As Hillary Clinton prepared to launch her presidential campaign early last year, the former Secretary of State wanted her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to keep one last, lucrative speech on his schedule. Her husband’s sponsor: the financial giant Morgan Stanley.
The gig, her aides protested, was a terrible idea. Furor over Wall Street’s greed was raging in the heartland. Clinton was already facing criticism for taking speaking fees from unpopular clients. “That’s begging for a bad rollout,” campaign manager Robby Mook said in a message dated March 11, 2015. When the candidate stubbornly stood by her husband, Mook was adamant in a follow-up note that the campaign not begin this way: “It’s a very consequential unforced error and could plague us in stories for months.”
Clinton relented a day later. But the argument, revealed in early October through emails stolen from Clinton’s campaign chairman, was just the beginning of the recurring struggles her team would face with a candidate often determined to go against their advice. The hacked messages–which include thousands of internal campaign missives and the transcripts of Clinton’s paid speeches, published online by WikiLeaks–illustrate how her staff worked to guide their boss.
What emerges from the latest round of traffic is a Cubist portrait of a woman who inspired among her aides varying degrees of admiration, empathy and exasperation. She failed to comprehend the public’s outrage over her email server, some messages showed. In private comments, she denounced extremists of all stripes and longed for an era of compromise on grand ideas that would make Washington functional again. And yet, between flashes of pique, the messages show a candidate most Americans say they would like to elect: a realist willing to deal independent of ideology.
Along the way, she also made some serious errors. “Her instincts are suboptimal,” Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton friend and contender for a top Administration gig, said in an email to campaign chairman John Podesta, the official whose account was accessed by what U.S. officials believe were Russian state-sponsored hackers.
There were early signs that Clinton did not understand the leftist fervor that had taken hold after her first run for President. In a May 2014 email, Mook raised a red flag when the Clinton Foundation chose the auditorium at Goldman Sachs’ headquarters to speak to the charity’s top donors. “It’s a little troubling,” Mook said. Despite the warning, Clinton attended the event as scheduled.
Things wouldn’t get easier after she formally entered the race. Americans demanded remorse when they learned in March 2015 that Clinton had been using a private email server during her time at the State Department. Despite her aides’ urging, Clinton, who had broken no laws in the Justice Department’s verdict, barely gave a mea culpa.
When Clinton dug in and tried to avoid the press, her staff raised concern. Responding to a May 2015 email from Clinton confidante Huma Abedin, Podesta wrote, “If she thinks we can get to Labor Day without taking press questions, I think that’s suicidal.” But that’s what she tried. Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, wanted the Democratic nominee to finally have a public relations victory in August 2015 when Clinton handed over her email server to the Justice Department. But, Palmieri wrote of her boss, “it is clear that she is not in the same place.” Any television interview could be a dreaded obstacle course: when Clinton finished one grilling heading into Labor Day weekend, Palmieri admitted she “cried a little bit with relief.”
Ten months into the presidential race, her closest aides still didn’t seem to know what Clinton wanted for her campaign mantra. “Do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?” wondered Joel Benenson, her pollster and senior adviser, in February 2016. An interminable litany of suggestions for slogans followed as everyone from pollsters to campaign officials weighed in. Emails among Clinton’s staff suggest she personally drafted the first pillars of her message, “the Four Fights”–the economy, stronger families, national security and getting money out of politics–but that frame was quietly abandoned in mid-2015.
Despite hiring a Noah’s ark of political professionals–two of everything–she still relied on longtime hands who made easy end runs around any newcomers. In one case, advertising guru Mandy Grunwald went straight to Hillary to get a better contract, and Mook responded with annoyance about a resulting compromise: “They’re all going to be able to buy nice houses when this is over!” Podesta wrote off outside adviser Sid Blumenthal as someone “lost in his own web of conspiracies,” yet his incessant messages nonetheless filled the candidate’s inbox. And keeping the staff and the family on the same page remained a challenge; at one point Mook asked Clinton how much Bill and Chelsea Clinton really needed to know about internal plans and strategy, lest they second-guess the people in charge.
Second-guessing Clinton was a unifying pastime among aides who were often otherwise split. At times the top voices were, in their words, “at each other’s throats” as they competed for influence. They quibbled over such details as the timing of a tweet, how to address the Confederate flag and who had the final say on everything from hashtags to posters. They grumbled about Clinton’s penchant for secrecy and, despite decades of experience, her poor skills in handling the media. Mook casually mentioned to Clinton in one memo that she was in need of “media training,” despite decades in politics. “I suspect our internal decisionmaking is unremarkable compared to other well-functioning campaigns. Other campaigns just haven’t been targeted this way by the Russians,” a Clinton aide said, refusing to confirm the messages are authentic.
At her advisers’ urging, Clinton often tried to match the hard-line speeches of Bernie Sanders. But in Clinton’s closed-door chats with banks and trade associations, she revealed herself to be a pragmatist. She told bankers that she personally liked the Republicans’ then House Speaker John Boehner and said it was time for “evidence-based decisions” in government. “You ought to be able to make a deal,” she told Goldman Sachs in 2013, according to transcripts circulated by her aides. “I may have my own opinions, but let’s have a debate here. That’s what we were always good at in the past.”
Clinton tends not to hem and haw as much as her husband. Instead, she savors discussions about policy and reads the footnotes in memos. Even as the campaign hit its final month, she was still consulting with anyone who had ideas. There was no shortage of them arriving at headquarters.
If campaigns are preludes to governing, all this suggests–in the event of a Clinton victory–a White House with an adroit dealmaker at the top and a lot of static just below. Ideas will be flowing to and from the Oval Office through a sprawling network of advisers, leading to a pileup on Clinton’s desk. That setup made Jimmy Carter a one-term President and forced Bill Clinton to ditch his first chief of staff, a pal since kindergarten who couldn’t get the new Commander in Chief to delegate. Wanted: a strong traffic cop.
The Clinton campaign’s email hacks
Before reversing course, Clinton told an audience in 2013 that she supported “open trade” and “open borders,” according to a speech transcript
From: Tony Carrk
To: Jennifer Palmieri, John Podesta, Sara Latham, Kristina Schake, Christina Reynolds, Brian Fallon
Sent: Monday, January 25, 2016 12:28 AM
Subject: HRC Paid Speeches
*Hillary Clinton Said Her Dream Is A Hemispheric Common Market, With Open Trade And Open Markets. *”My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.” [05162013 Remarks to Banco Itau.doc, p. 28]
From: Varun Anand
To: Jennifer Palmieri, Kristina Schake, Dan Schwerin, Megan Rooney, Kristina Costa, Nick Merrill, Christina Rehnolds, Brian Fallon, Huma Abedin, Robby Mook, Tony Carrk, John Podesta
Sent: Wednesday, September 9, 2015 9:09 PM
Subject: 20150909 Transcript | Building Trades Union (Keystone XL)
And you know, I’m already at odds with the most organized and wildest. They come to my rallies and they yell at me and, you know, all the rest of it. They say, ‘Will you promise never to take any fossil fuels out of the earth ever again?’ No. I won’t promise that. Get a life, you know. So I want to get the right balance and that’s what I’m [inaudible] about–getting all the stakeholders together. Everybody’s not going to get everything they want, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy, but everybody needs to listen to each other.
Clinton revealed her dislike for absolutists–her hecklers in particular–in a closed-door meeting with a labor union in September 2015
From: Donna Brazile
To: Jennifer Palmieri
Sent: Saturday, March 12, 2016 4:39 PM
Subject: From time to time I get the questions in advance
Here’s one that worries me about HRC.
[…] Should Ohio and the 30 other states join the current list and abolish the death penalty?
A Democratic Party official and CNN commentator appeared to give the Clinton campaign a network town-hall question in advance. The official has denied she forwarded the question
SIMPSON THACHER & BARTLETT LLP
STB DRAFT 12/3/11
PRIVILEGED, PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL
December 3, 2011
TO: The Board of Directors of the William J. Clinton Foundation John Podesta
FROM: Victoria B. Bjorklund Jennifer I. Reynoso
RE: Governance Review
[…] some interviewees reported conflicts of those raising funds or donors, some of whom may have an expectation of quid pro quo benefits in return for gifts.
Lawyers reviewing the Clinton Foundation reported ethical concerns about the charity’s fundraising practices
This appears in the October 31, 2016 issue of TIME.