Donna Brazile seems confused.
In her new book Hacks, released this Tuesday, and in an excerpt in Politico Magazine published last week, the former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee wrote that she searched for proof that the 2016 Democratic presidential primary was “rigged” for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, and said, “By September 7... I had found my proof and it broke my heart.” Yet on Tuesday, Brazile appeared on CBS News, where she said the contest was fair. “I found no instances that the party rigged the process, and I wanted to make sure Bernie and his supporters understood that,” she said. The contradiction is so clear that even Chris Cillizza was able to spot it.
The claim of rigging, made and withdrawn, is the buzziest of several stories to come from the book, some of which I wrote about last week. One, reported by The Washington Post, was the idea that Brazile plotted to remove Clinton from the Democratic ticket after her September 11, 2016, fainting spell, perhaps replacing her with Joe Biden and Cory Booker. The Post wrote that Brazile had “seriously contemplated setting in motion a process to replace” Clinton, but it’s difficult to tell from the book just how serious she was. Brazile wrote that she had occasionally threatened the Clinton campaign with removal when she felt disrespected, but it doesn’t sound as though she was ever really close to trying to do so after Clinton’s illness.
Sometimes the fuzziness on details is on Brazile’s part. For example, she makes this claim: “The Saturday morning after the convention in July, I called Gary Gensler, the chief financial officer of Hillary’s campaign. He wasted no words. He told me the Democratic Party was broke and $2 million in debt. ...On the phone Gary told me the DNC had needed a $2 million loan, which the campaign had arranged.”
But Brazile is almost certainly mistaken about the loan. The DNC did have $2 million in debt on its books, but that loan dated to 2014—before the Clinton campaign existed, meaning the campaign couldn’t have arranged it. It was with the DNC’s usual bank. And despite Brazile’s statement that then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz hadn’t informed party officers like her, the loan was disclosed in FEC filings that Brazile (and anyone else) could view.
There are several other curious things about the book, including her peculiar, though evidently heartfelt, fixation with the case of Seth Rich, the DNC employee whose unsolved murder has become a focus for conspiracy theorists, much to his family’s dismay. (Rich is also one of the book’s dedicatees.)
Brazile seems to have harbored unrealistic expectations about the DNC’s independence. By the time Brazile was named interim chair in July 2016, Clinton was already the de facto nominee, days away from formal nomination. It’s customary for the nominee to effectively control the party apparatus from that point, but Brazile repeatedly bridled at directives from Clinton’s headquarters in Brooklyn. One is sympathetic to Brooklyn: No one wants a DNC chair offering conflicting messages from the campaign, as happened after James Comey’s October 28 letter about the FBI investigation. One is also sympathetic to Brazile: She is a boisterous, vivacious presence, and Clinton’s campaign was cool and clinical to a fault. Conflict between the two was practically inevitable. And while Brazile’s critique of the Clinton team as overly dispassionate is widely held now, her own instincts were also questionable, as in her demand that money be spent in major cities to drive up turnout due to a fear that Clinton would win the electoral vote but lose the popular vote.
But more than anything else, the book has kicked off a battle over the question of whether the primary process was in fact rigged in Clinton’s favor. In particular, that debate has focused on some pretty arcane stuff—the joint-fundraising agreement that the Clinton campaign struck with the DNC in August 2015. While the details are somewhat confusing, the discussion crystallizes the differences between Clinton and Sanders neatly: one the unshakeable party woman, fiercely devoted to institutions and willing to bend the rules a little to get what she felt needed to be done done; the other an outsider, with no strong attachment to the party but a fierce sense of principle and propriety.
The joint-fundraising agreements (or JFAs) were almost custom-tailored to produce a conflict. The funny thing is that the Clinton and Sanders camps both appear to think there’s less to Brazile’s revelations than meets the eye. Clinton campaign officials have said the agreement was only about general-election details, and did not prejudice the primary. Mark Longabaugh, a top Sanders aide who was that campaign’s liaison to the DNC, dismissed the story for a different reason: “All Donna has done here is she’s put a little bit more detail on what we all knew,” he told me. “Hillary Clinton had a heavy hand at the DNC, if not outright control. If you look at the totality of the evidence, that’s indisputable.”
The JFAs serve to create another stream of revenue for the election. There’s a federal maximum amount that individuals can give to any candidate, but a major donor can also write a large check to the party, which can use the money to boost its candidates. Such agreements are standard, and while Brazile quoted a Politico piece that described the arrangement as “essentially … money laundering,” that’s a little misleading. On the one hand, they’re designed to allow donors to give extra money, and if, like Sanders, you’re a critic of the campaign-finance regime, you may feel that this is a bad idea. They are, however, legal.
The Clinton campaign signed its JFA in August 2015. Although that was unusually early in the primary cycle, Joe Sandler, a former DNC general counsel, told me it has not been uncommon for candidates to sign JFAs during the primary. What does seem to be unusual are the terms laid out in an addendum to the memo, which was obtained by both NBC News and NPR. On the one hand, the agreement stipulates that “Nothing in this agreement shall be construed to violate the DNC's obligation of impartiality and neutrality through the Nominating process. All activities performed under this agreement will be focused exclusively on preparations for the General Election and not the Democratic Primary.”
Yet other provisions seem at odds with that. For example, the DNC agreed to hire a communications director (the post had been vacant) within a couple weeks, choosing from two Clinton-campaign-selected options. The Clinton team also had input on senior staff in several departments it viewed as central to the general-election effort, and the Clinton team would “be consulted and have joint authority over strategic decisions over the staffing, budget, expenditures, and general election related communications, data, technology, analytics, and research.”
There’s no obvious way to reconcile neutrality with the provisions, which were agreed upon when Clinton (and the DNC) still expected Sanders would pose no serious obstacle to her nomination. The idea that there would be any difference between the DNC’s interests in the primary and general must have barely registered.
“The funding arrangement with [Hillary for America] and the victory fund agreement was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical,” Brazile wrote. “If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead. This was not a criminal act, but as I saw it, it compromised the party’s integrity.”
Why would the DNC have agreed to these conditions? The party was in dire financial straits, saddled with debt from the 2012 campaign that President Obama had never bothered to retire, led by a chairwoman who was widely viewed as listless, and looking at fundraising that lagged behind expectations. The JFA with Clinton was a way to get a quick infusion of cash from a proven fundraiser.
Last week, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook defended the agreement on CNN, saying the figures the Clinton campaign team put in place were there to attack Republicans, not Sanders or other Democratic contenders. “The DNC came to our campaign and said, ‘We need help. We’re not prepared for the general election,’” he said. “The purpose of the DNC while a primary is going on is to hold Republican candidates accountable, and nobody was filling that post."
But although Clinton was a loyal Democratic insider and wanted the party to be in good shape for the general election, her campaign wasn’t a charity. It wanted to get something in return for funneling millions toward the DNC, and given stories of DNC mismanagement—Wasserman Schultz had reportedly sought to have the party pay for her clothing on multiple occasions—it wanted to ensure that the money went to things that would help Clinton in a general election.
Defenders of the Clinton/DNC agreement have pointed to a clause in the agreement—“Further we understand you may enter into similar agreements with other candidates”—as evidence that Sanders could have reached a similar deal, had he been willing to cough up a similar amount of cash. But by then, the Clinton-approved communications director was in place, and other Clinton-approved moves had commenced. Once the Clinton JFA was in place, no other candidate could sign a truly equal agreement.
In fact, Sanders did sign a JFA roughly two months later, at the start of November. Longabaugh said the Sanders campaign was startled when it received the JFA text and was told it was non-negotiable, because another campaign had signed the same agreement. He said Sanders didn’t want to sign, but was told that it was a condition of getting access to the DNC’s voter file. To the Sanders campaign, the idea of getting large checks for a joint account was laughable. Clinton had donors who were maxing out and were willing and able to give much larger sums, but Sanders’s campaign was built on small-dollar donations—the famous $27. There weren’t donors lining up to write six-figure checks for a Sanders-DNC JFA.
“If you go back and listen to his speeches, the core message of his campaign was he was battling a rigged economic system that was propped up by a corrupt campaign-finance system,” Longabaugh said. While the JFA was legal, it was the sort of mechanism Sanders disdained. (Longabaugh said Sanders offered to appear at party fundraisers if the DNC arranged them. As with other assertions about the DNC , top party officials at the time could not be reached for comment.)
Once the JFA was signed and the voter file accessed, Sanders basically ignored the agreement. That included not signing state parties up for joint fundraising. In February 2016, The Washington Post reported on how the joint Clinton-DNC fund had created a pipeline for money from states to the national efforts. The Sanders campaign wrote a letter to the DNC complaining about it. Sanders could have signed states up, but he didn’t do so, for the same practical and ideological reasons he didn’t like the JFA in the first place.
There’s no disputing that Sanders began the primary at a structural disadvantage. The Clinton family had spent almost some 25 years in national politics by the time the race began, and many of the people who worked at the DNC had worked for either Hillary or Bill Clinton at some point. Sanders, meanwhile, was a consummate outsider, and wasn’t even a registered Democrat. (He serves in the Senate as an independent but caucuses with Democrats.)
Longabaugh said the Clinton campaign deserves some credit for funneling millions of dollars into the party in late summer 2015.
“At one level I’m very sympathetic to the Clinton campaign—I wasn’t operating the DNC at the same time, but the Clinton people had knowledge that the party was broke,” he said. “I’m sympathetic to the fact that they came in and bailed out the DNC.” But he said the Clinton team should have used that occasion to oust Wasserman Schultz, rather than to demand control of parts of the DNC while leaving her in place.
What brings Clinton and Sanders partisans together is a frustration with Brazile’s decision to publish the book now. Brazile’s passion has sometimes led to her to say things that make other Democrats groan—her first national brush with fame came when, as a deputy field director to Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race, she called on George H.W. Bush to address rumors of infidelity and was sacked.
Many Democrats view her airing of dirty laundry now as similarly self-defeating, and her press tour—including her flip-flop on rigging and an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show Wednesday—as self-promotion that hurts the party and overshadows the Democratic critiques of the GOP tax plan and wins at the ballot box. The Clinton campaign is hardly eager for further dissection of its missteps last year, but even though Brazile’s book is sympathetic to Sanders’s interpretation of the race, Longabaugh wasn’t enjoying the hubbub.
“The party needs to move on beyond this,” he sighed.