The final three weeks should have been an anxious but happy time for a Hillary Clinton team on the cusp of making history. Her odds of victory, according to most prediction experts, sit north of 80 percent, and she has solidified modest but durable leads over Donald Trump in most battleground states.
But Clinton’s final sprint has become a joyless, nail-gnawing slog through Trump Tower’s moat of mudslinging — and the day-to-day worries of WikiLeaks’ dump of internal emails from campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked account is taking a toll.
“This is making me tear up, it’s so infuriating and disgusting,” a Clinton aide wrote in an email halfway through the St. Louis debate, arguably the low-water point of a general election that has had few high-tide moments. “This is not our country.”
In Trump’s Mourning-in-America march to the abyss, he has rejected political norms, and his campaign has largely devolved into trashing Clinton, the women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment, the legitimacy of U.S. elections, the media, President Barack Obama, the GOP and the time-honored idea of a presidential campaign as a sunny, aspirational enterprise.
Even more unnerving is the release of stolen emails popping daily, like the morning paper hitting the driveway, from WikiLeaks — part of an effort Clinton’s aides believe is geared toward dividing her supporters, sapping her team’s morale, and distracting the media’s attention from Trump’s self-immolation.
All of this makes the last days of what is likely to be a winning campaign seem more like 22 weeks than 22 days.
“The goal of this is to create dissension between everyone,” said Neera Tanden, a close Clinton ally whose years of candid correspondence with Podesta are now uncomfortably on public display. “This is Russian psy-ops. That’s what they’re trying to do. The campaign is going to fight back against that, by not getting subsumed in dissension.”
Campaign aides and longtime allies aren’t the only ones getting bummed out. Bill Clinton is also “having a hard time,” according to a source familiar with his thinking, as he watches Trump revive the former president’s decades-old sex scandals in an effort to tarnish his wife, and was reportedly enraged when Trump paraded his accusers around the debate last week in St. Louis, even seating them in the front row. (An aide disputed both characterizations of his mind-set.)
Chelsea Clinton remains “very focused” on the email hack, livid at accusations hurled at her by a former Clinton aide, Doug Band, calling her a “spoiled brat kid … [who] hasn’t found her way and has a lack of focus in her life.”
She is also “hurt,” a source said, by the fact that Podesta does not appear to defend her in his response to the email. (Chelsea Clinton’s spokeswoman pushed back on the characterization. “Anyone saying that simply doesn’t know Chelsea. Chelsea isn’t bothered by gossip but instead has been ‘very focused’ on campaigning for her mom, making sure the Clinton Foundation is able to help as many people as possible as effectively as possible, as well as being a mom herself,” she said.)
As for the candidate herself, a person close to the Clinton family said she was “not really focused on the hack” — and another person who travels with the candidate said she has adopted, as a matter of principle, the position that she will not discuss the leaks because “she doesn’t want to play into their hands.” She does, however, remain worried about the political impact of disclosures, like the excerpts from her long sought-after Wall Street speeches — which included a comment suggesting a politician should maintain “a private and a public position” on politically contentious matters.
But, mostly, in the words of one longtime aide, “she’s pissed.”
And she is ever more determined to see that the foreign culprits her campaign is fingering are rooted out and their connections to Trump’s circle, especially dark-arts specialist Roger Stone, whom Clinton reviles, be publicly exposed. (Trump and Stone have vehemently denied any connection to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the Russians or the hacking, but current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials say those links will almost certainly be examined.)
Gossip from the emails is also damaging important relationships with donors and surrogates outside the bunker. Longtime Clinton fundraiser Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, multiple sources said, has been furious to find herself lampooned internally by loyal Clinton hands, and has been complaining to the campaign about her treatment after years of loyalty to the Clintons.
“I have to [see] that crazy Lade De Rothschild person,” Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, wrote to Podesta in an email on April 20, 2015. Rothschild serves as a Clinton bundler — in May, she hosted a $100,000-a-head fundraiser dinner for Clinton.
On Friday, after Trump unleashed a barrage of vitriol unprecedented even in his defiantly low-road campaign, Clinton acknowledged the grinding toll of the negativity. “This election is incredibly painful,” she told campaign staffers at a field office in Seattle. “I take absolutely no satisfaction in what is happening on the other side with my opponent. I am not at all happy about it, because it hurts our country.”
But the emails pose a more immediate psychological threat to her side. Key allies are filled with anxiety about their personal, and often blunt, assessments — of Democratic allies and the candidate herself — being exposed in the email hack.
The campaign has scoured Podesta’s account, using search words to identify any information that could potentially come out and upend the race.
Campaign manager Robby Mook has tried to keep the mood upbeat among the hundreds of young staffers who populate two floors of an overcrowded campaign headquarters in Brooklyn — and Clinton’s staff claims there’s nothing they have discovered in the hack that they expect will take them down or upend the race.
But 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.
Campaign allies are buzzing that there are emails coming down the pike in which Podesta — who in more than 10,000 documents released so far remains circumspect in sharing his personal judgments — “appraises some people on the campaign negatively.” Campaign operatives have been reaching out to some allies on the outside who have been mentioned in the emails, but there’s only so much good a heads-up can do.
Tanden, who is currently serving as co-chair of Clinton’s transition team, has also offered blunt criticism of the candidate’s own blind spots, pushing for her former boss to offer a full-throated apology for using a private email server while at the State Department and noting, “apologies are like her Achilles heel.” Some have viewed Tanden’s blunt critique as exactly the kind of candid assessment Clinton needs in the staff she surrounds herself with; others have been surprised to see how much influence Tanden has wielded from the outside, and how plainly she is willing to speak about the boss.
One Clinton ally whose name appears throughout Podesta’s emails explained the tension people are feeling this way: “I know what my correspondence with him directly is. I know what chains I’ve been on. What I don’t know is what comments people may have made about me.”
For his part, Podesta says he’s remained “zen” about the entire thing — an opinion not shared by some of his pen pals interviewed by POLITICO.
“I bet the lobster risotto is better than the food at the Ecuadorian Embassy,” Podesta tweeted Friday, trolling Assange — who has been confined in a small London apartment for years to avoid arrest. Podesta has encouraged others to follow his lead and simply shake it off and move on.
It’s possible to overstate the dread, or the depression, gripping Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters. Increasingly, Clinton’s team is speaking more openly about an impending victory. And they say they are inspired by the cheering presence of the fired-up first couple, Barack and Michelle Obama, and protected by loyal surrogates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the left flank.
Still, Trump’s bad vibes have fallen like a thick curtain over some of Clinton’s top campaign officials, unsettled by the fact that the Republican nominee is a man who will do things public officials shouldn’t even joke about doing — bragging about kissing and groping women without consent, then making fun of the way they look.
“We’re winning, so you’re happy,” one close ally said, “but it’s a toxic environment and it’s sad to see.” Yet, in the view of many on the campaign, it’s more than toxic — it’s terrifying. The idea that Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian trained by the KGB, wants Clinton to lose creates stresses no other campaign has ever had to deal with. And just because Clinton’s senior team (which includes seasoned intelligence experts such as ex-State Department official Jake Sullivan and Podesta, who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff) knows these efforts are more of a mind game than a minefield doesn’t mean the anxiety doesn’t take its toll.
Over the past several months, Clinton staffers have become increasingly unnerved by what they view as attempts by Moscow and the Chinese to disrupt their campaign — especially at times when Trump was flagging in the polls.
To some extent, this was old news: Clinton, her team and high-ranking Obama administration officials have for years believed, with near unanimity, that their emails, messaging software and even cellphone calls were, in some way or another, being hacked by foreign intelligence services.
There’s a gallows humor about it: Mook has posted reminders over the urinals in the campaign headquarters reminding campaign staffers to be careful with their email passwords.
“You wouldn’t share your toothbrush, don’t share your password,” one sign reads (according to a source familiar with the men’s room).
While some Clinton allies confess to spending hours at night reading through the entire email dump, others have chosen to simply steer clear of it all together. “We all write things in emails we probably shouldn’t,” conceded Clinton donor Jay Jacobs. “If there is a price to be paid, I think it’s a mild one. I’m purposefully not looking — it’s really not any of my business. Someone has illegally decided to do that.”
Barring some unforeseen shock — and 2016 has featured its share of them already — the most lasting impact of the campaign’s dispiriting dismount might be to harden an already-pervasive opinion among Clinton’s staff that she is forever being denied her due as a serious historical figure.
That could set the tone for how her team operates if they get to the White House and whether a candidate who was already wary of the press and obsessed with efforts to attack her will make a bunker of the Oval Office.
“I didn’t start off this campaign feeling bitter, and I always made fun of how paranoid she was,” said a Clinton ally who, like so many working on her behalf, supported Barack Obama in 2008. “But I’m really starting to understand where she’s coming from. I’m starting to hate some of the people doing these things to her.”
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