Emails released by WikiLeaks -- allegedly hacked from the Gmail account maintained by longtime Clinton adviser John Podesta -- have sparked partisan outrage on the right, and we-told-you-so head-shaking among liberals who worry that Hillary Clinton’s leftward promises during the campaign could prove temporary, based on aides’ exchanges.
Which begs the question: What do more than 20,000 emails released to date, unverified but not refuted by Podesta and the Democratic nominee’s team, foretell about how Clinton might govern if she defeats Donald Trump?
Within the leaked communications, which the campaign asserts hackers stole at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin to bolster Donald Trump’s candidacy, Clinton herself emerges largely as a shadow. In the chatter, she is relentlessly interpreted and swaddled by handlers, dissected (sometimes unflatteringly) by allies and stakeholders, and heard from directly only rarely.
But Clinton’s long tenure in politics and service in two branches of government, render the emails, which WikiLeaks says it is releasing in batches until Election Day, as more than a campaign embarrassment. There have been no smoking guns – at least not yet – but the communications offer insights about governance questions and ways of operating inside the modern White House.
Here are some examples:
Rationale for a Clinton Presidency: The Podesta emails, covering everything from internal campaign spats to Italian cooking tips to entreaties from climate-change warriors seeking to fund-raise off the candidate, offer insights into one of the essential challenges all presidents face: What are his or her core beliefs? Without the vision thing – which is not the same as a policy agenda – presidents throughout American history have struggled to lead and succeed.
The emails reveal how Clinton’s team labored to lock in a rationale for the candidate’s second bid for the White House, especially in a political environment in which her 1990s-era bona fides and her determination to stick close to President Obama cut her adrift from Americans who saw her as yesterday’s choice. Bernie Sanders, on the left, and Trump, on the right, encouraged frustrated voters eager for change to view Clinton as a disappointing appendage to Bill Clinton’s presidency as well as to President Obama’s White House tenure.
While writing the address that launched Clinton’s campaign in the spring of 2015, her speechwriting team chewed on the problem before the candidate reviewed an initial draft.
"`The Vision Thing,’" wrote lead speechwriter Dan Schwerin in an email that distributed an early text to colleagues. “This remains a challenge. As you read, does it feel like a vision for the future comes through? If not, that's a place we really need to focus.”
Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who worked for President Clinton, privately analyzed the former first lady’s “core message” last January, at Podesta’s invitation. Focused on Clinton’s remarks at a town-hall event in Iowa, he described in a lengthy email how off-kilter he thought Clinton’s pitch had become in comparison to Sanders’ (the Democratic socialist who took his bid for a “revolution” all the way to the Democratic National Convention in July).
“I think the overall message is tone death [sic] on what is happening in the country and even more, in the Democratic primary electorate,” Greenberg wrote. “Your core message is about the past. It is about Clinton’s character and qualities as a leader. The message is not economic, and it is not about the country.”
Joel Benenson, Clinton’s campaign senior adviser and a veteran pollster who worked for Obama’s presidential campaigns, searched for the aspirational signposts guiding the candidate a year after her campaign was underway.
“Do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?” he asked colleagues in February. “[I]t is still not clear what her singular message is.”
Benenson’s efforts to identify what his client “believes” was reminiscent of a similar challenge Clinton faced in 2008 against then-Sen. Obama. Surrounded again this cycle by message experts, pollsters, speechwriters and ad makers, Clinton’s decisions to tailor some of her positions to the electorate, as she did with her change of heart about the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact she initially helped negotiate, suggest a capacity for shape-shifting that could follow her into the West Wing.
Because pollsters have predicted Clinton could be elected with help from a percentage of the electorate that strongly opposes Trump rather than passionately admires her, any capitulations or compromises while in office could undermine public trust in her as president.
Preparation to Govern. Clinton has navigated – not always smoothly -- some of the thorniest governance challenges of the modern era, from health care reform and the shrinking middle class to the Iraq War and the rise of the Islamic State. President Obama tells voters that his former Cabinet official is the most experienced presidential candidate ever to face the voters.
The emails underscore what Clinton has argued on the stump: She would enter the White House with reams of policy positions she has internalized, accompanied by budget breakdowns, and gaggles of advocates and experts flapping over each.
Clinton is a politician who has been publicly rebuked for lacking vision while also being commended for a lifelong commitment to the good that government can do. She is a planner who favors control, and she does not relish the high wire of improvisation. Clinton is comforted by a command of the smallest details -- and the hacked emails once again showcase her dependency on a tight circle of loyalists who give her the briefings and materials to appear a mile wide on policy as well as 10-feet deep when it comes to her opponents.
Even the swiftest public responses in a 24/7 political environment during this campaign were drafted for Clinton and hastily reviewed and approved by a tribe of senior advisers, the WikiLeaks emails indicate. No detail seemed to escape scrutiny or preparation, even as Clinton’s aides discussed criticism that the candidate was perceived as inauthentic. Her 140-character tweets were devised by advisers with the same care as major statements, and carefully posted with Clinton’s approval.
Micromanaging is a tough trait to overcome in the Oval Office. In one of the most famous examples, Jimmy Carter, in his first six months as president, personallyreviewed and approved the use of the White House tennis court.
As first lady, Clinton was knee-deep in her husband’s major policy initiatives. But she also became immersed in smaller concerns: She banned smoking and removed ash trays at the White House in her first week, and later decided with staff that news crews’ camera equipment on the North Lawn looked unsightly wrapped in black garbage bags. Customized green canvas covers appeared.
If elected, Clinton’s natural caution and committee-driven decision-making could be valuable. But as she told the Las Vegas debate audience Wednesday night, not all presidential decisions occur after lengthy deliberations. Some of the most significant ones are reactive. While campaigning in 2008, Clinton argued in a “3 a.m. phone call” campaign ad that she was ready to lead in emergency situations. In this election, she has approached the same idea by asserting that Trump is too rash and explosive to make swift life-or-death decisions in a dangerous world.
“The bottom line on nuclear weapons is that when the president gives an order, it must be followed,” she said during the final debate with the Republican nominee. “There’s about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so,” she added.
Transparency. Presidents since Richard Nixon have promised Americans they would be transparent, accountable and committed to the truth while in the White House.
Clinton, as illustrated by the continuing controversy over her handling of her State Department emails, sought to control access to her official government communications in ways the FBI subsequently determined were “extremely careless.”
If elected, her instinct for secrecy, her guardedness when facing critics and political opponents, combined with concern about the cyber-breaches of the Democratic National Committee and her campaign are likely to make Clinton less transparent than some of her predecessors.
(The Obama administration, which has not publicly affirmed that the Russian government was behind the hacking of Podesta’s emails, last week encouragedEcuador to cut off WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s access to the internet. Assange, who created the whistle-blowing site in 2006, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than four years to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces an arrest warrant on allegations of rape.)
Clinton already had a reputation for strained relations with the news media. The digital evolution in media, and changes in the public’s news consumption habits since she and her husband last occupied the White House, would encourage Clinton and her staff to fortify their information lockdown if she’s elected.
The WikiLeaks emails reveal a team tackling communications with practiced techniques designed to maximize control and to minimize damage. The news angles and information sought by news outlets and individual reporters were circulated internally in real time, according to Podesta’s Gmail inbox. Copies of news articles, reporters’ tweets, blog posts, and television broadcasts were constantly monitored. Clinton’s traveling spokesman, Nick Merrill, emailed daily reports to headquarters about questions posed to Clinton on the campaign trail, her answers, and his enthusiastic assessments about her performances on the stump.
If a reporter approached a Clinton ally seeking information, the ally circled back to the campaign via email to offer staff members an early warning. If the campaign frowned on a journalist’s news coverage or inquiry, the campaign advisers instructed one another to ignore the journalist or deliver pushback.
In the modern White House, a president’s control of information and efforts to work with what the Clinton campaign called media “friendlies” is referred to as “message discipline.” Journalists less charitably refer to some techniques as propaganda.
What works for candidates inside campaigns is almost always imported into the West Wing because presidents typically tap political aides to fill out senior White House positions. (Some presidents, including Bill Clinton – who arrived late to the recognition that campaigning and governing were different endeavors – expressed regret about some early staffing decisions.)
In Clinton’s case, her top advisers are veterans of the Clinton administration, or worked with her in the Senate or at the State Department. Many became familiar with White House operations under President Clinton or Obama, or both. Clinton is known for her loyal, insular crew, and has been faulted over the years for favoring aides who catered to her idiosyncrasies.
After talking with State Department staff members in June 2015 about emails received by Secretary Clinton on her private server from longtime friend and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal, spokesman Merrill described a proposed strategy to his campaign colleagues. He said State ought to blunt the impact when the department turned Blumenthal’s emails over to the House Select Committee onBenghazi. The plan: Unveil the information in advance of the committee’s release via outreach to a “friendly” reporter at the Associated Press.
“They [State] do not plan to release anything publicly, so no posting online or anything public-facing, just to the committee,” Merrill wrote. “That said, they are considering placing a story with a friendly at the AP (Matt Lee or Bradley Klapper), that would lay this out before the majority on the committee has a chance to realize what they have and distort it,” he added.
Lee and Klapper’s coverage appeared on June 25, 2015, including input from State Department officials, Merrill, and committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy.
Political Instincts, Temperament and Judgment. Even Clinton’s most ardent admirers have fretted about her tendencies to favor friends who present conflicts; her reluctance to publicly admit mistakes; and choices that somehow balloon into self-inflicted wounds.
Clinton has weathered a failed health care reform effort in the 1990s, her Senate vote backing the Iraq invasion, her push for a military intervention that left a vacuum after Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi was removed from power in 2011, a transparently expedient about-face on TPP, and multiple investigations of her private emails that dominated headlines for nearly two years.
Former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, in his 1999 book “All Too Human,” contrasted Hillary and Bill Clinton during his time in the West Wing.
“Her husband looks soft, but his accommodating nature cushions him; Hillary looks hard, but her often brittle exterior masks a more vulnerable core,” he wrote.
Neera Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton who succeeded Podesta as president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, functions as a close adviser to Clinton’s campaign. In a January email to Podesta, she applauded one of the former White House chief of staff’s campaign tweets, which he complained had initially been “held.”
“Got held by who? Hillary. God. Her instincts are suboptimal,” Tanden replied.
To nudge Clinton to publicly apologize for her email “mistakes” proved a protracted ordeal last year, according to exchanges among top campaign officials and Clinton allies. “Apologies are like her Achilles heel,” Tanden wrote in September to Podesta and campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “But she didn't seem like a bitch in the [NBC] interview. And she said the word sorry. She will get to a full apology in a few interviews.”
Throughout the WikiLeaks disclosures this month, such glimpses of Clinton’s foibles and her team’s ambitions for the candidate reinforced impressions of her political vulnerabilities. But leading up to Nov. 8, thousands of stolen communications may be a preview of Clinton’s governance traits, as well.
Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics.