The world’s most powerful leaders gathered in Germany this week to hammer out tough geopolitical issues—and, according to a tweet from President Donald Trump, to dump on Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman.
“Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA, Disgraceful!” Trump tweeted from his personal account early Friday morning, half an hour before he was scheduled to depart his hotel for the G20 summit in Hamburg.
It was an peculiar aside deviating sharply from some of Trump’s other tweets during his swing through Germany and Poland, which have largely focused on the serious business at hand—with a few shots at “Fake News” and “the haters” who annoy the president. It also appeared to get basic facts wrong about last year’s alleged Russian election-meddling: Podesta worked for the Clinton presidential campaign at the time, not the Democratic National Committee, and hence had no say in the treatment of the latter’s hacked email servers. The DNC has also repeatedly disputed the narrative endorsed by Trump, as the committee claims law-enforcement agencies did not reach out until August, when the hacking had already been made public and the security gap closed.
The tweet baffled White House aides on the trip. "I have no idea what he's talking about,” one messaged The Daily Beast. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss the bizarre tweet.
According to those present, the only world leader at the summit who was actively bringing up Podesta and “the DNC server” was the U.S. president.
“Trump himself brought it up” randomly in person while talking to staff, a senior official on the trip told The Daily Beast. Puzzled advisers nodded politely or ignored him as the president went down the rabbit hole of a controversy—his campaign’s potential involvement in or knowledge of Russian government hacking of email accounts owned by Podesta and the DNC—that has dogged the new administration since day one.
Podesta, who chaired Clinton’s presidential campaign, responded in kind, tweeting at “our whack job POTUS” to “get a grip” and “get your head in the game” at the summit. “The Russians committed a crime when they stole my emails to help get you elected President,” Podesta wrote. “Maybe you might try to find a way to mention that to President Putin.”
Podesta and the DNC were the victims of parallel cyber-intrusions that U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed to Russian government actors. But Trump appeared to conflate the two—”I had nothing to do with the DNC,” Podesta noted—raising immediate red flags about the veracity of the president’s claim that “everyone” at the summit was discussing it.
“What gave it away, [the president] not knowing the difference between the DNC and the Clinton campaign, or the idea that a dozen other heads of state don’t know the difference either?” one senior administration official remarked, casting doubt on Trump’s claim.
Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—who is often quick to tell reporters that Trump’s less coherent tweets simply speak for themselves—did not respond to an email from The Daily Beast seeking clarification on the @realDonaldTrump claim about “everyone.”
The president has for decades been a fan of hyperbole to fit his agenda, and this is often reflected in his verbal ticks. Trump is fond of attributing complimentary or politically convenient sentiments to unnamed persons or large groups of possibly fabricated individuals.
“Many people,” he has tweeted, have thanked him for writing The Art of the Deal and linking vaccines to autism. “Many people” have said that Trump’s appearance on WrestleMania made it the “greatest of all time.” And “many people” say the Iranian government killed a nuclear scientist “because of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails.” (Those emails in question were not hacked; they were released by the State Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.)
In January 2015, @realDonaldTrump tweeted about how “so many people have told me that I should host Meet the Press and replace the moron who is on now.”
“Just too busy, especially next 10 years!” the future president added.