When Donald Trump charges that the media are plotting against him, he often points to the hacked private emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, now available for the world to see on WikiLeaks.
A bewildered Trump asks repeatedly how these disclosures are not dominating the news cycle.
In another presidential election, they just might be. Tucked into the thousands of mundane exchanges that Russian hackers allegedly extracted from John Podesta’s inbox are some revelations embarrassing to the Clinton campaign.
But Trump has seen to it that they are never dwelt on for long. As with so many other issues that have emerged in this race — including those where Trump would probably benefit from voters focusing on them — the WikiLeaks disclosures are getting eclipsed by Trump himself.
“Who knows what valid issues might in fact be being actually discussed right now if we didn't have a volatile, churning Category 5 media hurricane stalled over the entire country?” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said of Trump in an email.
Even when Trump manages to pause and shine the spotlight on WikiLeaks, he often weakens his argument.
The emails often don’t prove what Trump says they do: that the Clinton campaign hates Catholics, that Clinton allies were preparing an Islamophobic smear campaign against President Obama, that Clinton “openly colluded” with the Justice Department during its investigation of her private email server.
But they undermine Clinton in other ways, such as showing the inner workings of a campaign so cautious that several top advisors weigh in before it settles on the joke the candidate will tell at a dinner. The emails also revealed something Clinton had tried to keep under wraps: transcripts of remarks during highly paid engagements at major investment banks, where her chummy tone didn’t always mesh with the tougher line on Wall Street she’s taken during the election.
Some of the exchanges released by WikiLeaks support, to an extent, Trump’s interpretations, such as one email he tweeted about Monday:
“Crooked Hillary Clinton even got the questions to a debate, and nobody says a word,” Trump wrote. “Can you imagine if I got the questions?”
Trump was referring to an exchange between the Clinton campaign and Donna Brazile, now the chairwoman of the Democratic Party, in which Brazile appears to be giving Clinton a heads up of the wording of a question in a coming debate with Democratic primary rival Bernie Sanders. Although Brazile denies she ever had any such question in her possession, the hacked email left a different impression. The Clinton campaign is refusing to confirm the authenticity of anything WikiLeaks has posted.
Even the voluminous insider gossip that emerged out of WikiLeaks might have been used by a more disciplined campaign to cast fresh doubt in the minds of the legions of swing voters who find Clinton unseemly.
There is the longtime confidant of Bill Clinton complaining of Chelsea Clinton “acting like a spoiled brat kid.” Hillary Clinton’s former policy director calls one of the campaign’s wealthy donors, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the “crazy Lade de Rothschild person.” And Podesta refers to one of Clinton’s most trusted advisors, Sidney Blumenthal, as “lost in his own web of conspiracies.” Bill Richardson and Federico Peña, both of whom served in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, are the focus of a Podesta email to Hillary Clinton with the subject line “Needy Latinos.”
Much more may come. Fewer than a quarter of the 50,000 Podesta emails WikiLeaks says it has have been released. Some inside the Clinton orbit who have been copied on messages that went through Podesta’s inbox are bracing for more cringe-worthy, and possibly damning, disclosures before election day.
Although leaked memos and whispered secrets have long been a staple of American politics, no candidate has ever faced anything on the scale or scope of what Clinton confronts with WikiLeaks, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian.
“This is a new era of campaigning,” he said. “It’s a scorched-earth type of leak.” Although Zelizer says he doubts the leaks will affect the outcome of this campaign, he predicts they will change how future campaigns are run.
“It will probably cause more people to not put things in writing and be doubly cautious because they’re always going to be thinking of this,” he said.
It’s unclear how another Republican candidate would handle the situation. Some party strategists were reluctant to discuss the leaks because they don’t want to encourage foreign meddling in an American election. Soon after the Obama administration accused Russia of hacking into Democratic National Committee emails, Podesta’s emails were published.
And they saw irony in Trump’s inability to leverage the WikiLeaks disclosures for more political gain. The outlet, they say, may not have bothered to acquire and release the messages were Trump not the nominee. Russian operatives and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange might have been less motivated to help candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who are arguably even more hostile adversaries to them than Clinton.
But Trump is different. He is an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Former top Trump advisor Roger Stone, who now runs a pro-Trump super PAC, boasted of back-channel conversations with Assange.
It’s not a media conspiracy but Trump’s lack of discipline that has made his WikiLeaks attacks unsuccessful, said Tim Miller, who advised Jeb Bush in his presidential run.
“WikiLeaks would be one thing in a list of issues that Trump is failing to prosecute because he creates a news cycle by calling beauty queens fat,” Miller said. Trump is also busy disparaging the women who accuse him of groping them, feuding with the Republican speaker of the House and alleging the election is about to be stolen from him.
Clinton’s advisors have, meanwhile, capably made the case that the disclosures reflect more poorly on Trump than Clinton. Highly credentialed national security experts have emerged to warn the disclosures show Trump is being manipulated by the Russians.
Among them is Michael Morrell, a CIA veteran who served in high-ranking positions under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. “I can’t remember a single time in American history where the American government has accused another government of trying to interfere in our elections,” Morrell said Friday on a conference call organized by the Clinton campaign.
“This is really unprecedented. As a national security person, it shakes me to my core.”