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The WikiLeaks Emails Show How a Clinton White House Might Operate

The emails and their aftermath show just how difficult it will be for Hillary Clinton to get things done from the White House
Hillary Clinton in Washington DC in 2007. (Photo by Jamie Rose/Bloomberg via Getty Images)​

As the presidential race drags its way, gnashing its horrible teeth and leaking slime, across the finish line, it's becoming clear that Hillary Clinton is going to win. She was the obvious frontrunner when she entered the race 18 months ago, and she remains ahead in most national polls as well as swing state polls. Though there are still a couple furious weeks of campaigning left, she is preparing to take over the White House, reportedly reaching out to Republican officials to talk about future compromises and thinking about who would run her presidential administration.


But if Clinton the candidate wins, the question turns to Clinton the president—what will she do once in office? And how will she do it?

The first question is not that hard to answer. Unlike Donald Trump, Clinton has made a point to detail a lot of her plans on a variety of issues: She's promised to expand the use of green energy, push for tuition-free college for many students, and establish a no-fly zone in Syria. She's a centrist on trade, a hawk on foreign policy, and a liberal Democrat on most other things.

The question of how Clinton's administration would operate is trickier, but hacked campaign emails released by WikiLeaks over the past month paint a picture of an organization that is contemptuous of opposition, often obsessed with how an issue is perceived, and yet sometimes prone to decisions that seem self-defeating and dance on the knife's edge of political disaster.

WikiLeaks hasn't dropped a single smoking-gun email proving any kind of illegal activity, and often the context of the emails (which the transparency organization generally fails to provide) gets muddled in the reporting and re-reporting. To take one example of many, emails that some outlets portrayed as Clinton aides scheming to dodge press scrutiny were actually a spirited debate about answering questions at certain events.

But some emails actually are revealing, like the ones showing that in 2015 Clinton wanted to take a $12 million donation from the king of Morocco for the Clinton Global Initiative in exchange for appearing at a CGI event that would be held in Morocco. If not corrupt, this was, as Clinton aide Huma Abedin wrote in one email, a "mess": Clinton was preparing to run for president, and here she was appearing to be selling access to a foreign leader. In the end, she didn't show up in Morocco, but her initial decision to go through with it justifiably upset her campaign team.


There are other questions about what Clinton has said in private and her family's foundation, some raised by WikiLeaks emails. Why did the Clinton Foundation take millions from Saudi Arabia's repressive regime? Why did she take highly paid speaking engagements at banks and praise Wall Street in these speeches? Why were the Clintons' well-connected senior advisers so entangled in potential conflicts of interest that were called out in private by Chelsea Clinton? Why did Clinton aides talk so much shit about progressives in emails?

Clinton apologists can undoubtedly come up with some answers to those questions. But then there's another one. The Clinton campaign has been shown in emails to be deeply sensitive to how their candidate's positions and actions will be perceived. So why did Clinton (presumably knowing that she'd be running for president in 2016), make speeches and accept donations that could lead to a thousand mini-scandals blooming? It's hard to believe that Clinton didn't know that these actions wouldn't come under scrutiny. Maybe she's been through so many public fights over her private behavior that she doesn't mind a few more.

The Clinton presidency is not going to have much of a honeymoon phase—House Republicans, who will likely control the lower house of Congress, are already making plans to continue the investigation into Clinton's private email server after her inauguration. Clinton and her administration will have to weather opposition from both the right and the left, since many progressives already didn't trust her before the WikiLeaks emails came out. The White House will be under constant fire, and that means they'll likely go on a counterattack.


Apologies are Clinton's "Achilles heel," according to one adviser in a leaked email about the private server scandal. Instead of saying she's sorry, Clinton's instinct is to either obfuscate or to get surrogates to smear her accuser—on Sunday's political talk shows, VP candidate Tim Kaine suggested some of the WikiLeaks emails were fake (without citing specific examples), and her campaign manager Robby Mook objected to the focus on the emails because they were "stolen."

Clinton is a long ways away—geographically and politically—from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But the pair might share a common trait. "His problem is 'noble cause' corruption," James Ball, a former WikiLeaks employee, wrote in 2013 of Assange. "Behavior he'd rightly condemn in others, he excuses in himself, because he believes, at his core, he is the good guy."

Clinton may believe something similar. Her family's foundation does good work, so raising money for it can't be corrupt, right? And her presidency will save lives and push forward the Democratic cause, so no political move to serve that end—from fundraising to tweaking her policy positions—can really be wrong.

In a normal year, that kind of logic would go unremarked upon, because nearly every politician subscribes to it. But the 2016 campaign was about purity, about noble outsiders from Vermont or reality TV stars who could break things, start a revolution, drain the swamp.

Well, it's looking like the swamp will remain undrained. Clinton will come into office dealing with not only the usual foreign and domestic crises an incoming president inherits, but a hostile and often incoherent opposition party, a left flank that may not trust her, her own tendency to dismiss outside criticism in favor of her sense of righteousness, and a staff obviously highly attuned to changes in public opinion.

"I'm a progressive who gets things done" has been one of Clinton's refrains for more than a year. Come January 20, she'll have to prove that statement to the people who elected her—both parts of it.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.