While we don’t know for certain what the provenance of Podesta’s emails is, it’s a good bet they were obtained by Russian hackers, given that American intelligence officials have said that Russia is engaged in a comprehensive effort to undermine the election by hacking into Democratic political systems, including that of the DNC. The emails were then passed on to Wikileaks, whose leader, Julian Assange, has made no secret of his desire to destroy Hillary Clinton. So if there’s a conspiracy afoot, that’s as close as you’ll find.
Ironically enough, Donald Trump, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t believe, said in Sunday’s debate that Clinton “doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking.” This infuriated American intelligence officials who had briefed Trump on this very topic. “To profess not to know at this point is willful misrepresentation,” one told NBC News.
Some of the interest in these emails will be just gossipy — Chelsea Clinton and a guy from the Clinton Foundation were backstabbing each other! — but what do they actually reveal? Well, there’s a lot of back-and-forth between Clinton’s political advisers on how different issues should be handled. For instance, when she decided to come out against the Keystone XL pipeline, how should it be done? Should she write an op-ed? Just leak it to one reporter? Something else? Everyone has an opinion but nobody knows for sure.
It takes a mighty effort to turn this into something sinister. But some are trying, though. The New York Times story about it notes:
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.
That’s like saying that emails circulating among the coaching staff of the Washington Nationals “at times seemed consumed with how to score runs and prevent their opponents from doing the same.” These are political operatives. That’s what they do.
What’s most revealing is how their indecision and uncertainty about matters like these shows that when it comes to politics, even supposedly shrewd professionals are often just casting about in the dark. These are some of the most experienced operatives in American politics, and they don’t seem to know more than anybody else.
That isn’t to say there aren’t times when politicos come up with a clever multi-phase strategy and execute it to perfection. For instance, that happened to with the Alicia Machado story: when Clinton talked about her in the first debate, her campaign had already prepared a video featuring Machado and prepped her for a media tour, and they rightly assumed Trump would take the bait and lash out at her. It worked as well as they could have hoped.
But most of the time, everybody’s improvising, and even the smartest and most experienced operatives screw up. The best email in this batch is one from an experienced admaker, who goes on a stream-of-consciousness riff suggesting themes for Clinton’s upcoming campaign (all typos in original):
Neither change nor continuity.but The different way. The new way. HRC declares the old way of building partisanships flying the special interest flags. Is the root cause of America becoming the Status Quo. Nation where we as a nation are weak and a victim of change. No when we are our best. We are a nation of doers and dreamers. Builders and architects of the future we do not predict or fall victim of the future. We create the future. 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
Have you ever looked at your hand — I mean really looked at your hand?
The irony is that if there’s anything that sort of resembles a conspiracy at work at the moment — and we don’t know if there is or not — it’s not from Clinton’s side, and it’s a bumbling one. Russia (possibly) hacks the emails, passes them on to Wikileaks, who publishes them to Republicans’ glee, but when nothing really damaging is there, Donald Trump is left to spend time at rallies quoting from altered versions of one email, falsely attributing lines from a Newsweek article to the sinister Sidney Blumenthal — a misconception he apparently got from either a Russian propaganda site called Sputnik News, or perhaps some alt-right chatroom denizen. Very few Americans know or care who Sidney Blumenthal is, but Trump’s ardent supporters do, and know to boo and hiss at the mention of his name as though he were Haman in the Purim story. This will not, I can boldly predict, transform the presidential race. And again, we don’t know whether this is happening, and even if it is, it seems more haphazard than conspiratorial.
Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that Podesta’s emails aren’t newsworthy. It’s always interesting to know what people are saying behind the scenes. The same is true of what we learned from Podesta’s emails about Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street firms — which, again, were somewhat interesting though not nearly as scandalous as Republicans, and even some on the left, had hoped. But whenever someone tells you that there’s a complex and wide-reaching conspiracy at work, one with multiple moving parts synchronizing to manipulate events while keeping itself hidden from public view, you should be very skeptical.