Last Thursday, Donna Brazile dropped a bombshell on a Democratic coalition that’s still nursing open wounds from a bruising 2016 primary fight. But, as more details have emerged about what Brazile described as Hillary Clinton’s “secret takeover” of the party infrastructure, it looks a lot less explosive than it first appeared to be.
Brazile, who is set to release an insider’s view of the 2016 race this week titled Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House, wrote for Politico that shortly after becoming interim chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) last summer she unearthed evidence that Hillary Clinton’s campaign had taken control of the ostensibly neutral institution a year earlier, months before the first primary votes had been cast.
It had been widely reported that both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns had signed identical joint fundraising deals with the DNC, with the eventual nominee being able to use funds that were raised for the general election. But the Clinton campaign had also signed a separate “memorandum of understanding” in July of 2015, according to NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald, who reported on this memo shortly after Brazile’s Politico piece went live. In exchange for an initial payment of $1.2 million to defray some of the debt the DNC had accrued under the leadership of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and with additional payments to follow, the Clinton campaign would enjoy, as Brazile described it,
the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about…budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.
In Brazile’s telling, this scheme came to light only as a result of her sleuthing. She writes that, shortly after she took over the helm of the DNC from Wasserman Schultz last July, she promised Senator Sanders that she “would get to the bottom of whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process.” She had already had suspicions based on the leaked DNC e-mails, she wrote, “but who knew if some of them might have been forged? I needed to have solid proof.”
That proof was in the side agreement. According to Brazile, Gary Gensler, Clinton’s chief financial officer, later told her that “the party [was] fully under the control of Hillary’s campaign.”
Coming from a figure like Brazile, who embodies the party establishment, the story was catnip for political reporters. When Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) later told reporters that Brazile’s revelations proved that the primaries were “rigged” against Sanders, many of his supporters saw it as vindication of their claims, despite the fact that Warren didn’t articulate a mechanism by which even a Clinton-controlled DNC could have swung around 3 million primary votes to the eventual nominee.
Of course, those who have an interest in maintaining a divided Democratic coalition also promoted Brazile’s narrative with enthusiasm.
Donna Brazile just stated the DNC RIGGED the system to illegally steal the Primary from Bernie Sanders. Bought and paid for by Crooked H….
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2017
But in the days following the publication of Brazile’s story, additional details have emerged that cast the story in a different light. Her account certainly exposes the grubby kind of behind-the-scenes transactions that are inherent in a system of costly, drawn-out elections financed primarily through the private sector. It was widely reported during the primary that Clinton’s joint fundraising deal provided a means of effectively laundering money from maxed-out donors who were legally barred from contributing more to her campaign directly but could still cut large checks to the party, a problem the Sanders campaign didn’t run into with its small-donor base. But it doesn’t necessarily reveal a playing field that was tilted against the Sanders campaign, at least not intentionally so.
Very importantly, while Clinton’s side deal may have been unknown to Brazile, at least the broad contours of the agreement weren’t kept secret from the Sanders campaign. Brazile writes that Sanders was only “familiar” with “the fundraising agreement that each of the candidates had signed.” But in the wake of Brazile’s article, The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer, David Weigel, and Karen Tumulty obtained a September, 2015 e-mail from attorney Graham Wilson—whose firm represented both the DNC and the Clinton campaign—to the Sanders campaign with a copy of the standard joint fundraising agreement. According to the report, at the end of email, “Wilson suggested that should the Sanders campaign raise ‘significantly more’ money than was required to pay for the party voter file, then Sanders could have a say in how those funds would be used ‘to prepare for the general election.’” Wilson wrote that “the DNC has had discussions like this with the Clinton campaign and is of course willing to do so with all committees raising funds for the Committee.”
Wilson wasn’t being entirely forthcoming—he said the DNC had “had discussions” with the Clinton campaign, when Clinton’s agreement had already been signed. But his e-mail shows that the Sanders campaign was informed that such a deal was in the works, and was given the opportunity to enter into a similar arrangement if it raised a bunch of money for the DNC. Of course, it had no interest in doing so—Brazile writes that Sanders and his staff “ignored” their joint fundraising deal because “they had their own way of raising money through small donations.”
Brazile’s ostensible surprise upon learning of the agreement is also curious, given that it was public knowledge that Clinton’s staff had been looking for just such an arrangement. Seven weeks before the Clinton campaign signed that memorandum of understanding with the DNC,Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote a piece for Politico titled, “Clinton puts tight grip on DNC wallet.”
Dovere reported that “the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee are struggling to finalize a joint fundraising agreement—because the campaign doesn’t trust the national party structure with the money.”
He added that “years of neglect from the White House—and what’s perceived by the campaign as mismanagement by DNC leadership—has left the Clinton camp convinced the organization is nowhere near ready for 2016.” He detailed how the campaign was seeking to put strings on how the money that was raised jointly with the DNC was spent, despite the fact that “the DNC wanted access to all the funds immediately.”
The chronology here is important. The agreement that the Clinton campaign signed specified that it only covered “general election related communications, data, technology, analytics, and research,” and “does not include any communications related to primary debates—which will be exclusively controlled by the DNC,” a detail that was absent in Brazile’s piece. It’s hard to imagine that those staffing decisions wouldn’t have some impact on the primary, at least at the margins. But Dovere’s report was published in late July 2015, when Clinton was leading Sanders in The Huffington Post’s average of national polls by a 56-18 margin.
It’s routine for a front-runner to exert control over his or her party’s committee when they become the presumptive nominee, and there was good reason at that time to see Clinton as such. Not only was she well ahead in the polls, she had raised far more cash and garnered the support of many more party actors than her rivals. Dovere wrote that, “while DNC staffers are officially neutral, most see her as the eventual nominee, and several staffers describe a ‘first among equals’ approach to her when dealing with the primary field.” This was no secret. And it’s quite possible that Sanders’s disinterest in his campaign’s joint fundraising agreement for the general election reflected his own estimation at that time of his chances of becoming the eventual nominee.
Brazile also shouldn’t have been surprised by the existence of this kind of arrangement, given that she managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. In her Politico piece, she says that she only “started inserting our people into the DNC in June of that year,” but Boris Heersink, a political scientist at Fordham University, wrote in The Washington Post that, while “this is technically true, it misrepresents the level of control Gore already had over the DNC before the 2000 primaries began: By 1999, the DNC’s senior staff was dominated by Democratic politicos with long-standing relations to Gore—including both co-chairmen, the finance chair and one of the senior advisers. Thus, while the DNC did not endorse Gore, it clearly preferred him in the 2000 primaries.”
There is indeed a tawdry element to ostensibly neutral party committees getting ahead of their voters, even if it’s not as unusual or clandestine as Brazile implies. But it’s the kind of insider-baseball that usually passes without notice, and is only a big, public scandal because the DNC became such a lightning rod in the last election.
The context around this deal was available when Brazile’s piece hit the Internet, but most of it was absent from the early reporting. It seems that salacious Clinton scandal stories tend to gain traction faster than they can be fact-checked or put into perspective. So Brazile will sell some books, and perhaps be rehabilitated among Sanders supporters, and the bitter dissension over the 2016 primaries within the Democratic coalition will continue unabated.