Running for president means never having to say you’re sorry—or at least, that was what Hillary Clinton was hoping. That’s because apologies aren’t her strength, and her team knew it.
Email exchanges, released by WikiLeaks, between Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and other top staffers and confidants back in 2015 show deep concern and relief when Clinton was forced to apologize for using a private email address instead of her official State Department address. The emails may have been first obtained by Russian hackers who targeted Podesta.
The emails provide a rare window into the Clinton team’s approach to one of the most electric controversies of this entire presidential cycle: her decision to use a private email server and email account while she was secretary of state. Clinton’s team bungled the response for months, refusing to admit she had done anything troubling and even trying to laugh off the scandal.
The problem became pressing on March 10, 2015, when Clinton told reporters at a press conference at the U.N. that she had used a personal email address for her State Department work.
The press conference was a disaster. She looked evasive and defensive, and she refused to admit that she had done anything wrong, and the problem percolated. On Aug. 18, in Las Vegas, she held another press conference about the issue, and glibly joked about wiping her server “with a cloth.” That went over like a ton of bricks.
When it became crystal clear that her approach wasn’t working, her team accepted what had long been obvious: She would have to say she was sorry.
It was a prospect that made them nervous. In an email chain discussing Clinton’s sit-down interview with Andrea Mitchell on Sept. 4, 2015—where she said she regretted that the email drew controversy, but didn’t concede she had done anything wrong—staff and allies bemoaned her situation but held on to optimism.
“She rocked it!” wrote Tanden in the subject line of an email to Podesta and campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “and they should get easier from here
Palmieri shared that sentiment.
“I actually cried a little bit with relief,” she wrote.
But they knew they weren’t out of the woods, and discussed the fact that she would need to do a number of media interviews to try to push back against the controversy.
“She gets into a rhythm when there’s tons of interviews,” Tanden wrote. “But I definitely recommend having her beat up a punching bag (or a staffer but that is unpleasant) before she goes on. She really needs to exorcise the injustice of it all.”
Podesta also seemed to see Clinton as a victim.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” he wrote. “Press takeaway was the whine of but ‘she really didn’t apologize to the American people’ I am beginning to think Trump is on to something.”
Tanden then conceded that Clinton needed to do more.
“Everyone wants her to apologize. And she should,” she wrote. “Apologies are like her Achilles heel. But she didn’t seem like a bitch in the interview. And she said the word sorry. She will get to a full apology in a few interviews.”
And that’s what she did—but not after substantial criticism. On Sept. 7, she refused to admit any wrongdoing to the AP.
“What I did was allowed,” she told the AP at an Iowa campaign stop.
On Sept. 8, though, she finally admitted in an interview with ABC’s David Muir that she herself made a mistake by using a private email for State Department business.
“As I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts,” she said. “That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.”
The story still dogged her, though, and her apology procrastination just gave fuel to critics arguing she only cared about poll numbers. At the first general election debate, she finally gave an answer that seemed to make everybody happy.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” she said (after spending almost a year making excuses). “It was a mistake.”