The WikiLeaks controversy has exposed the underbelly of a Washington culture that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump voters disdain.
The trove of hacked emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta shows Clinton’s easy relationship with Wall Street as she collected millions of dollars in speaking fees, as well as attempts by foreign governments to curry favor with a former president, Bill Clinton, while dangling offers of donations to his family foundation.
“It’s a pretty unprecedented window” into the inner machinations of Washington power brokers, said John Wonderlich, executive director at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that advocates transparency in government. “The thing that might become hardest to deal with are the foreign donations,” he said. “That stuff is going to be a headache for years.”
While there’s no evidence of textbook “pay to play” or that the Clintons granted favors in exchange for donations, combined, the emails feed cynicism many voters in both parties have about politicians.
They show that, from the very beginning of Clinton’s campaign, her aides struggled to craft a simple message that conveys her core beliefs. For instance, one email from August 2015 showed her chief speechwriter mulling how to signal her opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline without saying it herself and, essentially, “second-guessing the president in public.”
Most of the releases, though, demonstrate benign staff deliberations that normally remain private.
“What you’re seeing with these emails is the sausage being made of a campaign,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. “The press is being manipulated extraordinarily here with these incremental dumps” that spur stories, he said. WikiLeaks claims it has an estimated 50,000 emails that are being released in batches.
“Normally you would get all the emails and decide what is newsworthy and what is not,” he said.
Clinton stresses that the exchanges were hacked by a group conspiring with the Russian government seeking to hurt her campaign and help Trump. While they’ve refused to confirm the veracity of the emails, they haven’t disavowed them.
The most controversial emails remain those illuminating her relationship with Wall Street and foreign actors, especially May 2013 comments to a large Brazilian bank that her dream was a hemispheric trade zone with “open trade and open borders.”
Anger at the political system powered both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s primary challenger, and won them millions of passionate followers.
Clinton has promised to call for a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a 2010 ruling that allowed for unlimited corporate and union independent political spending, in her first 30 days as president and has endorsed legislation clamping down on lobbyists posing as “consultants."
Trump recently offered a five-point plan to “drain the swamp” by putting constraints on administration officials and members of Congress becoming lobbyists. While Clinton’s proposal is a first step in addressing the relationship between moneyed interests and preferential access to lawmakers, neither platform amounts to major campaign finance reform that would relieve lawmakers of the need to spend countless hours on the phone asking for campaign contributions from wealthy contributors.
What's more, “Neither candidate has talked about strengthening FOIA or about how government ethics rules should work,” said Wonderlich, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. “That’s definitely been missing from the campaign," he said.
A number of speech excerpts suggest she’s more sympathetic to Wall Street than she may appear on the stump.
► In an Oct. 24, 2013, speech to Goldman Sachs, Clinton seemed to suggest the banking industry was unfairly blamed after the financial collapse, even calling for less regulation. “We need banking. I mean, right now, there are so many places in our country where the banks are not doing what they need to do because they're scared of regulations, they're scared of the other shoe dropping, they’re just plain scared, so credit is not flowing the way it needs to to restart economic growth,” she said.
She continued: “There was a lot of complaining about Dodd-Frank, but there was also a need to do something because for political reasons, if you were an elected member of Congress and people in your constituency were losing jobs and shutting businesses and everybody in the press is saying it's all the fault of Wall Street, you can't sit idly by and do nothing.”
► A later email from her lead speechwriter Dan Schwerin, regarding a draft of an October 2014 paid speech to Deutsche Bank, suggests she adjusted her rhetoric on Wall Street for political purposes. “I wrote her a long riff about economic fairness and how the financial industry has lost its way, precisely for the purpose of having something we could show people if ever asked what she was saying behind closed doors for two years to all those fat cats,” he said.
Some of the emails show foreign governments the U.S. suspects of aiding terrorist groups trying to ingratiate themselves with a former president and secretary of State.
In 2014, Clinton stated in an email that the Saudi and Qatar governments were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL.” Two years prior, Qatar wanted to give Bill Clinton $1 million for his birthday, according to an April 16, 2012, email from Amitabh Desai, the Clinton Foundation's foreign policy director.
“Qatar … Would like to see WJC ‘for five minutes’ in NYC, to present $1 million check that Qatar promised for WJC’s birthday in 2011,” wrote Desai. In the same conversation, Qatar was seeking advice about investment in Haiti in education and health. Importantly, there is no evidence Clinton accepted that money or met with the officials.
Undercutting the campaign message
Some emails have been taken out of context and misconstrued. For instance, online vitriol over comments that Clinton allegedly made that she “hates everyday Americans” is untrue. She said she hates the phrase “everyday Americans.”
Other emails cut against a core narrative the Trump campaign has sought to create, that the Clintons were using their family foundation for personal profit.
Chelsea Clinton in particular comes across as a mindful of ethics considerations by seeking tougher internal rules regarding potential conflicts of interest and outside income — or, as she wrote, she was seeking to “professionalize the Foundation.”
In 2011 Chelsea Clinton wrote Podesta and others expressing concern that her father "was told today of explicit examples at CGI of Doug/Teneo pushing for — and receiving — free memberships — and of multiple examples of Teneo 'hustling' business at CGI.” Teneo is a consulting firm founded by Clinton confidante Doug Band.
In one December 2011 email, she complained about an individual having allegedly called members of Parliament on Bill Clinton's behalf for Teneo clients “without my father's knowledge" leading to "comparisons between my father and Tony Blair's profit motivations. Which would horrify my father.”
As for Hillary Clinton's other major liability, the personal email system she used while at the State Department, Republicans have alleged that Clinton was seeking to withhold her email communications from government investigators.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of The New York Times report uncovering her use of a private server, Jim Margolis, a Clinton strategist, asks “if there is a release of the 55,000, are there others that are not being released?”
In an email dated March 3, 2015, spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri replies: “Only emails we would not be making public are her truly personal ones.”