Hillary Clinton is heading to Vegas, and she has everything to lose.
The last debate of the ugliest presidential contest in modern memory will tee off tonight and Clinton’s latest email scandal—cosponsored by WikiLeaks and, quite possibly, the Russians—will be top of mind.
Since WikiLeaks first released internal Democratic National Committee communications in July, the Trump campaign has for all practical purposes outsourced its opposition research efforts to Julian Assange. And as a result, everyone with internet access now has an unprecedented view into the inner workings of a notoriously secretive and press-averse campaign.
The emails—the validity of which the campaign won’t confirm or deny—depict a team consumed by poll numbers, optics, and conference calls. And though Clinton’s aides have pushed to frame the debate as a chance for Clinton to a finally talk policy, the drip-drip-drip-drip-drip of Assange’s email dumps could drown out any high-minded debating about, say, entitlements. After all, who wants to talk about reforming the tax code when hackers just leaked emails of top Hillary aides saying she hates to apologize?
Chris Wallace, who will host the debate, last interviewed Hillary Clinton on July 31 of this year, right after WikiLeaks released hacked emails from the DNC that precipitated the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And he pressed her on whether or not she thought Putin wanted Trump to win. Clinton didn’t answer the question, instead of arguing that it certainly looks that way. And thanks to the latest email releases, Putin’s alleged interference is more interesting than ever.
Tonight, Wallace will have more material than ever, not the least of which are the transcripts to three speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs and then tried to keep from being publicized. WikiLeaks released what it says are those transcripts, and they have lots of interesting tidbits—for instance, her claim that Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial regulation package in a hurry because it felt like it had to “do something,” rather than out of pure devotion to the principle of stricter Wall Street regulation. The emails also show one of her long-time allies saying her trouble with apologizing is “a pathology,” and another top aide suggesting she wouldn’t push for anti-bribery legislation on the campaign trail because the issue is “REALLY dicey territory” for her.
Clinton’s team is betting that the circumstances of the emails’ release will be more interesting than their actual contents.
“We expect that Donald Trump is going to have to answer for his refusal to even acknowledge the Russian role in the recent election-related hacks,” emailed campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. (While it’s true that the U.S. intelligence community is confident that the Russians participated in the hacks, those same spies have been notably silent on the issue of how the hacked files made their way into Assange’s hands.) “At the last debate, he again dodged the issue of the Russians’ involvement, even though he had already been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials about the state-sponsored nature of the hack. His unwillingness to speak out against this unprecedented interference in our elections—combined with his campaign’s and companies’ many connections to Russia—raise troubling questions about whether he has had advance knowledge of any of these activities.”
And if his non-stop Twitter feed is any indicator, he’ll rip Clinton for comments her aides made in the WikiLeaks emails. Those emails, thus far, don’t include anything proving Clinton’s campaign engaged in criminal behavior.
“We have nothing to do with the hacks and we certainly had nothing to do with the terrible content of the emails. Hillary Clinton and her campaign continue to try and evade responsibility for these emails, along with Benghazi, her private server, and all of the other disasters that she should own once and for all.”
Despite the steady stream of emails (many of which show Clinton aides and allies making uncharitable comments about each other—for instance, Podesta saying a Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was “stalking” him), Clinton has seized a comfortable lead in the national polls, as well as in most battleground states. The RealClearPolitics average shows her with nearly a seven point lead in polling that includes the two third-party candidates. In other words, Clinton has largely been able to skate on WikiLeaks’ revelations, despite Assange’s best effort to maximize their damage. Meanwhile, Trump—who dominated campaign coverage for a year and a half—now complains the national media isn’t doing enough to push his preferred narrative on the WikiLeaks emails. He even suggested that one leaked email, where a Politico columnist asked Podesta to fact-check part of a story he was writing, was evidence this is “a media-rigged election.”
Unlike Clinton, Trump’s polling numbers have only nosedived for the last two weeks since The Washington Post reported he once bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” without their consent. In the last presidential debate, he promised to try to incarcerate Clinton if elected and tried to make an issue out of Bill Clinton’s past sexual misconduct. He also said he had never sexually assaulted anyone—a remark that prompted ten women to publicly accuse him of sexual misconduct. His campaign’s circumstances have only grown more dire since then, which means he’s likely to feel completely liberated on the debate stage. After all, when you’re Donald Trump, how bad can things get?
And Assange has given him a host of ways to needle Clinton. For instance, he might point to an email that long-time Clinton ally Neera Tanden—now the president of the Center for American Progress—sent Sept. 4, 2015 where she said apologies were Clinton’s “Achilles’ heel.”
“She gets into a rhythm when there’s tons of interviews,” Tanden continued. “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.”
A few days later, Tanden expressed more frustration at Clinton’s struggles with saying she was sorry for using a private email address to conduct State Department business.
“This apology thing has become like a pathology,” she wrote in an email to Podesta on Sept. 9. “I can only imagine what’s happening in the campaign.”
And apologies weren’t the only problem area for Clinton that her aides highlighted. In another email, top Clinton advisor Jake Sullivan concedes she isn’t great at talking about the issue of bribery. He sent that email on March 1 of this year to Podesta and Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden. In it, he shared a list of a ideas for government reform “that really have currency.” Second on his list was this: “Strengthen bribery laws to ensure that politicians don’t change legislation for political donations.”
He then wrote the number “62,” indicating that 62 percent of soft partisan voters the campaign had polled would like the idea. Further down in the email, though, Sullivan suggested that an anti-bribery campaign message would be a strategic error when Bernie Sanders was getting momentum by lambasting Clinton for her ties to Wall Street banks.
“The second idea is a favorite of mine, as you know,” he wrote, “but REALLY dicey territory for HRC, right?”
Sanders used her off-the-record speeches at Goldman Sachs events as a cudgel, arguing she should release the transcripts to prove there was nothing untoward about her interactions with the bank. Clinton and her team studiously refused to release those transcripts, and we never would have known what was in them—except that just this past weekend, WikiLeaks released them, too.
And those transcripts included their fair share of eyebrow-raising comments—including the suggestion on Clinton’s part that more wealthy people should run for office because donors can’t manipulate them, and that deep-pocketed donors should push Republicans to be more compromising.
Another eye-popping tidbit from the leaked emails is that Chelsea Clinton had “serious concerns” that a consulting firm helmed by Clinton family allies was trying to profit off its connection to them in ways that could have been ethically suspect. Chelsea’s concerns generated enough tension that Doug Band, who heads the firm, Teneo, emailed Podesta to call her a “spoiled brat kid” who “hasn’t found her way and has a lack of focus in her life.”
All available polling evidence indicates Clinton is likely to win the presidency in November. So Wednesday night, she could set a high-minded tone for her would-be presidency to an audience of upwards of 80 million Americans. Or Trump, with a major assist from Assange, could use the unprecedented leaks to remind voters why so many of them view her as dishonest and untrustworthy. The audience will be massive, the pressure will be astounding, and the world will be watching—including, if he can, the most famous resident of London’s Ecuadorian embassy.