodding nature of her campaign. While Trump often speaks off the cuff – and his staff doesn’t even know some of what he’ll say – most everything Clinton does is scripted.
On an email chain in October 2015 that included more than a dozen aides, there was great debate over whether Clinton should tell a joke at an Iowa dinner about her grueling 11-hour testimony before a House panel investigating the Benghazi attack.
As described, the joke, which was apparently suggested by Bill Clinton, involved the former secretary of state half-expecting Sanders to burst in during hour eight of her testimony and repeat his famous debate line: “Enough about your…emails, Hillary!'”
In the end, the line never saw the light of day.
“I defer if others think this buys us good will with Sanders people,” Podesta wrote. “But email jokes in Iowa usually end up badly and don’t we want to move on?”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Abby Phillip, John Wagner