Friday morning's iteration of our ongoing national drama, “the president-elect tweets something outrageous,” was one for the books. For the past few days, President-elect Donald Trump — who has not given a news conference since urging Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's private email server — has insisted that stories about the hack are politically motivated. Friday, he moved on and suggested that however the hack was done, it performed a public service:
Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 16, 2016
Just for the moment, let's just unpack one part of that — Trump's charge that “the head of the DNC” gave his opponent “the questions to the debate.” It's a misdirection that worked on the campaign trail, because a kernel of it was true. In the spring of 2016, Donna Brazile, then a former interim Democratic National Committee chair and permanent committee member, was a CNN contributor privy to some of the network's prep for its Democratic primary debates. Twice, according to emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and released by WikiLeaks, Brazile tipped off Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri about what was coming.
“One of the questions directed to HRC tomorrow is from a woman with a rash,” Brazile wrote on March 5. On March 12, she wrote (hilariously, considering that these would be hacked and revealed to the world) “from time to time I get the questions in advance,” and shared a very specific-looking question about the death penalty that might be asked at a candidate forum.
As The Fix's Aaron Blake wrote in the fall, neither of Brazile's leaks offered the verbatim questions that Clinton would get. But her leaks, justifiably, were scandalous. She had used her role with CNN to pipe questions back to her friends at the Democratic front-runner's campaign, while a competitive primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was underway. She revealed none of this on the air. CNN, again justifiably, fired her.
Yet in talking about this clear-cut scandal, Trump has frequently left the impression that Brazile's leaks hurt him. He's also described Brazile as the “DNC chair" -- a job she did not hold until five months after the emails to Palmieri. (Ironically, she became DNC chair after stolen DNC emails sunk the already-embattled Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).) In the final days of the campaign, as Brazile's CNN career ended, Trump would tell his audiences of yet more malfeasance in Clintonworld.
“I want to know, was she given the questions to my debate?” he asked at a rally in North Carolina. “But she was given the questions to a debate by Donna Brazile.”
There was no suggestion that Brazile had access to the Republican primary debates or the general election debates. But on Twitter, whenever he referred to the Brazile scandal, Trump left that murky. Brazile, he would say, leaked questions from “a debate” or “the debate.” Someone dipping in, without reading the details, would be left thinking that Brazile had rigged the Clinton-Trump debates — debates that Clinton was seen to have won.
Why didn't Hillary Clinton announce that she was inappropriately given the debate questions - she secretly used them! Crooked Hillary.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2016
Trump's use of the Brazile story was misleading and masterful. The people who read the story's details and were most likely to be angry were supporters of Sanders, who Trump wanted to abandon Clinton (either by voting for him or staying home). The people unfamiliar with the stories heard only, amid the general election debate season, that “the DNC chair leaked debate questions.”
Of course, the bigger takeaway here is that Trump may have hoped this line would direct attention away from the latest Russia hack details and back onto campaign season battles — in which case, the tweet is off-base on multiple levels.