Allies fault Hillary Clinton’s response on emails – Politico
LAS VEGAS — As Hillary Clinton faces a new round of questions about her email use as secretary of state, some longtime allies are increasingly worried that she’s learned little from past scandals, and is falling back on her tendency to mount a legalistic defense that only encourages perceptions that she has something to hide.
A key concern is whether top campaign operatives new to Clinton’s orbit have enough influence in crafting her response to the email controversy. A source with inside knowledge of the Clinton campaign voiced concern that the candidate and her longtime attorney David Kendall are the only ones calling the shots — and can have a tin ear when it comes to the politics, rather than simply the legal status, of the email saga.
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Others have expressed dismay at how testy Clinton appears when answering questions from the press with regard to her email. A news conference on Tuesday in Las Vegas grew heated as Clinton was grilled about whether or not she had tried to wipe her email server. Some were shocked that Clinton did not have a simple answer. “I don’t know, I have no idea,” she said. “Like with a cloth or something?” (On twitter, her spokesman responded immediately that Kendall had said months ago that the server was empty.)
Even Clinton’s staunch ally David Brock, founder of the rapid response organization Correct the Record, told POLITICO he has heard concerns from the donor class about how the barrage of headlines about criminal probes and FBI investigations are harming the campaign. He added that campaign surrogates — allies who appear on television to defend Clinton and explain the sometimes complicated facts about her email use — have sometimes done a poor job of presenting the argument to win what he deemed another wholly partisan fight.
Some Democratic strategists said their advice would have been to “get it out there, get it done with, get it behind you,” by turning over everything — emails, server, thumb drives — to the Justice Department months ago to move on. Instead, it was not until last week that Clinton agreed to turn over her server to DOJ.
Others have made a comparison to the Whitewater scandal of the ’90s — in which Kendall also represented Clinton — with Clinton again insisting she has done nothing illegal, but nonetheless letting the story and information she is in control of dribble out over the course of months.
A campaign aide disputed the characterization that Kendall and the candidate are calling the shots with little input from the campaign, claiming there is no daylight between the campaign and the legal team. And if there is any slow drip of news, the aide said, it’s only because of the endless review process of the inspectors general, as well as monthly email dumps by the State Department that create a timeline outside of the campaign’s control.
But the campaign and its outside supporters maintain that getting the facts out there is their strongest play.
“There is definitely concern out there,” said Brock, who also serves on the board of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA. “In speaking with people, I’ve learned that the qualms go away once they know the facts and the evidence, which most people are not taking the time to sift through.”
But that message isn’t always getting out there, he said. “The class of general Democratic pundits and strategists are often unwilling to buck the conventional wisdom in Washington: they go on the air, they hedge their defenses and they don’t argue the case effectively,” Brock said, without naming any specific individuals. “That’s because they’re more interested in looking reasonable to their colleagues in the media than winning the fight.”
Brock is currently working on a book, “The Right Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government,” due out Sept. 15, that might help. It is intended to serve as a handbook on how to defend Clinton against partisan attacks.
In pushing back against the email controversy, Brock said there is renewed emphasis on “getting effective surrogates” to hit the airwaves, one example being former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who recently joined Clinton’s rapid-response team at Correct the Record after heading Priorities USA. That will allow her to coordinate with the campaign on rapid response. Correct the Record is also planning to roll out state-specific trainings for surrogates defending Clinton, with a focus on early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Brock said.
For now, the campaign’s strategy is to emphasize the controversy as a partisan overreach by congressional Republicans; underscore that Clinton did not break the law; and reiterate that Clinton has done everything in her power to cooperate with government inquiries.
That was on display when Clinton answered questions about her email use on Tuesday, following a town hall-style meeting in Las Vegas.
“No matter what anyone tries to say, the facts are stubborn,” Clinton said. “What I did was legally permitted, first and foremost. No. 2, I turned over an abundance of [emails in] an attempt to be helpful, over anything that I thought was vaguely related [to work]… and I said make it public.” She acknowledged “anxiety” about her emails, but stated: “the facts are the facts.”
On Monday, a court filing revealed that intelligence agencies have flagged 305 emails from Clinton’s account that need more scrutiny because they possibly contained classified information. In response, the campaign is pushing surrogates with national security backgrounds to explain the elastic nature of classification, where different agencies can have different viewpoints on what is considered classified material if it was not marked classified at the time it was sent. When it comes to classification, those experts note, no one agency necessarily carries the day.
“It needs its time to work its way through,” said Brock of the facts the campaign is trying to put out. “It seems to me [the Republicans’] strategy is if they shoot enough blanks it could have a marginal effect.”
That effect, however, is what worries some Democrats who are anticipating a tight general election.
“I get nervous about seeing stories with these words together — FBI, Clinton, criminal investigation,” said another Democratic operative with ties to the campaign. “If there’s anything to be nervous about, it’s that the average voter will remember those words.” Multiple sources said another major concern is what the campaign doesn’t know — what’s in the contents of more than 62,000 emails.
From the campaign’s perspective, the date when Clinton faces Republican congressional hearing — currently set for Oct. 22 — can’t come soon enough, and is seen as an opportunity to expose the partisan overreach behind the entire issue.
“I hope Hillary testifies,” agreed Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton adviser who serves on the board of Priorities USA. “The Republicans have created this straw-woman, so when the real Hillary shows up, strong and knowledgeable and reasonable and responsible and fact-based, she’ll kick their butts.”
He added that the best thing she can do for herself is continue to roll out policy proposals that energize voters. “Her proposal on making college affordable for middle class and poor families is exactly what she needs to be doing,” he said. “As she continues to focus on middle-class wages, paid maternal leave, equal pay protections, creating jobs, those issues will be far more important to voters than what kind of email server Hillary used.”
The campaign’s job, an operative said, is to put policies in the forefront so the email headache is just background noise.
To that end, the campaign plans to roll out policy proposals even while Clinton is on vacation in the Hamptons in late August. On the trail, Clinton has even tried to bring some levity to the issue. Last week, she joked at the Iowa Wing Ding dinner that she loves her new Snapchat account because “those messages disappear all by themselves,” an effort to show the candidate and her campaign are keeping the email issues in perspective.
The campaign, however, is realistic that no matter how much policy they put out, the disclosure of the emails and issues related to it are going to continue well into 2016 — and that Republicans will continue to try and keep it in the headlines. For longtime Clinton hands, the latest email probes are just partisan personal attacks that are par for the course when it comes to the Clintons.
“As the veteran of more personal attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton than I can count, I am proud to say we are undefeated,” Begala added. “A lot of pain. A lot of legal bills for honorable public servants who did nothing wrong, but the GOP is 0-for-life using the politics of personal destruction against Hillary.”