Inside the seven-month war within her campaign over the email scandal that just wouldn’t go away.
Halfway through her long and humbling summer, Hillary Clinton ran into an old friend who wanted to know how she was bearing up under the pressure of near-daily revelations about the use of her private email server during her time in the State Department. Clinton was unmistakably unhappy.
“I am having two problems,” she bluntly told the supporter at a social event. “On the one hand, I feel like I’m rolling out a lot of substantive programs on issues that people care about. We’re getting one day’s news coverage. But there’s nothing larger knitting it together. We’re not breaking through. … And my team needs to get their act together on the email response.”
Clinton’s frustration with her own campaign staff was striking. So was her refusal for much of the year to characterize the escalating email controversy as anything other than a failure of communications, messaging or the vast right-wing-and-media conspiracy. Both complaints were consistent with what other campaign advisers told us in dozens of interviews for this story—except some of them laid equal blame on the candidate herself.
Indeed, from the minute news of Clinton’s secret personal email server broke this past March, she had reacted by lashing out at her enemies—and repeatedly demanding of her inner circle, “How do we get past this?” Neither the campaign nor the candidate have definitively answered that question, and the months of indecision, uncertainty and mounting legal threat have left Clinton, for the second time in her two presidential campaigns, a deeply vulnerable front-runner.
From the start, the email controversy—and her campaign’s handling of it—has been an exercise in exasperation, according to people involved in the effort. The wiry and wily John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, thought right away that she needed to dump everything out in public as quickly as possible to avoid the deadly drip-drip-drip. “We need to throw the facts to the dogs, and let ’em chew on it,” Podesta told the candidate. But Clinton’s answer—and that of her lawyer David Kendall and her former State Department chief of staff Cheryl Mills—was a “no” when Podesta and other advisers asked for some details. Foggy Bottom needed to review the emails, they were told, and besides, half of them, the ones deemed “personal,” had already been deleted.
At least Clinton was talking regularly with Podesta. In the concentric circles of Clintonworld, many of the political team she had put in place to run her campaign were still considered outsiders, hired hands more loyal to President Barack Obama or to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, than to the candidate herself, and as soon as the New York Times dropped its bombshell server story, they saw themselves as stymied by a legal team parsimonious with disclosure and a candidate reluctant to express remorse. Their daily conference calls, which could include as many as 15 staffers and lawyers on the line, often descended to little more than collective venting.
“Why does the other side always know more than we do?” an aide pointedly asked Kendall during one call early in the unfolding email drama. But little more was forthcoming, according to a longtime Clinton adviser who recounted the incident.
It sounds crazy, but I think she simply wasn’t equipped to deal with all this,” says one longtime ally.
The campaign was becoming just the kind of defensive race none of them, least of all the candidate, expected to be running, and for months and months the emails distracted and diverted a Clinton team that seemed powerless to move beyond the unfolding scandal. While her team bought Clinton’s basic argument that she had done nothing illegal or even fundamentally wrong, it rekindled longstanding concerns about her judgment. It was hard to avoid the view that she had walked right into a trap at a time when the GOP seemed to be imploding in a Trump-shaped mushroom cloud.
“It sounds crazy, but I think she simply wasn’t equipped to deal with all this,” says one longtime ally who has been in regular contact with Clinton. “She’s never been a great candidate, OK? She needed time and campaigns don’t give you time. … She was blindsided, and I think only now, after all this crap, is she finally in the right headspace.”
Nearly every one of 50 advisers, donors, Democratic operatives and friends we interviewed for this story thought Clinton was a mediocre candidate who would make a good president, if given the chance. They painted a portrait of a politician who talked about learning from past mistakes while methodically repeating them—a far cry from the formidable shatterer of glass ceilings who had put such a scare into Obama late in the 2008 primaries.
Facing pressure from within and without, Clinton by early fall had started a long-overdue contrition tour, apologizing publicly and privately as her beleaguered staff had urged her to do for months. Moreover, she had moved beyond some of the crippling caution that hampered her initial response, and her campaign finally seemed liberated to start whacking away at Republicans with some of the glee missing from the race’s early months. “Obviously, we got battered,” Podesta told us. “But we’re stabilizing.”
But is she? Clinton’s unfavorable rating has spiked 10 to 15 points in the past year, the percentage of voters who say they trust her has plummeted to 35 percent in a pre-debate CBS poll, and Bernie Sanders, a career socialist who has publicly refused to endorse capitalism, is beating her in New Hampshire. Not to mention that each month brings a steady drumbeat of new disclosures as the State Department complies with a court order to review and make public the roughly 35,000 emails Clinton handed over.
And yet Clinton should not be counted out; she’s leading the nearest contender in the Democratic race by 20 percentage points and looking ahead to a general election against an internally divided Republican Party that seems intent on eating its own. Somehow, she still stands in a better position than any other establishment candidate in an anti-establishment 2016 cycle, with a lead in the primary over all comers, including Joe Biden. “Name me a candidate of either party who wouldn’t want to switch places with Hillary Clinton right now,” insists Tom Nides, a top Clinton fundraiser who served as her deputy secretary of state.
But no matter how it turns out, when the story of the 2016 campaign is written, this months-long fight over Hillary Clinton’s private email server—an enervating and possibly pointless controversy—will constitute the opening chapter. Here is the story of how she handled it.