When leaked Democratic National Committee emails dropped during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, they hit like a bomb.
The convention was supposed to be the moment of unity after a bitterly competitive primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But the hacked emails, showing that DNC officials who were supposed to be neutral were privately belittling Sanders and his campaign, came out on the very first night.
At an event with the Florida delegation, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was booed off the stage by Sanders supporters, who held signs that simply said, “E-MAILS.” Wasserman Schultz announced she would resign before the convention even started.
Many Sanders delegates were already grieving their candidate’s loss. Seeing high-level DNC officials deriding him behind the scenes added insult to injury and, for some, delegitimized the entire process.
“It was a confusing time,” said Emily Stone Jacobs, a 2016 Sanders delegate from New Hampshire. “We felt betrayed, questioning our own sanity. Our contributions were devalued, and [we were] even encouraged to distrust fellow delegates. We were at war with our own party.”
Now new indictments released by special counsel Robert Mueller allege that the release of the hacked DNC emails was timed to hit during the convention for maximum impact: Mueller’s latest indictments suggest Russian intelligence agents and WikiLeaks planned to engineer discord between Sanders and Clinton supporters. Some former Sanders delegates say this is an obvious conclusion, given President Trump’s open call to Russia to find Clinton campaign emails.
“I don’t think anyone who is paying attention is surprised to hear that Russia hacked the DNC, that Russia released the emails,” said Ray McKinnon, a pastor and 2016 Sanders delegate from North Carolina. “They played on people’s heartfelt dislike and their own emotions for their own purpose. That was real then and it’s real now.”
Former Sanders delegates say the leaked DNC emails still exposed real, raw tensions within the party. But in the year and a half since Trump was elected (and given the president’s recent embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin), they say those original tensions between Sanders and Clinton supporters are healing. That’s in no small part because the two camps have a common purpose to unite them: defeating Trump and Republicans in 2018 and 2020.
“We’re in a crisis and we can’t actually point fingers; we have to try to figure out what the commonality is,” said Winnie Wong, a co-founder of the People for Bernie Sanders organization. “It’s very important that we don’t make enemies of each other; that’s exactly what Trump wants.”
A tense 2016 Democratic National Convention
The conversations between the Russians and WikiLeaks detailed in Mueller’s indictments allegedly took place on or around July 6, 2016 — a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention was held in Philadelphia from July 25 through 28:
Around July 6, Wikileaks corresponded with the Russian intelligence officers, saying, “if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after.”
“ok ... i see,” the Russians responded.
Wikileaks then explained their motives for wanting information that would provoke tension between the Sanders and Hillary camps.
“we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary ... so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting,” Wikileaks responded.
If WikiLeaks and the Russians wanted conflict, they got it. Even as Sanders actively encouraged his supporters to get out and vote for Clinton at the 2016 convention, he was booed at almost every turn. Many Sanders supporters jeered at mentions of Clinton’s name at the convention and were adamant that Sanders would be the better choice to run against Trump.
“It is easy to boo, but it is harder to look your kids in the face who would be living under Donald Trump,” Sanders told a crowd of angry supporters at one point.
“The whole Democratic National Convention was tension,” said McKinnon. As a black Sanders delegate, McKinnon said he felt the heat from both sides acutely. When the emails dropped, he recalled being questioned about his loyalty to Bernie by other Sanders delegates — while being viewed skeptically by Clinton supporters as well.
“Sanders supporters bought so much of what they were fed by bots or trolls because it confirmed what they hated about Hillary Clinton,” McKinnon said. “Everyone who was not pro-Bernie was the enemy. The Clinton people were skeptical of us ... there was that suspicion.”
Sanders has continued to speak out publicly about Russian interference and the impact it had on the 2016 election as Mueller indictments have come out over the past several months.
“It also shows that they tried to turn my supporters against Hillary Clinton in the primary and general election,” Sanders tweeted in February. “I unequivocally condemn such interference.”
Mueller's indictment provides further evidence that the Russian government interfered in 2016. It also shows that they tried to turn my supporters against Hillary Clinton in the primary and general election. I unequivocally condemn such interference.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 22, 2018
Some Sanders supporters ultimately did not heed his call to vote for Clinton in 2016, but Jacobs and McKinnon both supported her in the general election. While he’s sure Russian election interference occurred in 2016, McKinnon doesn’t think it’s the thing that put Trump over the top.
“All of this stuff contributed to the loss, but it wasn’t the only thing. I don’t even think it’s the main thing,” he said. “I think it gives Democrats and the [Clinton] campaign an out for not running a good campaign, for taking too much for granted.”
Looking forward, Sanders and Clinton factions have a common enemy: Trump
In the months after Clinton’s shocking 2016 loss, and the drip of Russia revelations that followed, the tension between Sanders and Clinton supporters didn’t go away so easily.
Some Clinton supporters who blamed her loss on Russian meddling and FBI Director James Comey’s announcement about Clinton emails clashed with others who said that she simply didn’t campaign hard enough in the Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan where she lost the Electoral College vote to Trump.
The intraparty divisions among Democrats certainly haven’t healed entirely, but Wong says that on the national level, real progress is being made to unite the party’s left flank with establishment Democrats. It’s taken a lot of intentional mediation, but efforts are helped by the fact that Democrats have a common enemy: Donald Trump and Republicans.
On a whole host of issues, including immigration and family separation, health care, and foreign policy, the Trump administration has fully embraced hardline conservative policies, giving Democrats of all different ideological stripes something to rally behind.
Many of the Bernie supporters who felt defeated after the convention are also buoyed by the left’s resurgence going into 2018, most recently evidenced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win against New York Rep. Joe Crowley, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
“When they see Ocasio-Cortez advancing that vision, they’re delighted,” Wong said. “There’s some relief; whether they’re state-level victories or federal victories, they’re providing some degree of psychological comfort to the Bernie folks who felt really jilted.”
With the cloud of Russian election meddling lingering over the 2016 election and uncertainty going into 2018, some say Democrats can’t just tell voters that they are the better alternative to Trump; they need to show a radically different vision for the country.
“I think we’re still thinking it’s enough to say we’re not Donald Trump,” McKinnon said. “If we don’t do the work of figuring out who we are, we’re going to keep losing.”