What 20,000 pages of hacked WikiLeaks emails teach us about Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton told a joke. Speaking to a roomful of Goldman Sachs bankers in June 2013, Clinton said that Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein could leave the Wall Street firm that’s made him a billionaire to start a soup kitchen:

This exchange was written down by Clinton’s aides as they gathered information on what parts of her paid Wall Street speeches could prove damaging should they leak to the press. Her team filed it under the heading, "AWKWARD."

This "AWKWARD" quote and hundreds of other previously hidden nuggets about Clinton have spilled out into public view recently. Over the last two weeks, Julian Assange’s whistleblower platform WikiLeaks has published about 20,000 pages of emails illegally stolen from John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair.

The strangest thing about the ensuing uproar is that none of the Podesta emails has so far actually broken any fresh scandals about the woman on track to be the next president. Instead, they’ve mostly revealed an underbelly of ugliness to the multiple Clinton controversies that we’ve already known about: the questionable relationship between the Clinton Foundation and its donors, Clinton’s ease with powerful interests on Wall Street, her ties to wealthy campaign contributors.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The Goldman soup kitchen joke is a perfect example. If there’s one thing to really get mad about here, it’s something we’ve known for years — that Clinton took millions from big Wall Street banks right before running for president. Seeing her and Wall Street titans share a laugh about helping the hungry might turn your stomach, but the most important question — was it wrong for Clinton to take big checks from Goldman right before running? — is in no way new. (Clinton’s campaign refused to comment on individual emails, instead blaming the Russians for hacking the emails and providing them to WikiLeaks.)

This is, from what we’ve seen so far, the real story of WikiLeaks’ Podesta emails. Yes, they have not found any major "bombshells." No, they’re not going to sink Clinton’s campaign. But by filling in the storylines that have long dogged her campaign with new and vivid detail, we are getting our clearest picture yet of how the sausage — or, if you prefer, the creamy risotto — gets made in Clinton-world.

It can be an ugly sight.

What are the Podesta emails and what do they show?

I’ve now read hundreds of the Podesta emails, as well as upward of 60 stories from across left-wing, mainstream, and conservative media outlets about what they entail.

I should stress that what I’ve found is far from all bad. Dozens of these emails show Clinton’s team genuinely striving to discover the correct position on an issue. Many of them show real, determined efforts to find the right solution to some public policy crisis. In general, especially compared to the vicious infighting that characterized her 2008 presidential run, you come away from the Podesta emails thinking that Clinton has assembled an admiringly loyal group of aides that believes in the candidate and the mission of the campaign. There’s some backbiting, but you could imagine far, far worse.

Then there’s the other stuff — the emails Podesta presumably wish never leaked. To help make sense of what we’ve learned, I’ve broken out the interesting new bits into what I think can be more-or-less characterized as four distinct categories:

  1. Questions around the Clinton Foundation: This is the smallest category of emails. But a surprising revelation about Qatari officials and a newly discovered Clinton Foundation audit help validate fears that foundation donors likely received "special access."
  2. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, big donors: Hundreds of other emails also highlight Clinton and her team’s much-discussed connections to Wall Street and big money. They reveal a Clinton certainly more sympathetic to these unpopular actors than she would presumably be on the campaign trail.
  3. How the Clinton campaign machine works: The emails also provide a virtually unprecedented look inside the architecture of the Clinton campaign — how proposals get passed up to the candidate, for instance. They show the campaign heavily weighing "political" considerations before endorsing certain policies, but also interested in seeking real solutions.
  4. Political gossip and Clinton-world squabbling: This category includes a lot of normal office whining and sniping about Clinton-world enemies. It’s certainly interesting, especially for political junkies. But it also has the least relevance for discussions of public policy.

Vox reached out to the Clinton campaign for comment, and spokesperson Glen Caplin replied that they are "still not authenticating any individual emails." The campaign also referred foundation-related questions to the foundation itself, and referenced several times that the leaks were tied to a "Russian attempt to influence our election." As it has to other reporters, the Clinton campaign did not dispute the accuracy of any of the individual emails.

We should be clear that these Podesta email leaks have nothing to do with the multiple other "Clinton email" scandals percolating over the past few years. So they aren’t, as some news outlets have incorrectly reported, related to the FBI investigation into Clinton’s private server or allegations that she went around transparency laws.

Instead, since these emails emerge from the private account of Clinton’s campaign chair, they tend to tell us far more about candidate Clinton than they do about Secretary of State Clinton.

Storyline No. 1: Leaked emails confirm Clinton Foundation blurred public/private lines

There is, however, one exception to that general rule: the Clinton Foundation.

Since the campaign began, the Clinton Foundation has been at the center of an intense debate. The most extreme critics, like Donald Trump, have alleged that Clinton used the state department to transactionally reward the charity’s donors (there’s no evidence for that). Meanwhile, the campaign and foundation have fallen back on one consistent defense — that there’s been no proof of a quid pro quo between donor and foundation.

The Clinton Foundation really did do inarguably life-saving work. But good government experts have argued that the Clintons accepted private donations in a way that they should have known would have created dangerous conflicts of interest. This more nuanced attack faults the Clinton Foundation for dangerously blurring the distinction between private and public.

The Podesta leaks back up that story.

One way it does so is by uncovering a private audit conducted by a widely-respected New York City law firm. The review concluded that the Clinton Foundation’s board had failed to oversee potential conflicts of interest, and that some donors expected "quid pro quo benefits." "Interviewees reported conflicts of those raising funds or donors, some of whom may have an expectation of quid pro quo benefits in return for gift," the audit found.

It’s not clear they received them. but either way the audit is a striking confirmation that even the attorneys hired by Clinton recognized the danger in the relationship between donor and foundation.

Then there’s another disclosure emerging from the Podesta emails: that Qatari officials sought to present Bill Clinton with a $1 million gift on his birthday on during his wife’s tenure as secretary of state. As the New York Times noted, this revelation suggests that foreign governments were able to gain an audience with Bill Clinton in exchange for a check. (The Times couldn’t confirm if the $1 million check was ever cashed.)

The last revelation in the leaks about the foundation may also be the most unusual: Chelsea Clinton apparently was running around raising the alarm bell over possible conflicts of interest, suggesting the Clintons themselves were aware of the potential problems. (Politico’s Kenneth Vogel has a detailed blow-by-blow of Chelsea’s concerns over the overlapping roles of a consulting firm named Teneo.)

Nothing here represents a major revelation. If you weren’t bothered by the Clinton Foundation before, this probably isn’t going to trouble you. But if you were, having an audit and Chelsea Clinton share your fears will fuel the sense that something suspicious was afoot here.

Storyline No. 2: Disclosures detail Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street and top donors

Hillary Clinton.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Over the course of the election, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders leveled a similar critique of Clinton: that she’s too wedded to the "political establishment."

For Sanders, that usually meant that Clinton didn’t have the independence to challenge powerful actors on Wall Street and in Washington, DC. Trump has used similar rhetoric, going after "Crooked" Clinton for her big dollar campaign contributors.

Whatever you think of the merits of those attacks, it’s clear that the majority of the American people think it’s correct, at least in broad strokes. Seven in 10 voters consider Clinton part of the establishment. Just 30 percent trust her to take on special interests.

It’s an impression that the Podesta emails only deepen — even if they don’t provide ground-breaking new controversies around it.

Here’s just a few examples:

At one point, she tells Goldman Sachs’s Blankfein that "there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives:"
In another, Clinton praises Wall Street bankers as people who "see over the horizon:"
Clinton also says the Obama-era Dodd-Frank act had to be passed "for political reasons," and seemed to knock the press for foisting blame for the financial crisis on Wall Street:
Clinton also told the bankers that she thought they were the ones best suited to regulate themselves, since "the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry:"
Even well into the early days of the campaign, Hillary Clinton didn’t seem to appreciate the depths of voters’ frustration with Wall Street. Bill Clinton wanted to give a speech just three days into his wife’s candidacy, and an email from Clinton aide Huma Abedin suggests Hillary was okay with it. Another Clinton aide, Robby Mook, had to essentially beg Bill Clinton not to give the speech by citing extensive polling numbers about how damaging it would prove:
Again, nobody expected Clinton to go into these speeches guns blazing and accuse the bankers of crashing the global economy with their greedy recklessness. But for those who think that relationship is fundamentally wrong, hearing Clinton flatter the bankers — and fail to recognize why people would object to her husband taking their money — may be jarring nonetheless.
Few peaceniks will be shocked to hear that Clinton might be more hawkish than the rest of her party. But actually reading that she told a private room of Goldman bankers that she thinks America’s military should "intervene as covertly as is possible" may still be alarming.
The campaign’s relationship with donors is a recurring theme in the Podesta leaks. In another email, Clinton staff asked Israeli philanthropist Haim Saban, the billionaire chairman of Univision Communications, if he approved Clinton campaign language about the BDS boycott against Israeli goods. (Saban has helped raise more than $5 million to Clinton’s campaign, according to Mother Jones.)
Of course, when Palmieri writes "take the money!!" she’s being partially facetious. But it’s an attitude those who fear money’s corrupting influence in politics will be alarmed to see.

Again, none of this is revelatory. Nobody who has closely followed Clinton will be shocked to find her campaign was attuned to the wishes of donors. Her affinity for Israel is well known. Critics of her approach to campaign finance are mad about the decision to take money from big donors — not the internal discussion over whether or not to do so.

But watching how all of this unfolded — seeing for yourself how Clinton spoke gently to Wall Street — won’t make the disclosures any easier for her detractors to swallow. It’s a confirmation of what we already know, but that doesn’t make it any less astonishing, at least for Clinton’s critics.

Storyline No. 3: How the Clinton campaign functions

A Clinton supporter in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street and big donors are certainly part of the story revealed by the Podesta leaks. But only one part.

Indeed, dozens of interesting tidbits have also emerged that allow us to see inside the Clinton campaign’s infrastructure. They have showed that, at some times, the Clinton campaign openly discussed the "political" implications of her deciding to get behind one policy or another. They also show the Clinton campaign at other times responding to more high-minded policy concerns.

In one leak, for instance, Clinton’s team discussed at length whether they should endorse the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, which would restrict commercial banks’ ability to engage in some investment activity.

Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald worries that reversing course and backing the law would lead to "phoniness charges," while not doing so could lead Sen. Elizabeth Warren to endorse Bernie Sanders. ("Jake" in the following exchange is Jake Sullivan, a top Clinton adviser):

Then there’s a lengthy exchange in Clinton-world about a carbon tax proposal. As Vox’s Brad Plumer explains, the emails show how fears of embracing an unpopular idea dominated the internal discussion. Robby Mook, a top Clinton aide, said that embracing the carbon tax would prove "lethal" in the general election:

But other revelations have pointed to how the Clinton campaign got behind positions it found genuinely worthwhile. In one exchange highlighted by the Washington Post, the Clinton team talked about forming the "signature pillars of a future progressive agenda" like a "significant middle-class tax cut."

The exchange about the carbon tax did involve frank political talk. But as Plumer also noted, Podesta elsewhere makes genuine efforts to convince his colleagues about the menace posed by climate change and the need for genuinely huge solutions to address it:

A Clinton aide, Josh Schwerin, asked others in the campaign if this was worth attacking at all: "I don't know much about the issue but zeroing out fossil fuels in 35 years seems unrealistic."

Podesta pointed out that (Martin) O’Malley was basically right about the scale of what’s needed to stop drastic global warming. "We need the get to 80% emission reduction by 2050," he wrote. "Which implies close to a zero carbon energy sector." (Note: This is correct.)

There are other examples. A debate over the "Cadillac Tax," which taxes the most expensive health insurance plans, showed twin impulses fighting against each other. As Vox has written, the tax is widely seen as an essential way to raise revenue for Obamacare. But it’s also hated by unions, whose votes and endorsements Clinton wanted to cultivate during the primary.

The emails reveal Clinton’s policy advisers arguing for a "fix it" strategy, while the "political team" pushed harder for her to call for a full repeal. (They ultimately came down fully on the political side):

None of Clinton’s critics will be surprised to find her team debating political ramifications of certain policies — it’s certainly widely understood that this is how almost all politicians make their decisions.

But a fair appraisal of the emails doesn't reduce Team Clinton to opportunism. Even behind closed doors, they appear motivated by a genuine embrace of progressive beliefs and causes. At least much of the time, that is. But not always.

Storyline No. 4: Office drama and gossip in Clinton-world

Lawrence Lessig.

Let's be honest: Everyone who has worked in a big enough office has said or written something about a co-worker he or she wouldn't say to that co-worker’s face.

Clinton-world is no exception. But most offices don’t have to deal with essentially all of their internal communications being dumped unceremoniously on the web. Team Clinton’s internal gossip and snipings have been neatly organized into a searchable database that the whole world can use.

These are, understandably, the best catnip for reporters. Like the other revelations, they also don’t tend to reveal anything genuinely earth-shattering. But by laying bare the bitter grievances we (generally) already knew about, these emails are fueling added frustration and old grudges. For instance, the emails include:

It’s widely understood that campaigns really do think like this. It’s common knowledge that political operatives debate questions when picking a VP that includes, "Who are the eligible black politicians?" But like so much else here, seeing it discussed still leaves a bad taste in your mouth, even if you knew it was happening.

This kind of stuff, of course, has the least to do with public policy or the positions of the campaign.

But this category of emails is perhaps most interesting to people who work for Clinton. In a terrific article in Politico, Annie Karni and Glenn Thrush detailed the psychological impacts it’s having on the Clinton campaign:

Some of the "psy-ops" tactics appear to be working. Anxiety among Clinton aides and allies, some of whom are positioning themselves for jobs in the White House or ambassadorships, is spreading …

Just because Clinton’s senior team … knows these efforts are more of a mind game than a minefield doesn’t mean the anxiety doesn’t take its toll … Some Clinton allies confess to spending hours at night reading through the entire email dump.

As Karni and Thrush note, this should be a heady time for Clinton-world. She’s cruising to victory in the polls. Donald Trump has sunk in the polls, and Clinton has trounced him in three consecutive presidential debates.

In general, the critics most upset about the Podesta emails are the ones who have confirmed what Clinton’s inner-circle thought about them. Ironically, that dynamic now appears to apply to Clinton’s own team as well.

How the Podesta emails draw the battle lines for a possible Clinton administration

Two clear conclusions jump out when trying to determine what these emails tell us about a future Clinton presidency.

One is that Clinton appears genuinely responsive to pressure from outside groups. Her team has clear goals, but they’re also closely attuned to polls and to winning over the organizations (union backers, environmentalist groups, Black Lives Matter activists) whose support they think they need. In private conversations, Clinton tells the audiences in front of her more or less what they want to hear.

But while this appreciation for her listeners may reflect political savvy, it also suggests a flexibility that may worry those on her left. What happens if President Clinton gets polling suggesting a majority of voters support slashing entitlements? What if the country clamors for a war in Iran? What if she can win over Republican voters by tacking to the center?

And second, more than anything, the Podesta emails show how Clinton is the transactional politician many have long suspected. That’s a dispiriting conclusion for some who may wish she was a pure progressive. But it also helps clarify the battle lines for what looks like the coming Clinton administration — persuade her team they need you, and you might have a shot at getting them on your side.

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