On the day the news broke that Hillary Clinton had used a private email account as secretary of state, the man who would soon be named to chair her presidential campaign fired off a note of distress, venting frustration about some of Clinton’s closest aides.
“Speaking of transparency, our friends Kendall, Cheryl and Phillipe sure weren’t forthcoming on the facts here,” John Podesta complained in the March 2015 note, referring to Clinton’s personal lawyer, David Kendall, as well as former State Department staffers Cheryl Mills and Philippe Reines.
“Why didn’t they get this stuff out like 18 months ago? So crazy,” replied Neera Tanden, a longtime Podesta friend who also has worked for Clinton. Then, answering her own question, Tanden wrote again: “I guess I know the answer. They wanted to get away with it.”
The exchange, found in hacked emails from Podesta’s account and released Tuesday by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, provides a striking window into how the revelation of Clinton’s email setup roiled her nascent campaign team in the weeks before its official April 2015 kickoff.
The emails show that while aides struggled to get past the public controversy, they also expressed exasperation at each other and, at times, at Clinton — both for her decision to use the server and for the way she handled questions about it. Several exchanges illustrate fears among some top advisers that Clinton and other aides were demonstrating the very traits that polls suggested made her vulnerable: a penchant for secrecy and a hesitancy to admit fault or error.
“We’ve taken on a lot of water that won’t be easy to pump out of the boat,” Podesta wrote to Tanden in September 2015, at a time when Clinton’s campaign feared that Vice President Biden was about to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Most of that has to do with terrible decisions made pre-campaign, but a lot has to do with her instincts.”
Tanden responded, “Almost no one knows better [than] me that her instincts can be terrible.”
Tanden and Kendall declined to comment. Neither Reines nor a lawyer for Mills responded to requests for comment.
Clinton’s campaign has largely declined to comment on the WikiLeaks emails, which U.S. officials say were stolen through hacks of Democratic groups and leaders orchestrated by the Russian government. Clinton aides have declined to authenticate the emails, noting that the Russians have been known to doctor documents, but they have not disputed any specific revelation from Podesta’s email trove.
Instead, Clinton spokesman Glen Caplin on Tuesday responded to questions about the internal campaign struggles revealed in the emails by attacking GOP nominee Donald Trump for his recent comments disputing U.S. government findings that the Kremlin was behind the hacks and for “cheering on WikiLeaks’ Russian-directed propaganda.”
Though the WikiLeaks disclosures have not contained the sort of campaign-shaking bombshell that some Trump backers had hoped for, the Podesta emails have provided an almost unprecedented historical archive of the inner workings of a major-party presidential campaign.
Some of the emails include private and contemporaneous assessments of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses by advisers widely seen as likely to hold top posts in Clinton’s White House should she win.
They show that in August 2015, months after the New York Times revealed Clinton’s use of a private account and after the Associated Press identified her private server, Clinton’s aides were still struggling to persuade the candidate that she should show remorse for her email practices.
By that time, the FBI had opened an investigation into whether classified material had been mishandled through Clinton’s use of the server.
Some of the most frank commentary can be seen in exchanges between two friends and frequent correspondents: Podesta, a longtime Clinton hand who founded the powerhouse liberal think tank Center for American Progress, and Tanden, a former top aide to Clinton’s 2008 presidential run who now heads the center. Both are strong supporters of Clinton and her presidential bid. In another email released by WikiLeaks, Tanden referred to herself as a “loyal soldier” who would “do whatever Hillary needs always.” Their email exchanges often appear to have been written out of concern for Clinton’s best interests.
“I know this email thing isn’t on the level. I’m fully aware of that,” Tanden wrote in an August 2015 note to Podesta. “But her inability to just do a national interview and communicate genuine feelings of remorse and regret is now, I fear, becoming a character problem (more so than honesty).”
On Sept. 4, Clinton gave an interview to NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, saying that she was “sorry that this has been confusing to people” but otherwise dodging questions about whether she apologized for her actions.
Tanden wrote later that day: “Everyone wants her to apologize. And she should. Apologies are like her Achilles heel.”
Three days later, Clinton had still not apologized, even as the issue dominated campaign news coverage. “This apology thing has become like a pathology,” Tanden wrote. “I can only imagine what’s happening in the campaign. Is there some way I can be helpful here?”
Podesta replied: “You should email her. She can say she’s sorry without apologizing to the American people. Tell her to say it and move on, why get hung on this.”
Finally, the next day, Clinton told ABC News that her use of the server had been a “mistake.” “I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility,” she said.
The WikiLeaks disclosures reveal how, from the earliest days of the campaign, some advisers and staffers feared that Mills — who had served in the White House counsel’s office during the Republican investigations of the 1990s and then was Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department — enabled Clinton’s tendencies to hunker down.
In her March 2015 exchange with Podesta about the email controversy, Tanden lay the blame squarely at Mills’s feet.
“This is a cheryl special,” Tanden wrote. “Know you love her, but this stuff is like her Achilles heal. Or kryptonite. she just can’t say no to this s---.”
Mills has no formal relationship with the campaign but, the emails show, consults frequently about all major decisions. If Clinton wins, Mills could assume a significant role in the White House.
The emails show, at one point, similar skepticism of Mills from campaign manager Robbie Mook, the young operative Clinton appointed to build an operation that would avoid the personality clashes and internal dramas that plagued her 2008 presidential bid.
In February 2015, Mook complained to Podesta that Mills was going around him to vet campaign contractors. “It is secretly going around a transparent system we all agreed upon,” he wrote. “The secret s--- has got to stop. It’s a giant time suck.”
The emails also show a fondness among Clinton’s staff for her strengths and genuine enthusiasm when she did well in interviews or other public appearances. After Clinton appeared on “Face the Nation” in September 2015, an ally wrote to Podesta to praise her appearance. “Thought she was really good. Really good,” he wrote, before adding: “She sometimes laughs a little too hard at jokes that aren’t that funny. Other than that.”
Podesta responded with humor: “Laughing too hard,” he wrote, “is her authentic weirdness.”