When a Clinton ‘Ally’ Isn’t an Ally at All

Dozens of freelancing Democrats are posing as Clinton confidants, and it’s mess-making for her real team.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives for a press conference on October 14, 2010 at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
National Journal
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Emily Schultheis
Feb. 18, 2015, 4:10 p.m.

There are Clin­ton “in­siders” and Clin­ton “al­lies.” Clin­ton “loy­al­ists” and Clin­ton “con­fid­ants.” People “fa­mil­i­ar with Clin­ton’s think­ing” or “in Clin­ton’s or­bit.”

No doubt, Wash­ing­ton is filled with Demo­crats who have worked for, ad­vised, donated money to, or rubbed el­bows with Hil­lary or Bill Clin­ton over the duo’s three dec­ades in polit­ics. But as the former sec­ret­ary of State pre­pares a 2016 cam­paign, these “al­lies” are pos­ing a prob­lem for Clin­ton’s real team.

Ever eager to voice opin­ions on everything from the timeline of Clin­ton’s an­nounce­ment to her 2016 mes­sage to how her “hip­ster black-rimmed glasses” fit with the op­tics of a Brook­lyn-based op­er­a­tion, self-labeled ad­visers are go­ing rogue. And by freel­an­cing, they’re tak­ing the Clin­ton story out of Clin­ton’s hands, even as she tries to build a team that’s more leak-proof and less will­ing to air dirty laun­dry than in 2008.

“There are three parties to this equa­tion: We’re one, the source is two, and the me­dia is three. And ar­gu­ably we have the least amount of in­flu­ence on any of this,” said long­time Clin­ton aide Phil­ippe Reines. He con­ceded, though, that there’s no real way for her team to con­trol it. “We just have to sit back. We just have to grin and bear it.”

The is­sue is sin­gu­larly frus­trat­ing for people who work and have worked in Clin­ton’s press op­er­a­tion and dealt with the is­sue first-hand — enough so that sev­er­al of whom, like Reines, were will­ing to give rare on-the-re­cord in­ter­views for this story.

“This is a con­stant prob­lem,” said Howard Wolf­son, who served as Clin­ton’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or in 2008. “There is an enorm­ous num­ber of people who have had, or claim to have had, an as­so­ci­ation with the Clin­tons over the years — and many of them claim to have some de­gree of know­ledge of her plans or activ­it­ies that they don’t in fact have.”

Un­like on the Re­pub­lic­an side, where a crowded field makes can­did­ates and their staffs happy to dish to re­port­ers about big hires, early-state plans, and be­hind-the-scenes mach­in­a­tions, move­ments to and with­in Clin­ton’s grow­ing op­er­a­tion are closely held. In­deed, Re­pub­lic­ans have used a run­ning tally of the “no com­ment” re­sponses from the Clin­ton camp to paint the former sen­at­or and first lady as out of touch — “OFF THE RE­CORD: no com­ment,” read the head­line on one re­cent Clin­ton-re­lated re­lease from the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee.

So with Clin­ton’s staff keep­ing pub­lic com­ments to a min­im­um, the quasi-“in­siders” largely have the floor to them­selves.

Cer­tainly, former staffers eagerly of­fer­ing up their own takes or spec­u­la­tion isn’t unique to Clin­ton, but for her it’s mag­ni­fied by the amount of time she and her hus­band have spent in the pub­lic eye. There are dec­ades’ worth of former staffers to con­tend with: the Arkan­sas people, the Clin­ton White House ad­visers, New York Sen­ate staffers, 2008 cam­paign aides, Clin­ton Found­a­tion as­so­ci­ates, and State De­part­ment aides, among oth­ers.

Asked how the cam­paign could get a handle on all the an­onym­ous out­side chat­ter, Reines placed much of the blame on the me­dia for be­ing will­ing to grant an­onym­ity to sources who don’t know what they’re talk­ing about. Un­less the un­named “ad­visers” stop talk­ing to re­port­ers, or re­port­ers stop quot­ing them, Reines ad­ded, there’s no way to get the is­sue un­der con­trol.

“What gets lost is, there are no con­sequences for [the source or the me­dia] when they’re wrong — there just aren’t,” he said. “If you were to go back and look at the last three, four, five, six months of cov­er­age about Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton, you’re go­ing to see cer­tain re­port­ers who cov­er her closely whose ac­cur­acy rate is less than 50-50.”

Any re­port­er cov­er­ing the Clin­ton beat knows it’s tough to nav­ig­ate the sphere known as Clin­ton­world. A source who of­fers up good in­form­a­tion for one story might be totally wrong on an­oth­er. And most Demo­crats are un­der­stand­ably squeam­ish about talk­ing on the re­cord about any­thing Clin­ton-re­lated, be­cause nearly all of them are hop­ing for jobs with her. (More than a dozen people con­tac­ted for this piece said they were happy to dis­cuss it — but only on back­ground.)

The thing is, a Clin­ton “ally” could be any­one: a top donor or a former staffer in the know, sure, but also a Demo­crat­ic strategist on the out­side who is just shar­ing an opin­ion, wants to feel im­port­ant, or is hop­ing to settle a score. What’s more, it’s far harder for the cam­paign to chas­tise someone for say­ing things they shouldn’t — or stop telling that per­son priv­ileged in­form­a­tion — if they’re quoted an­onym­ously and you don’t know for sure who said what.

“Any time someone ac­tu­ally says their name and pub­lishes a quote, it’s easy for the cam­paign to call them up and say, ‘Please don’t do that any­more,’ ” said Mi­chael Trujillo, who served as a seni­or staffer for Clin­ton’s 2008 cam­paign in Cali­for­nia, Texas, and North Car­o­lina. But with an­onym­ous quotes, you don’t know where they’re com­ing from.

(Reines warned it’s not dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out: “It’s not like you read something and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that could have been 97 people.’ You tend to know. Not 100 per­cent of the time, but … I think sources would prob­ably shriv­el up if they knew that when these things hap­pen, there’s usu­ally a four-minute con­ver­sa­tion about, ‘Oh, that was prob­ably X,’ … I think people would be mor­ti­fied. I don’t think they real­ize how much that hap­pens.”)

Mike Mc­Curry, Bill Clin­ton’s White House press sec­ret­ary in the 1990s, also pegged the prob­lem not to the cam­paign but to re­port­ers who “hy­per­ventil­ate” about 2016. “I love Mrs. Clin­ton and hope she de­cides what is best for her. But any­one that would quote me ‘on back­ground’ would be mis­lead­ing their audi­ence be­cause I have no real idea what they are think­ing,” he wrote via email. “I be­lieve 75 per­cent (con­ser­vat­ively) of what I read about the polit­ic­al strategy in­side the Clin­ton camp is from people who want to be in the ‘in­side circle’ but prob­ably aren’t.”

The dy­nam­ic in 2008 is just a pre­view of what the chat­ter­ing “al­lies” will be like this time around. Trujillo said more than once he and his team were stunned at news re­ports about Clin­ton’s plans in each of those states — which of­ten had sources who were dir­ectly con­tra­dict­ing what was ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in­side the cam­paign.

“To read that in the pa­per and know it was the com­plete op­pos­ite … it’s nev­er help­ful, it’s nev­er asked for,” said Trujillo, now a Los Angeles-based seni­or ad­viser for Ready for Hil­lary. “You’re not be­ing help­ful by pon­ti­fic­at­ing on what she is or isn’t go­ing to do.”

So what’s the even­tu­al Clin­ton cam­paign to do? No one reached for this story had a good an­swer. Some sug­ges­ted the out­side “al­lies” would be giv­en less status once it’s clear who’s ac­tu­ally in­volved in the cam­paign and who isn’t. Oth­ers said that John Podesta, the ex­pec­ted cam­paign chair­man, might be able to in­still or­der among the older gen­er­a­tions of Clin­ton loy­al­ists, many of whom he’s worked with in the past.

Ben LaBolt, the press sec­ret­ary for the Obama 2012 cam­paign, said the even­tu­al Clin­ton cam­paign needs to make it very clear to re­port­ers who is ac­tu­ally on the cam­paign and in the know — and who isn’t.

“Cam­paigns should bend over back­wards to lim­it the num­ber of people that speak of­fi­cially for the cam­paign and to make sure the me­dia un­der­stands ex­actly who serves on that team,” he wrote in an email. “Oth­er­wise, you’re forced to apo­lo­gize for, cor­rect, or con­demn state­ments by people who don’t ac­tu­ally have any­thing to do with the cam­paign.”

But some­times, Wolf­son said, the 2008 staff took a step back and just laughed about who some an­onym­ous sources could have been. “In the ‘08 cam­paign, we used to laugh and say, ‘OK, that was the shoe-shine guy.’ ‘That was the guy who ran the sand­wich shop down the street,’” he said. “There was, in my ex­per­i­ence, a very elast­ic and loose defin­i­tion of who con­sti­tutes a ‘Clin­ton loy­al­ist,’ ‘Clin­ton in­sider,’ ‘Clin­ton con­fid­ant.’ “

The re­port­ing and spec­u­la­tion about her in­ten­tions and cam­paign plans, Reines said, of­ten baffle even Clin­ton her­self: “When you’re talk­ing to the per­son whose life is be­ing writ­ten about and they’re like, ‘Where do they get this stuff?’ It’s really sober­ing.”

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