On April 11, 2011, a trio of prominent Catholic Democratic operatives traded a series of emails accusing Republicans of cherry-picking aspects of their religion for political gain.
“It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith,” wrote John Halpin of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.
“I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion,” Jennifer Palmieri, who also worked for CAP at the time, replied. “Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”
Nothing about the email exchange was particularly remarkable, except for the third person copied in: John Podesta, the head of CAP and a former White House chief of staff.
That became a serious problem five years later, when Podesta was running Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Russian hackers broke into Podesta’s email account and passed thousands of messages to WikiLeaks to try to damage Clinton and help then-GOP nominee Donald Trump.
On October 11, 2016, WikiLeaks released the Halpin-Palmieri emails. Within hours, Russia’s state-owned RT media outlet started highlighting the exchange in an array of articles on its website that quoted the emails extensively and said that they included “disparaging comments.”
Trump, reeling from the release of the Access Hollywood tape only four days earlier, jumped at the chance to attack Clinton’s team.
His first attack came on the evening of October 11, the same day WikiLeaks released the emails. At a campaign rally in Florida, Trump said the emails showed “the Clinton Team attacking Catholics.”
He went further the next day, telling another rally that the emails “show members of the Clinton team viciously attacking Catholics and Evangelicals.” The messages, he added, “could be election changing.”
We’ll never definitively know whether this WikiLeaks email dump, or their continued release of sensitive emails stolen from Podesta and the Democratic National Committee, were what allowed Trump to squeeze out his razor-thin victory.
But the story of the leaked Halpin-Palmieri-Podesta emails about Catholicism is important all the same because it illustrates the sophistication with which WikiLeaks released the stolen emails for maximum political effect — and the speed with which the emails ricocheted through the conservative media ecosystem and then into Trump’s own remarks.
Put another way, this specific case illustrates a broader point about WikiLeaks: The stolen emails had power, and Trump and his allies so badly wanted to use that power to win the White House that they tried to get early access to the stolen emails at least six times before WikiLeaks publicly released them. And that, in turn, is why special counsel Robert Mueller is focusing on the stolen emails as part of his investigation into Russia-Trump collusion.
This is why Trump was desperate to win the Catholic vote
Spending substantial time on the Catholic vote might seem like a waste, until you look at the demographics of several key battleground states.
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states Trump was aggressively contesting, are among the top 10 states in the US in terms of Catholic population at 29 percent and 32 percent respectively, according to a Gallup survey from 2014.
That means there are about 3.7 million Catholics in Pennsylvania, a state that Trump won by fewer than 50,000 votes. There are about 1.8 million Catholics in Wisconsin, a state he won by about 20,000 votes. Both states were critical to his narrow Electoral College victory.
“It was absolutely part of the strategy to focus on blue-collar Catholics in the Rust Belt; it was a major initiative of the Trump campaign,” Stephen Schneck, a professor at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, told me. “WikiLeaks was clearly a piece of all that.”
Polls showed Trump had been lagging among Catholics all through the summer of 2016. An August 2016 poll by PRRI, a polling company that focuses on religion in politics, had Trump trailing Clinton by 23 percent among Catholic registered voters. Four years earlier, Obama and then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney were effectively tied with that group even though many Catholics hold unfavorable views of Mormonism, Romney’s faith.
And by the time WikiLeaks released the emails, Trump was also trying to manage the fallout from the Access Hollywood tape, in which he’s recorded boasting about sexual assault. An influential Catholic political group, Catholic Vote, called for Trump to step down shortly after the tape surfaced.
“If Donald Trump is unwilling to step aside, the Republican National Committee must act soon out of basic decency and self-preservation,” the organization said in a press release.
Then WikiLeaks released the emails.
The stolen emails were a gift for Donald Trump
The sudden uproar over emails that were five years old at that point baffled the three participants.
“We’re calling out rich and right-wing hypocrites that are using our faith to do things that we think are antithetical to our faith,” Halpin, who supported Bernie Sanders and is still with CAP, told me. “At a minimum, it had absolutely nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.”
But with Podesta then running Clinton’s campaign and Palmieri serving as her communications director, Trump’s surrogates jumped at the chance to paint Clinton as anti-Catholic.
The campaign immediately organized a conference call with key campaign figures such as Kellyanne Conway and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are Catholic, along with several prominent leaders of conservative Catholic organizations.
“Callista [Gingrich’s wife, currently the US ambassador to the Vatican] and I both feel assault not just on Catholicism but on people of faith, the callousness, the contempt,” Gingrich said. “Now we know what Hillary meant by deplorables. It’s people of faith.”
Conway, for her part, said that “for 30 years, Hillary Clinton has been openly hostile on issues important to Catholics.”
Eight days after the press conference, Trump was preparing for the Al Smith Dinner, an annual fundraiser for Catholic charities both presidential candidates typically attend and trade lighthearted barbs. Not Trump: Clinton, he said bluntly, “hates Catholics.”
The Kremlin may have helped Trump win the Catholic vote
Catholic groups wouldn’t let the emails go either. After saying Trump should quit the campaign, the Catholic Vote organization changed course and starting promoting his candidacy through political ads that ran straight up to Election Day.
One ad starts with a Fox News clip that described the emails as “dismissing the entire Catholic belief system” and then cut to a middle-aged woman looking directly into the camera.
“I wanted to check out of this election like most people,” she says. “But then with the Clinton campaign mocking us as Catholics, I’m back in.”
By the time the election arrived less than a month after WikiLeaks released the emails, Trump had completely overcome his summer deficit and won the Catholic vote by 7 percent, according to Pew Research exit polls.
The final results of the Catholic vote largely matched those of recent presidential elections, according to Jones. What happened was that many Catholic voters who had been hesitant about Trump over the summer eventually decided to vote for him after WikiLeaks released the stolen emails and Trump returned to the populist themes he’d used earlier in the campaign.
“These kinds of events caused people to pause, but not pull a different lever,” Jones said.
Many observers believe the single biggest factor behind Trump’s last-minute surge was then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision, less than two weeks before Election Day, to announce that the agency was reopening its investigation into Clinton’s emails. Still, the razor-thin margins in several critical, heavily Catholic states mean it’s impossible to dismiss the possibility that the WikiLeaks releases may well have impacted the election.
Halpin, Palmieri, and Podesta may have thought they were sharing innocent, and private, thoughts about the thorny politics of religion. Five years later, Trump’s campaign — with a clear assist from WikiLeaks — found a way to distort and weaponize those emails. Since the US intelligence community unanimously believes Russia stole those emails in the first place, there’s a real chance that Moscow helped deliver the Catholic vote to Donald Trump.