What We've Learned from the Wikileaks Clinton Campaign Emails So Far

Hillary Clinton wanted to face Donald Trump, she dreams of "open trade and open borders" across the Americas, and some advisers were thinking about a "Catholic Spring."
October 14, 2016, 4:00am
Hillary Clinton and some of her aides on a plane in White Plains, New York, on October 3. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)​

Last Friday, Wikileaks began rolling out what the infamous pro-transparency group has been calling the "Podesta Emails," a batch of communications stolen (very possibly by the Russians) from the email account of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. During the 2016 campaign, Julian Assange's organization has been a clearinghouse for anti-Clinton document dumps, and Assange has trafficked in a few Clinton conspiracy theories. But the emails, whatever their source, seem to be genuine and have provided, if not an election-deciding "October surprise," a window into how political-operative types talk behind closed doors—and have given critics of Clinton more than a few "I told you so" moments.


Wikileaks, as is its style, seems not to have done much in the way of curation, simply dumping the emails out in a searchable database that journalists have been combing through in search of stories. It also occasionally tweets out highlights from the emails, though sometimes there really isn't much there. "HRC vs Clinton Cash: Communications Director tells HRC 'we got a few stories placed… we are also leaking… to the press,'" Wikileaks tweeted breathlessly last weekend, describing a routine PR response to a negative book.

Here are some of the notable things and strangest tidbits that have been found in the emails so far:

"You Need Both a Public and a Private Position"

One of the earliest emails to be highlighted was what appears to be a list of damaging statements made by Clinton during paid speeches she made to banks like Goldman Sachs, as well as a variety of other private organizations—the same speeches that Bernie Sanders called on Clinton to release the transcripts of throughout the Democratic primary. One of the statements flagged by Wikileaks itself (though the group mangled the exact quote in its tweet) was Clinton's remark that, "If everybody's watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position."

This should not be a particularly controversial line. Delicate negotiations sometimes involve saying one thing in a room and another when speaking to the public, either because public opinion can be a source of leverage in that room, or just because some discussions have to remain secret for a period of time. Wikileaks has both an institutional bias against this view—it seems to regard any hidden information as a threat to democracy—and a grudge against Clinton, so it's not surprising to see it underscore the idea that Clinton is dishonest. But rather than dishonesty, what the Podesta Emails show is the messiness of that public/private distinction.

"Open Trade and Open Borders"

And here is a prime example of a private position Clinton presumably didn't want to go public. In a speech to a Brazilian bank—this is from the same email as above—she said, "My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere."

Some neoliberal think tankers and even some libertarians wouldn't take issue with this dream. What's wrong with shared prosperity? The problem is, Clinton has never said she's pro–open borders in public, and that sort of opinion is anathema to mainstream American politics. If the campaign wasn't distracted with the accusations of sexual assault against Trump, Republicans would be able to turn this into a pretty damaging narrative: Clinton in her heart of hearts wants to erase national borders and even, who knows, create an Pan-American Union that will be run by internationalists and globalists.


To toss the conspiracies aside for a second, at several other points in the speech transcripts Clinton is (unsurprisingly) pro–free trade, and other Wikileaks emails show her supporting the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she now opposes—at least in public. On this issue, it's fair to ask Clinton exactly why her public and private positions differ so drastically.

Sympathy for the Banks

One of the reasons Sanders was able to challenge Clinton in the primary was that on many issues she's a centrist who can't muster the fiery left-wing populism that Sanders, Barack Obama, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (all of whom back her) are fluent in. In those private speeches, she was obviously friendly to the banks—"It's important to recognize the vital role that the financial markets play in our economy and that so many of you are contributing to," she told an audience at Deutsche Bank.

"Clinton, when speaking to the financial industry, adopted their mindset and privileged their arguments," wrote the Intercept. "The question that arises is whether members of a possible Clinton administration will reflect this worldview."

Elsewhere in the speeches, Clinton throws out a variety of other opinions: Walmart stores serve "a real purpose" in low-income communities, for instance, and "affordable universal healthcare coverage like you have here in Canada" is a goal to strive toward. Whether any of these statements represent her true, deeply-held beliefs, or if she'd act on them in office, though, is far from clear—and there's no way a likely Republican-dominated Congress is going to let her open borders or dramatically expand healthcare coverage even if she wants to.

The DNC's Pro-Clinton Bias

One of the more inside-baseball mini-scandals to emerge from the Podesta Emails came about via an email from Democratic National committee chair Donna Brazile where she appeared to share a question from a CNN primary town hall event with the Clinton campaign. It might seem like a small thing, but it confirmed the narrative among Sanders supporters that the DNC, and its former head, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, were pro-Clinton partisans. Some of the wilder theories about Clinton "stealing" the primary from Sanders remain ridiculous, but there was clearly a institutional bias for frontrunner Clinton from the start.

Clinton Wanted Trump to Be Her Opponent

This is hardly surprising, but way back on April 23, an agenda for a strategy call included a memo outlining what the Democrats' strategy should be when it came to the Republican primary. The goal was to get one of the "Pied Piper candidates" to win—this meant Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump, all of whom had pretty extreme views and would be weak opponents. That memo went on to highlight ways the Clinton campaign and the DNC could weaken the other, more moderate candidates, who were obviously more feared.

This worked out pretty well for Clinton.

"Needy Latinos," the "Red Army," and a "Catholic Spring"

Many of the Podesta Emails aren't really about Clinton, and beyond the transcripts of her private speeches don't necessarily reveal anything about her. What they shed light on is the way people in political campaigns talk about different strategies, sometimes making rather impolitic remarks. In one email chain, Podesta and another staffer chat about a "Catholic Spring" modeled on the Arab Spring, basically a way for Catholics to break away from their conservative leaders and embrace conservatism. But it's hardly an insidious plot, with Podesta writing, "Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up."

In another email, Podesta included the phrase "needy Latinos" in the subject line, which sounds offensive—but what he was talking about was making some calls to Latino leaders for endorsements. (I'm not linking to that email because Wikileaks, in its infinite wisdom, didn't redact the phone numbers.)

Anyone who emails the same people regularly knows that after a while you slip into jokes and references that might not sound great out of context, like a Clinton staffer joking that "John Podesta (and the Red Army) want to support $15!" in a discussion about whether to support a $15 minimum wage.

In fact, most of the emails that have been flagged by Wikileaks and the press are just regular conversations of exactly the sort you'd expect. Campaign aides debated about whether to let Clinton take questions from the press. A progressive emailed Podesta to say that Clinton "says things that are untrue" about Sanders and would like her to stop attacking him. Univision chairman Haim Saban wanted Clinton to highlight immigration in the wake of Trump's campaign—maybe that last one reveals some anti-Trump bias on Univision's part, but what, if anything, does it say about Clinton? Wikileaks says it has a lot more emails from the Podesta hack, but it remains to be seen if any are the sort that could really make heads roll.

Oh, and also Podesta got emails from former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge about aliens.

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