Leaked Clinton staff emails overshadowed by Trump campaign troubles
For the third straight business day, WikiLeaks dumped a batch of emails Tuesday taken from the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta.
The documents provide a unique and invasive look at a presidential campaign in progress, the Clinton team’s assessment of Republican candidates, and efforts at damage control in the wake of some campaign controversies.
Based on the emails, it appears Clinton was far more worried about facing one of the other top Republican candidates than Trump. In one message, chief strategist Joel Benenson warned about Marco Rubio’s political strengths.
In one email, current interim Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and former CNN contributor Donna Brazile tells Clinton’s staff about a question similar to one Clinton was asked the following day at a CNN town hall event. Brazile denied in a statement Tuesday that she ever received debate questions early or shared them with anyone.
Her statement seems to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the documents themselves, focusing on Russian ties to the leak and saying it is common for Russia to spread misinformation. Although some media outlets have claimed the question was for the town hall, DNC officials have also suggested the email was about a pre-interview question for a panel Brazile was appearing on.
Another conversation shows Chelsea Clinton expressed “serious concerns” about Bill Clinton’s aides using his name in connection with their private consulting firm.
Trump has seized on the release of the hacked documents to support his claim that Hillary Clinton is “crooked.”
“I hope people are looking at the disgraceful behavior of Hillary Clinton as exposed by WikiLeaks. She is unfit to run,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
The emails portray Clinton as a candidate at times micromanaged to an absurd degree, with aides debating the wording of a tweet or joke in a speech for hours. Much of the communication deals with relatively typical coordination, stagecraft, and messaging, though.
Some have proven embarrassing, including one exchange where a Clinton Foundation staffer refers to Clinton’s daughter as a “spoiled brat kid.” There also seems to be some debate online about the accuracy of Podesta’s risotto recipe.
Others have been misrepresented by Clinton’s critics. Conservative news sites rushed to report that Clinton hates “everyday Americans” based on an email in which aides were very clearly talking about the phrase, not the people.
Trump’s campaign leapt to allege collusion over an email where a Clinton aide said he was informed by someone at the Justice Department about a hearing related to the FBI’s investigation of the email system Clinton used as secretary of state, information that was readily available to the public.
Probably the most significant reveal so far is an email leaked Friday containing excerpts from Clinton’s paid speeches that the campaign feared could be politically problematic. At the time, primary opponent Bernie Sanders was pressuring Clinton to make the transcripts public.
In speeches to big banks and Wall Street firms, Clinton downplayed the financial industry’s responsibility for the economic crisis of 2008 and spoke more positively about free trade than she does on the campaign trail. In one speech, she said she dreams of “open markets and open borders.”
In another excerpt, she describes politics in terms that Trump has claimed prove that she cannot be trusted.
"If everybody's watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least,” Clinton said. “So, you need both a public and a private position."
Trump tried to call attention to the speech excerpts during the second presidential debate on Sunday, including one exchange where he mocked her effectively for citing Abraham Lincoln in explaining the public/private comment.
The leaks have gotten relatively little traction in the media, though. The fallout over Trump’s 2005 comments bragging about groping women and his ongoing war with his own party have dominated media coverage since then.
On Tuesday, discussion of the latest email release was largely drowned out in the mainstream media by Trump’s Twitter attacks on Paul Ryan and other Republicans who are not standing by him.
The Trump campaign continues to attempt to shift the conversation to the leaked emails, sending out several press releases each day citing different revelations in them. They have particularly pushed the theme that things Clinton said privately to groups that paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars differed from what she told the public.
Trump’s ability to hog the spotlight, which has earned him billions of dollars’ worth of free media coverage, may be working against him here.
“Frankly, any conversation surrounding the continued slow release of hacked communications from the Clinton campaign has been drowned out by Trump’s chronic case of foot in mouth,” said Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies.
Trump’s behavior after both debates has fed into Clinton’s strategy and provided fresh evidence for voters concerned about his temperament.
“The big mistake the Clintons could make now is respond to the WikiLeaks and take the spotlight off of Trump,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political consultant and an adjunct George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.
Trump’s announcement Tuesday that “the shackles have been taken off” portends a scorched-earth approach over remaining four weeks of the campaign that could continue to monopolize the media’s attention.
“I’ve never seen a candidate have so many self-inflicted wounds,” Nordlinger said.
Trump’s 2005 comments caught on tape are simply a bigger story than anything reported from the emails so far, according to Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University.
“They are just not explosive, given the new standards in this campaign for what constitutes a scandal,” Mann said.
The Clinton campaign’s response to the emails has been to underscore the alleged links between WikiLeaks and the Russian government and then pivot to attacking Trump.
“Media needs to stop treating WikiLeaks like it is same as FOIA. Assange is colluding with Russian government to help Trump,” spokesman Brian Fallon tweeted Monday.
The campaign has also urged journalists to report more on the illegality of the hacking and the Russian role in it.
“Russia actively trying to boost Trump is way more important than how our campaign's tweets are crafted, but is getting fraction of coverage,” Fallon said.
For the moment, Nordlinger sees little advantage for Clinton in putting forth a more aggressive defense.
“PR 101 is asking yourself, ‘Do I want this to be a one-day story or a multiple-day story?’ and these are the kind of thing you want to be one-day stories,” he said.
Mann agreed that the campaign’s existing approach has worked well so far, although he noted that Clinton’s response to the question about it during the debate was terrible.
“Things clearly could change and an email that requires a full-blown press conference is a distinct possibility,” he added.
Potentially more troubling is the release of another batch of emails obtained by the Republican National Committee through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. According to ABC News, the documents show that friends of the Clintons and Clinton Foundation donors received special attention from the State Department following a 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“Hillary Clinton’s penchant for putting the profits of big donors ahead of suffering civilians shows what kind of person she is. Clinton is not ‘fighting for you,’ she’s only fighting for herself and her donors,” Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement Tuesday.
The State Department official involved in the exchanges told ABC she noted friends of Bill Clinton to facilitate determining whether they had a history with Haiti or disaster relief.
Nordlinger observed the defense may be that it makes sense to turn to companies the Clintons had ties to and trusted in an emergency, but he added that the perception that the Clintons do favors for their allies stretches back to the 1990s and the Lincoln Bedroom. One more example of it may not drive voters to reconsider their support.
“I guess people are shocked, shocked to discover that the Clintons flip-flop on issues and cozy up to big donors,” he said.
If Trump unshackled turns out to be as disastrous as some Republicans fear, Clinton could face the somewhat counterintuitive problem of holding too big of a lead heading into Election Day.
“When you’re in this kind of high-stakes campaign, you need to worry about everything,” Nordlinger said. If her lead persists, Clinton’s biggest concern may be ensuring turnout among Democrats and independents who assume victory is inevitable.
Neither candidate is well-liked or trusted by the public, and experts say enthusiasm for Clinton among voters is low. Trump’s self-inflicted damage, his debate performance, and Clinton’s sustained attacks may be energizing the Democratic base, though.
“Polling indicates that we're seeing a steady increase in both enthusiasm among Democrats and an increase in their favorable impressions of Hillary Clinton,” McDermott said.
Four weeks is a long time to maintain the current dynamics in a race that has often proven unpredictable, particularly with an organization like WikiLeaks dropping new documents almost daily. Podesta’s emails may not be front page news at the moment, but the campaign needs to be prepared if a truly scandalous document is released or if Trump manages to stop making news for long enough that the media’s glare turns to them.