The website Wikileaks published emails on Friday apparently belonging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, marking the latest results of hacking operations on internal Democratic Party communications.
If they are authentic, Friday’s late-afternoon dump of emails sent and received by Podesta offer a glimpse into the inner workings of the Clinton campaign as it weathered its formative stages and the Democratic primary. Podesta, a canny and top-level operator in the Clinton campaign who served in both former President Bill Clinton and President Obama’s White House, often had the final say on key campaign decisions.
The emails were released just hours after the White House officially accused the Russian government of meddling in the U.S. election, citing the hack of internal Democratic Party emails published in late July.
“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,” said spokesman Glen Caplin in a statement.
Former national security officials warned earlier a statement to Yahoo News that Russian hackers “release fake documents look the same.” Still, many of the emails included the authentic addresses of top-level campaign staffers and matched the dates of campaign events.
Most of the emails reflect mundane campaign communications and do not reveal wrongdoing. They are a window into the Clinton campaign’s operations, as Podesta was included on emails about messaging against Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as how to defend Clinton against attacks over her family’s foundation and her email controversy.
The emails also showed that top staff voiced concerns over Clinton’s paid Wall Street speeches long before she began her campaign. There are moments of levity, too, and her campaign and hotly debated, over many emails, what joke their boss should tell at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa.
Here’s what the emails showed:
Robby Mook, the campaign manager, was worried about the Clinton Foundation’s ties to banks. Democrats have questioned Clinton’s decision after she left the State Department to give paid speeches to banks, industry groups, and universities. Mook, who went on to manage Clinton’s campaign, suggested in an email that it was unwise to involve Goldman Sachs at a Clinton Foundation event in 2014, though it is unclear precisely what event he was referring to. “[I]t’s a little troubling that Goldman Sachs was selected for the Foundation event,” said Mook in his email.
Some of Clinton’s paid speeches were apparently revealed. An email to Podesta from January 2016 quoted sections of Clinton’s speeches; in one from 2013 Clinton conceded to needing a “public and a private position” in politics, and she said in 2014 she was aware of security concerns around using a BlackBerry at the State Department and that emails could be vulnerable to hacking. She also said she supported free trade and “open borders,” though it is unclear from the context exactly what she meant.
There was endless back-and-forth over what joke Clinton should tell in a speech. The most senior advisers to the campaign debated over multiple emails what joke the former Secretary of State should tell at an important dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, in October 2015. The exchange came days after Clinton’s 11-hour grilling on Capitol Hill by the Republican-led House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Should they tell a joke about Rep. Trey Gowdy, who headed the committee? Podesta thought so. Clinton should say in her speech “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,” Podesta suggested in an email chain.
Jim Margolis, another adviser, suggested a line by former President Bill Clinton that referenced Sanders, who had refused in the previous debate to attack Clinton for her email controversy. “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 ..,?” Margolis said.
Others worried it sacrificed the high ground for Clinton after her successful showing at the hearing, when Republicans conceded they had learned nothing new.
If anything, the exchange shows how meticulously her top aides often debate over minutiae in her speeches.
Clinton’s advisers saw Jeb Bush’s economic message as a threat. Back in February 2015 when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was raising millions of dollars for a future juggernaut presidential campaign, and he appeared in early polls to be the Republican frontrunner, Clinton’s aides examined the language of his early economic pitch. The speech, which called for less regulation and the “right to rise,” made her aides nervous.
“He’s in a fertile zone, GOP primary electorate notwithstanding. For those of you who’ve had to put up with my interest exploring ‘opportunity’ framing, he has some of the elements here,” said Jim Margolis, an adviser.
“It’s a scary new wrapping paper for trickle down. Very much in synch with what we hear in groups,” said a pollster for the Clinton campaign, Jeff Liszt.
“Very little in this speech that HRC wouldn’t say,” added adviser Mandy Grunwald.
They debated over how to criticize Sanders The campaign’s top brass debated in February 2016 how to target the Vermont Senator, who was proving to be a greater challenge to Clinton than her campaign had expected. Adviser Mandy Grunwald suggested in an email chain some “negatives” or possible attack lines against Sanders, including attacking Sanders for proposing high levels of spending that would increase middle-class taxes, an argument the Clinton campaign did use.
She also suggested criticizing Sanders’ proposed cuts to security spending made Americans less safe, and unearthing essays Sanders wrote about rape and female sexuality when he was in his late 20s. At the time, top aides were frustrated by Sanders’ rise. Indeed, Grunwald conceded in an email to Podesta, “most of our attacks haven’t been working.”
Clinton apparently wanted to produce a video to respond to the controversy over her foundation. The campaign was hampered from the beginning by allegations about the Clinton Foundation and its acceptance of foreign donations, and Podesta’s emails show that the nascent campaign struggled to respond.
In one exchange from early May, aides appeared to debate releasing a video in which Clinton would answer questions about the foundation. It was an idea Clinton herself seemed to endorse, but the video was never ultimately produced.
“She believes she needs to do this video is because her integrity is being attacked and she is the only one who can say she didn’t make a decision as secstate based on a donor,” said Clinton campaign vice chairwoman Huma Abedin in the May 2015 email.
Clinton cut a section from her book about Keystone Pipeline. Conscious of the tense debate between environmentalists and the energy industry over the pipeline, Clinton deleted a section from a draft of her book, Hard Choices, that discussed the project. In the original section, according to an email to Podesta, Clinton called the pipeline a “tough question” and said that she hoped that “this important decision can be insulated from politics.”
Podesta called for the section to be removed. “Cut,” he wrote in an email.
Clinton declined to voice her personal view until after a thorough review. She ultimately said she opposed it.
With reporting by Zeke J. Miller