Early in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, vice-chairwoman Huma Abedin recommended the campaign not take questions from press at “message events,” according to an email published by WikiLeaks. The recommendation was made because of Clinton’s concerns with media coverage.
“Can we survive not answering questions from press at message events?” Abedin asked on May 21, 2015. “Her Dinkins speech and immigration message broke through because we didn’t take questions. Her community banks message got lost because she answered questions about the [Clinton] Foundation and emails.”
Abedin proposed the campaign launch plans or policy proposals in speeches that would be followed by “targeted small message events in different states.” A series of “policy rollouts” would take place at speeches or “small message round tables.” During the fall, she could make herself available at “message events, interviews,” and eventually do Q-and-A’s with press, “having had a series of policy proposals already announced and reported on that she could point to.”
As POLITICO pointed out in its coverage of this particular email, Clinton has faced criticism from the press for not making herself available through formal press conferences. Donald Trump seized upon her reluctance to take questions from press to try and bolster his presidential campaign.
“At the beginning of September, Clinton took questions from the traveling press on her campaign plane, ending a 275-day streak of avoiding press gaggles and press conferences,” POLITICO noted.
John Podesta, Clinton campaign chairman, replied, “If she thinks we can get to Labor Day without taking press questions, I think that’s suicidal. We have to find some mechanism to let the stream out of the pressure cooker.”
“Not suggesting no Q and A at all,” Abedin clarified. “Maybe just having a straight message event and take questions from real people.”
Abedin additionally proposed she could take questions while out getting ice cream or during one of the house parties she planned to attend.
The email was part of the fourth batch of hacked emails from Podesta’s email account, which WikiLeaks published on October 12.
In August, Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook said on CBS’s “Face The Nation,” “I don’t think that it’s fair to say that someone is shying away from tough questions when they’ve taken over 300 interviews from reporters.” He rejected criticism directed at the campaign for rarely holding press conferences.
Yet, as NPR found, “These interviews were not, however, all conducted by reporters or journalists.” About a fifth of the 350 interviews touted by the Clinton campaign were “conducted by people NPR did not classify as journalists or in settings that would be considered journalistic, even using expansive definitions.
Clinton’s desire to limit press access reflects an attitude that appears throughout the Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks. It also partly explains why Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon went on the offensive, condemning media for “treating WikiLeaks like it is same as [Freedom of Information Act,” and adding, “Assange is colluding with Russian government to help Trump.”
Most American press do not view Assange or WikiLeaks as journalism. They do not consider the publication of hacked or leaked information to be similar to publishing records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Regardless, Fallon and other Clinton campaign operatives flail and rage against WikiLeaks because they have lost control of the narrative. The organization makes it impossible to do the main job they were recruited by Clinton to do.
Clinton campaign operatives constantly search for ways to insulate their candidate from scrutiny. They have the benefit of reporters from major media outlets emailing them copies of their stories or giving them advance notice on what they plan to publish about Clinton. Some journalists ask the campaign if they can include particular details on Clinton, and the campaign tells them not to characterize her or her campaign positions in that way.
WikiLeaks will never engage in such interactions with people in positions of power. They published documents they obtained, determined they were Podesta’s emails, and posted the records directly to their website for all media to comb through and write stories. This means the Clinton campaign cannot talk an organization like WikiLeaks into holding back so they can put information into a context that shields them from damage. It also means they cannot control the news cycle anymore.
Lack of control led the Clinton campaign to blame Russia for the publication of emails. However, there is little proof from the United States government that the Kremlin is particularly masterminding this publication. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson explicitly claimed the hacking of emails could be traced back to the Russian government while the FBI put forward a much more oblique statement, which aligns with what the agency said back in July when Democratic National Committee emails were published by WikiLeaks.
“The FBI is aware of media reporting on cyber intrusions involving multiple political entities, and is working to determine the accuracy, nature and scope of these matters. The cyber threat environment continues to evolve as cyber actors target all sectors and their data. The FBI takes seriously any allegations of intrusions, and we will continue to hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace,” an FBI spokesperson declared.
Russia is to blame because the campaign believes tritely alleging Russia is behind all this—and that Russian president Vladimir Putin wants Trump to be president—will discourage media coverage and make all this go away. They do not think they should have to defend the actions reflected in the emails, and this conduct offers a stark preview of what is to come if Clinton is elected president.