Last Monday, an obviously flustered Brian Fallon, press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, took to Twitter to confront Julian Assange’s whistleblower group, Wikileaks, over its recent releases of emails from Clinton campaign chair, John Podesta:
Over the course of several months, Assange has been a thorn in the side of the Clinton campaign, dumping thousands of documents reportedly obtained by the hacker Guccifer 2.0, who also hit DNC, and is accused of being a Russian agent (though the allegations are unproven and highly speculative).
Though it is possible that the leaks are of foreign origin, their impact could actually be positive because what they uncovered is so important—especially as it relates to our political system’s systemic problems. There are undoubtedly dangers inherent to foreign entities (governmental or otherwise) selectively releasing information that supports one side—we don’t want our elections influenced by who has the best hackers—and the best criticism of the Wikileaks hacks is that they almost unilaterally attack Clinton while leaving Trump unscathed. Nor do the profound systemic issues the leaks raise justify voting for a demagogue like Trump; they merely shine a light on ways in which our government fails us.
That said, information of the kind they’ve released belongs in the public realm, and we’ve learned several valuable lessons from these leaks.
The leaks confirm that political machines have returned to American politics. Through the thousands of pages of documents, Americans get a glimpse into the inner workings of the most powerful one in DC.
Emails reveal how Clinton’s team tracks loyalty, and uses fundraising and access as a means of securing it from an extensive web of operatives including members of Democratic leadership, journalists, wealthy individuals, businesses, and outside organizations. Clinton operatives offered meetings with the Democratic presidential candidate as a means of securing endorsements. Tom Nides, an executive at Morgan Stanley who served as Clinton’s deputy Secretary of State, helped secure an endorsement from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in this way.
Disloyalty was promptly retaliated against. Former vice chair of the DNC, Tulsi Gabbard, who stepped down to make her endorsement of the Vermont Senator, was contacted by two agents of the influential Creative Artists Agency, Darnell Strom and Michael Kives, who alerted her that they would no longer help her fundraise over her decision. Strom and Kives then forwarded their email, titled “Disappointed,” to Podesta.
From the leaked documents it is plain to see that the Clinton political machine holds a vice grip on the Democratic establishment, and many of the state parties. Not every politician is Tulsi Gabbard. Money has become of paramount importance in politics following a series of Supreme Court decisions from Buckley v. Valeo, which held it to be a vehicle for speech, to the controversial Citizens United v. FEC, which held corporations and unions have the same free speech rights as individual people, and its progeny. Congressmen and women today spend half of their time fundraising.
According to Politico, Clinton’s fundraising network is the largest and most robust ever, comprising of federally registered lobbyists (following the lifting of a ban by the Democratic Party on accepting their money), celebrities, billionaires, and Wall Street and industry types. As Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, once wrote to Podesta, “[T]he Clintons won’t forget what their friends have done for them.”
All of this helps explain why what started as mere speculation based on a suspicious debate schedule set by Clinton’s former co campaign chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, blossomed into a full blown “embarrassment” for the Democratic Party—as Senator Elizabeth Warren put it.
Back in July, leaked emails showed top DNC officials coordinating with the Clinton campaign to downplay a potentially damaging story from Politico about how, in spite of attacking her opponent for not helping down-ballot Democrats, the money raised by the joint fundraising effort between Clinton’s campaign and the DNC was going almost exclusively to the former. The DNC was careful in its selection of spokesperson to go on television to discuss the potential scandal, out of concerns for blowback against Clinton.
And that was the tip of the iceberg.
Combing through one of the new batches of Podesta emails, Jordan Chariton of The Young Turks found that the Democratic primary debate schedule was largely a result of influence from Clinton’s campaign. An email marked April 27, 2015 revealed that the campaign had determined it is was in their best interest to, among other things, limit the number of debates, start them late as possible, not have them between February 1 and February 27, and allow the later ones to be cancelled “if the race were, for practical purposes over,”and have a format that allowed equal time to all candidates.
The danger here is that, because the parties are private entities—not bound to be democratic—the 2016 primary will set a precedent about what is acceptable going forward. This is especially true if Clinton wins the presidency.
Many already suspected that the media establishment was in the tank for Clinton given the coverage gap between the former Secretary of State and her opponent, as well as some obvious examples of bias like the Washington Post publishing 16 negative stories about Sanders in 16 hours and The New York Times stealth editing a pro-Sanders piece to make it more negative.
Now, however, Americans have a window into the inner workings of that relationship. While fundraising was its primary means of influencing politicians, access was the Clinton machine’s primary means of influencing the press. Her team kept track of loyalty. Emails show staffers would routinely flag reporters like Maggie Haberman formerly of Politico, now with the New York Times, or John Harwood of CNBC, with whom the campaign had good relationships, and had “not disappointed” with negative coverage. Those reporters were rewarded with access and inside information.
As The Intercept reports:
One January 2015 strategy document to plant stories on Clinton’s decision-making process about whether to run for president—singled out reporter Maggie Haberman, then of Politico, now covering the election for the New York Times, as a “friendly journalist” who has “teed up” stories for them in the past and “never disappointed” them. Nick Merrill, the campaign press secretary, produced the memo, according to the document metadata:
On another occasion, Dominic Lowell, the campaign’s LGBT outreach director, wrote to his colleagues regarding heat Clinton was taking over her support for the Defense of Marriage Act signed by her husband. The problem was that the explanation she gave—that the signing was necessary to stop a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage—was historically inaccurate. In the email, Lowell cautions his colleagues that journalists were picking up on it, and that there weren’t “many friends” who would back the campaign up on that point. It is clear he was referring to members of the press.
The impact of this kind of score keeping speaks for itself. One email from Harwood from November 24, 2015, shows the CNBC correspondent and New York Times contributor blatantly offering positive coverage for access to Clinton.
On another occasion, he warned Clinton’s campaign about Ben Carson, writing “ Ben Carson could give you real trouble in a general” and linking clips from his recent interview with the former neurosurgeon.
And it doesn’t stop there. As The Observer reported:
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress which publishes Think Progress, wrote in a January 2016 email, “But I should say that I would do whatever Hillary needs always. I owe her a lot. And I’m a loyal soldier.
Now-Interim DNC chair Donna Brazile, while she was a contributor at CNN, fed the Clinton campaign announcements sent to her by the Sanders campaign regarding strategy, as well as a question before a town hall debate to allow the former Clinton time to prepare her answer on a topic she struggled with: the death penalty.
Though Brazile denied the latter allegation, Politico reported that the wording and capitalization of the question she sent to Clinton is identical to one of the questions Roland Martin, one of the co-hosts of the town hall, sent to CNN producers. What’s more, Martin’s email was sent the day after Brazile’s.
The problem with this system is that the free press is meant to be a last check on government outside of the three-branch structure. In order for it to function as intended, it must maintain an antagonistic relationship with politicians and their campaigns.
Thus far the reaction to these leaks has been disappointing.
For one thing the mainstream media has barely covered them, choosing instead to focus on Donald Trump’s history with women (which, granted, is beyond troubling). The cable outlets like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC have left the story alone as it relates to our political system. This is unsurprising given the lack of focus on campaign finance this election (since Bernie Sanders dropped out). Even print media like the Washington Post, which broke the 2005 audio of Donald Trump spewing vulgar rhetoric, has been largely silent.
This of course, begs the question when political machines are left free to operate without the condemnation of American media, who protects citizens?
Most disturbing has been the Democrats’ reaction to these leaks. Rather than call for greater transparency, or acknowledge the flaws in the primary, or even caution against throwing blame around without definitive evidence, the party has ramped up the anti-Russian rhetoric—reminiscent of the Red Scare—as Brian Fallon’s Twitter tirade demonstrates. The narrative is simple: Russia wants Trump to win.
In an interview on FOX News Sunday, Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, even compared the hacks to the Watergate Scandal, saying, “At least in my lifetime, I can’t think of a precedent of a foreign nation trying to destabilize an American election.”
Authors’ note: Relations with Russia are already strained, which should be a warning considering that most U.S. foreign policy disasters and entanglements can, to one degree or another, be traced to the Cold War.
The problem with focusing on Russia’s potential influence in America’s election, besides lack of concrete evidence, is the fact it diverts attention away from how much corruption exists in our country. There would have been nothing for Russia to utilize if the DNC hadn’t cheated Bernie Sanders, or if political machines did not dominate American politics.
Rather than blaming Russia for interfering in our elections, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that there is enough corruption in our system for transparency to be weaponized.
Taking all of these points into consideration, even though the hacks are obviously partisan, and possibly foreign in origin, thus far they have done a service to American democracy: exposing not only the most powerful and connected political machine currently in Washington—in a move is akin to cutting off the head of the serpent—but the 2016 election for what it really is as well.
This is not to say Americans should normally welcome foreign meddling in our elections, but the timing in this case is ideal. The new progressive movement is in its early stages, and these leaks have fanned its flames. It is clear that if this culture continues to exist where influence is power, and money is influence, we will lose our democracy.
That is because, generally speaking, the kinds of moral and ethical infractions uncovered by the leaks are not unique to the Clinton political machine. That is what makes these releases so important in the first place: They have exposed the fundamental problems of system post-Buckley and post-Citizens United, and started an important dialogue that would not otherwise have happened. More importantly, they have shown a need for independent election monitors, and greater transparency.
: Esquire’s article from October 20, 2016 titled, “How Russia Pulled Off the Biggest Election Hack in U.S. History,” makes a compelling case that Russia is indeed behind the Democratic Party hacks. It appears that there is ample evidence, and that is something to take into consideration. Should we jump to “Russia is doing this to elect Trump?” No.
The only evidence for this wild theory is that Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the Republican presidential candidate for seeking a better relationship with Russia, and that is hardly enough to jump off the deep end. As of now there is no reason to suspect that there is any motivation other than embarrassing and warning the United States.
With the leaks it is important to keep in mind that the problems exposed are not unique to the Democratic Party, so much as they are systemic. Many of the things Democrats have been exposed for doing are surely going on with the GOP. That is why, overall, I believe the leaks will help us fix our political system by revealing exactly what is wrong with it.