In a different election year, it might have been a deal-breaker: over the past fortnight, Wikileaks has steadily released close to 19,000 messages hacked from the email account of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta.
For the most part, they paint a fascinating but largely unsurprising picture of the inner workings of a modern campaign: lists of potential VP picks, aides and allies griping privately about bothersome commentators and a “spoiled” Chelsea Clinton.
But there are a few unflattering nuggets – some shorn of crucial context – that Donald Trump could use against Clinton at tonight's third presidential debate. It is unclear whether the Podesta emails have had any significant effect on the polls, which show Clinton pulling away from Trump amid the Republican nominee’s own travails.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump using them on the stump, to bolster his claims that the Clinton campaign, its donors, the media and the big banks are all part of a global conspiracy to deny him the White House.
The Wall Street speech transcripts
During the Democratic primary, Clinton’s more progressive rival Bernie Sanders made repeated reference to the paid speeches she had given to Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, citing them as evidence of her cosiness with the big banks before and since the financial crisis.
Now that the transcripts of those speeches have leaked among Podesta’s emails, it’s clear why the Clinton campaign declined to release them. While there is nothing specifically incriminating in her remarks, they do suggest a candidate who takes a more forgiving stance to Wall Street than does Sanders, the Democratic base or, indeed, the wider public.
Clinton’s attitude to Wall Street is something her campaign aides agonised over in emails. The subject came up at the second debate, when the Democrat was asked about a section of one speech, in which she suggested politicians needed “both a public and a private position” on certain issues when negotiating policy.
On the stump, Trump has wildly mischaracterised the Wikileaks disclosures, claiming they reveal that Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”
What did Donald Trump say during the second presidential debate?
What did Donald Trump say during the second presidential debate?
1/8 On the leaked tape from 2005 where he talks about sexually assaulting women
“I'm very embarrassed by it, I hate it, but it's locker room talk. It's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of Isis”
2/8 On Hillary Clinton
“I hate to say it but if I win I'm going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. There has never been so many lies, so much deception. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
3/8 On Bill Clinton
“What he's done to women, there's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women.”
4/8 On whether his alleged opposition to Iraq War had been disproven
"It’s not debunked. It’s not debunked."
5/8 On exploiting tax loopholes
"I absolutely used it, and so did Warren Buffett, and so did George Soros and so did many people who Hillary is getting money from."
6/8 On claims he's sexist
“I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
7/8 On what he respects about Hillary Clinton
“I will say this about Hillary - she doesn't quit, she doesn't give up. I tell it like it is. She's a fighter.”
8/8 On his controversial immigration policies
"It’s called extreme vetting. We’re going to areas like Syria, where they are coming in by the tens of thousands because of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wanting to allow a 550 per cent increase [of refugees] over Obama. People are coming into this country. We have no idea who they are, where they are from and what their feelings are about this country."
Donna Brazile’s death penalty question
Back in March, Democratic grandee and CNN contributor Donna Brazile sent the Clinton campaign an email entitled “From time to time I get the questions in advance”, which contained an in-depth question about the death penalty that closely resembled a question Clinton was asked the following evening at a CNN town hall event.
The Trump campaign pounced on the exchange after it appeared in a batch of Wikileaks documents, presenting it as proof not only that the media and the Clinton campaign were colluding, but that the Democratic establishment had “rigged” the primary process against Sanders, in this case by leaking difficult questions to Clinton in advance.
At the time, Brazile was vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is ostensibly neutral during the primary. She has since become the acting DNC chair, after Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down amid a separate leak of internal DNC emails, which appeared to show DNC staffers favouring Clinton over the Vermont Senator.
Brazile and CNN have both denied she had access to the town hall questions in advance, with Brazile adding in a statement that she “would never have shared them with the candidates if I did.” A Democratic official claimed Brazile raised the death penalty question in her email because she expected to be asked about it herself as a panellist on ABC News the following day, and had wanted to check each Democratic candidate’s position on the issue.
Flip-flopping on trade and Keystone XL
Both Trump and Sanders have attacked Clinton for her past support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which she now claims to oppose. The Podesta emails suggest just how enthusiastic she was about TPP, until she wasn’t.
In one leaked 2013 speech to New York business leaders, Clinton said that as Secretary of State she had “led the way” on an Obama administration decision to “be a major presence” in Asia, with TPP the economic core of the so-called “pivot”. The US, she added, was “in a competition for the future and we need more partners and fewer adversaries.”
During the primaries, Clinton was cagey about whether she would support the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, an issue that pitted two prospective Democratic constituencies – environmentalists and labour unions – against each other.
President Obama eventually rejected the planned pipeline, but emails show that Clinton’s campaign deliberated at length over her support for Mr Obama’s decision, how to frame her position and whether to have Clinton announce it herself, or simply “leak” it to the press. Their back-and-forth could be seen to betray a campaign more concerned with the optics of such issues than with the issues themselves.
Clinton’s critics have leapt on some of her campaign’s email exchanges with journalists as evidence of media bias, which chimes with Trump’s repeated claim that the media is helping to “rig” the election against him.
The New York Times and Washington Post have done more than most to doom the property developer’s presidential chances, so it’s little surprise that online commentators have focused on an email in which the Post’s Juliet Eilperin gave Podesta a “heads up” about a story she was about to publish, and another in which New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich asked permission to use off-the-record quotes from an interview with Clinton.
What many of those commentators omit from their criticism is that this is precisely how journalism works: campaign sources are cultivated; quotes and confirmation are sought for stories. The emails in question are utterly routine – but that won’t necessarily prevent Trump from wielding them as part of his pet conspiracy theory.
The Clinton campaign has refused to authenticate the leaked Podesta emails. In a statement, a campaign spokesman said Wikileaks was “proving they are nothing but a propaganda arm of the Kremlin with a political agenda doing Putin’s dirty work to help elect Donald Trump.”
While the leaked emails may be fodder for Clinton’s opponents, they also feed a narrative that’s less helpful for Trump. The FBI suspects Russian intelligence services were behind the hack, which looks like part of a concerted Kremlin campaign to undermine the US democratic process to the benefit of the Republican nominee.
Ecuador appears to agree, cutting off Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s Internet access at its London embassy, over concerns that he was attempting to interfere in the election.
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