The Democratic National Committee is building a “war room” to battle President-elect Donald Trump, pressure the new Republican administration on a variety of policy matters and train a spotlight on Russia's alleged cyberattacks to influence the 2016 election.
The DNC's new communications and research operation, to be staffed by former aides to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, will be one of several efforts from across the Democratic firmament to take on Trump, including the office of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Center for American Progress and American Bridge.
The DNC has hired John Neffinger, a longtime operative who runs the Franklin Forum, to serve as interim communications director and oversee the national party's operation. He will be joined by two Clinton veterans who spent the campaign focused on Trump — researching his background, monitoring his statements and trying to drive negative media coverage of his candidacy. Zac Petkanas, the Clinton campaign's rapid-response director, will serve as a senior adviser to the DNC and direct the Trump war room, while Adrienne Watson, a Clinton campaign spokeswoman, will serve as the DNC's national press secretary. Rounding out the team as digital director will be Tessa Simonds, who already had been at the DNC, focusing on digital organizing, state parties and down-ballot campaigns.
The DNC is in a state of flux, pending the February election of a new party chair. Several candidates are running, and the winner may choose to reimagine the operation and hire new staff. But interim chair Donna Brazile decided that would be too long to wait to stand a campaign-style operation to take on Trump in the weeks leading up to his inauguration, when his Cabinet nominees go through Senate confirmation hearings, and into the early days of his presidency.
Key priorities for the new DNC war room will be to shine a spotlight on Trump's conflicts of interest with his business enterprises as well as on Russia's alleged interference during last year's campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia hacked DNC emails, as well as the private email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, to influence the election in Trump's favor.
Brazile, who has called for an independent and bipartisan congressional investigation of the Russian hacking, said in a statement to The Washington Post that the DNC is prepared to “fully cooperate” with any such probe.
“Democrats have a lot of work to do in the coming months,” Brazile said. She added, “In this critical lead up to the election of our next chair, the DNC will be leveraging our resources and experienced team to assist with an independent and bipartisan Congressional investigation of Russia’s interference in the election, hold Donald Trump’s feet to the fire as he forms his new government, and lead the charge in defending the achievements made under the Obama administration.”
There has been considerable turnover in the DNC staff in recent months. Several top staffers left the committee during the summer, after damaging hacked emails surfaced on WikiLeaks and forced the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as DNC chair.
Brazile stepped in as interim chair and recruited several operatives to help run the party for the remainder of the election cycle, including Adam Hodge, a former Obama campaign and administration official, who served temporarily as communications director. Hodge is leaving the DNC for a new position to be announced in coming days.
The new hires Brazile is announcing have roots in the various political organizations founded by David Brock. Neffinger has been president of the Franklin Forum, where he trained scores of Democratic candidates on communications strategy and television presentation skills. He helped coach the podium speakers at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Petkanas and Watson have more traditional campaign experience. Before joining the Clinton campaign, Petkanas served as vice president of Media Matters for America, and before that as communications director for former Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and as deputy campaign manager for Wendy Davis's 2014 campaign for Texas governor. Before going to work for Clinton's campaign, Watson was communications director for Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC founded by Brock, and served in several media shops on Capitol Hill.
In her statement, Brazile said Neffinger “has trained an entire generation of Democratic leaders,” and commended Petkanas and Watson for their work during the campaign to “expose” Trump.
“I’m thrilled to welcome these talented and dedicated Democrats to our team, and I look forward to the critical work we’ll be doing in the weeks ahead as we prepare to elect new party leaders and rededicate ourselves to the fight for a brighter future for all Americans,” Brazile said.