Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Strained to Hone Her Message, Hacked Emails Show – NYTimes.com

Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Strained to Hone Her Message, Hacked Emails Show – NYTimes.com

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary in February, a longtime aide to Bill Clinton was worried. Hillary Clinton was about to go down to defeat in the state, and the former president was despondent.

“He’s losing it bad today,” Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, wrote to John D. Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, in an email. She added, “If you’re in NH please see if you can talk to him.”

The email was one of thousands released by WikiLeaks on Monday that provided a revealing glimpse into the inner workings of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. They show a candidacy that began expecting a coronation and was thrown badly off course by a misreading of the electorate and a struggle to define what she stood for.

Stretching over nine years, but drawn mainly from the past two years, the correspondence captures in detail the campaign’s extreme caution and difficulty in identifying a core rationale for her candidacy, and the noisy world of advisers, friends and family members trying to exert influence.

At one point, more than a dozen campaign aides corresponded about whether Mrs. Clinton could tell a joke at an Iowa dinner about the hairstyles of two Republicans: Donald J. Trump and Trey Gowdy, the representative from South Carolina who led the inquiry into Mrs. Clinton’s handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

“I love the joke, too,” wrote Jake Sullivan, Mrs. Clinton’s policy chief, but he added that Mrs. Clinton should stay “above the committee.”

The exchanges show how Mrs. Clinton’s long-gestating plans to pursue the presidency collided with a newly populist mood in the Democratic electorate (which one of her advisers called the “Red Army”).

And they detail how, even as Mrs. Clinton was brushing off questions early on about her political plans, insisting that a run was not on her mind, she had already enlisted aides to wrestle with how to reposition a career politician as an agent of change and how openly to rely on gender to stoke grass-roots enthusiasm.

Glen Caplin, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, did not dispute the authenticity of the emails, which were believed to have been obtained by hackers who breached Mr. Podesta’s account. But he assailed Mr. Trump’s campaign for praising their release.

“This comes after Donald Trump encouraged more espionage over the summer and continued to deny the hack even happened at Sunday’s debate,” Mr. Caplin said, alluding to election-related email hacks that have been linked to Russian security forces.

Mrs. Clinton’s voice is mostly absent: The leak includes few emails from the candidate herself. But the exchanges among her aides are sometimes less “House of Cards” than “Veep,” HBO’s scabrous comedy dissecting the vanity and phoniness of Washington.

In one 2014 email exchange with top Clinton aides, Roy Spence, a longtime friend and ad maker for Mrs. Clinton, sent over possible slogans to sum up her candidacy.

“Neither change nor continuity but The different way. The new way,” Mr. Spence wrote. He went on: “She champions with clear vision and grit. We will build not the partisans ships. But rather the Ship of State flying the American Dream flag.”

The emails reveal interminable debate on matters both large (such as Mrs. Clinton’s splashy June 2015 campaign rollout speech on Roosevelt Island in New York City) and small (such as whether she should make a crack about her graying hair).

“More humor, first woman, ass kicker and coloring her hair,” Jennifer Palmieri advised, referring to a line in which Mrs. Clinton says she would not have to worry about her hair going gray in the White House.

Almost all campaigns calibrate stagecraft, speeches and strategy. But the new emails seem to underscore Mrs. Clinton’s public struggles in defining her politics and her reasons for wanting to become president.

The private discussions among her advisers about policy — on trade, on the Black Lives Matter movement, on Wall Street regulation — often revolved around the political advantages and pitfalls of different positions, while there was little or no discussion about what Mrs. Clinton actually believed. Mrs. Clinton’s team at times seemed consumed with positioning and optics.

In August 2015, her aides debated how Mrs. Clinton should reveal her long-awaited position on an issue of major concern to the Democratic electorate: the Keystone XL oil pipeline. She had chosen to oppose it, potentially undermining President Obama.

Dan Schwerin, Mrs. Clinton’s speechwriter, wrote to her longtime adviser Cheryl D. Mills, “We are trying to find a good way to leak her opposition to the pipeline without her having to actually say it.” A month later, Brian Fallon, a press aide, suggested leaking her position to the news media by mentioning it during a meeting with labor leaders, rather than with an op-ed article.

“Do we worry that publishing an op-ed that leans this aggressively into our newfound position on Keystone will be greeted cynically and perhaps as part of some manufactured attempt to project sincerity?” Mr. Fallon wrote. The best way to appear consistent, he concluded, was “if her position merely leaked out of the labor meeting.”

In another exchange, in the fall of 2015, Mrs. Clinton’s speechwriter circulated a draft of an op-ed about her plan to reform Wall Street. Her senior advisers agonized over whether she should address calls to reinstate Glass-Steagall, the post-Depression rules separating commercial and investment banking.

One aide, Mandy Grunwald, said that Mrs. Clinton was leaning toward endorsing a return to Glass-Steagall, and that not doing so risked antagonizing Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who had campaigned to reinstate the rule. The campaign feared that Ms. Warren might back Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for president.

“I understand that we face phoniness charges if we ‘change’ our position now — but we face political risks this way too,” Ms. Grunwald wrote. “I worry about Elizabeth deciding to endorse Bernie.”

Mrs. Clinton ultimately did not support Ms. Warren’s proposal, arguing that other policies would better regulate Wall Street risk. Mr. Sanders criticized Mrs. Clinton on the issue throughout the campaign. (Ms. Warren stayed out of the primary battle until June, when Mrs. Clinton had all but secured the nomination.)

The Clinton campaign had plenty of its own ammunition ready to deploy against Mr. Sanders, the emails show. Ms. Grunwald wrote that she had been digging through opposition research and had “a couple new possible negatives to suggest we test in the poll, since most of our attacks haven’t been working.”

In another lengthy exchange, aides debated various ways to repair the damage with gay rights activists angry over Mrs. Clinton’s long-stated — and dubious — assertion that the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by her husband in 1996, was necessary to defuse political momentum toward a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

There was little evidence for her claim, the aides agreed, and gay rights advocates were frustrated that she continued to insist on it. Some aides suggested emphasizing her “evolution” on the issue. Another aide recommended a statement in which Mrs. Clinton would admit she was wrong. But Mr. Schwerin said Mrs. Clinton would resist.

“I think everyone agrees we shouldn’t restate her argument,” he wrote. “Question is whether she’s going to agree to explicitly disavow it. And I doubt it.”

A few days later, at a presidential forum, Mrs. Clinton revised her explanation but fell short of admitting a mistake. “Thinking back on it, those were private conversations that people did have” about a potential constitutional amendment, she said. She added, “If I’m wrong about the public debate, I obviously take responsibility for that.”

In another email chain, from March 2015, four aides fine-tuned and sought State Department approval for a Twitter post in which Mrs. Clinton would address for the first time revelations that she had used a private email server during her tenure at the State Department.

By August 2015, when Mrs. Clinton agreed to publicly apologize for exclusively using a private server, her lawyer, David Kendall of Williams & Connolly, vetted Mrs. Clinton’s belabored statement of remorse. “Maybe it’s only me, but ‘hand over’ seems a little pejorative — how about just ‘turn over’?” Mr. Kendall said, referring to Mrs. Clinton’s explanation that she had provided 30,000 emails.

One misstep, he warned, and people will say, “There they go again — misleading, devious, non-transparent, tricky, etc.”

Mr. Podesta’s correspondence also provides fresh insight into his rarefied role as the de facto head of a sprawling political and philanthropic operation with dueling fiefs and family members. When an outside group headed by David Brock, a Clinton ally, signaled plans to demand that Mr. Sanders release his health records, drawing Mrs. Clinton into an unwelcome spat, another Clinton adviser, Neera Tanden, wrote to Mr. Podesta to grouse.

“Maybe he actually is a Republican plant,” Ms. Tanden said of Mr. Brock, a self-described former “right-wing hit man.”

Dramas within the campaign aside, Mr. Podesta wrestled with public criticism of the Clinton Foundation and a bitter rift that broke out between Chelsea Clinton and Douglas J. Band, a longtime aide to her father.

“She is acting like a spoiled brat kid who has nothing else to do,” Mr. Band wrote to Mr. Podesta in November 2011, after Ms. Clinton had begun to exert influence at her family’s foundation.

“Doug apparently kept telling my dad I was trying to push him out, take over,” Ms. Clinton told Mr. Podesta.

The emails showed that the old tensions between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama’s inner circle occasionally surfaced. In a June 2015 email, Huma Abedin celebrated that Mrs. Clinton, who at the time was hoping to shore up her populist credentials, had “smacked down POTUS on trade and kept kicking for a little bit.”

That year, the campaign faced another headache as it heard escalating chatter that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would mount his own campaign for president. Donors phoned in reports on Mr. Biden’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers to advisers like Ms. Tanden, a longtime policy aide to Mrs. Clinton, who relayed them back to Mr. Podesta.

Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and longtime Clinton backer, emailed her campaign manager to warn about one supporter in particular: Linda Lipsen, the head of the American Association for Justice, a trade group for trial lawyers, who was working to make sure members of the group did not back Mr. Biden, but who felt neglected by the Clinton campaign.

“I get multiple freak out calls every morning and I try to talk everyone off the ledge and not bug u all,” Mr. Elmendorf wrote. “But linda is in a different category.”

Meanwhile, elected officials who supported Mr. Sanders over Mrs. Clinton often felt the wrath of the Clinton network. When Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii resigned her position at the Democratic National Committee to endorse Mr. Sanders, two longtime Clinton supporters wrote to Ms. Gabbard to say they would no longer raise money for her. They also forwarded the email to Ms. Abedin and Mr. Podesta.

“Hammed dropped!” they exulted, with a typo, clearly meaning “hammer.”

Correction: October 10, 2016

An earlier version of this article misidentified the member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign who wrote an August 2015 email discussing her position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline. It was Dan Schwerin, her speechwriter, not Cheryl D. Mills, a longtime adviser.

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