Why the WikiLeaks Attack Fizzled
“Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done. - #Wikileaks.”, tweeted Roger Stone, the longtime Donald Trump adviser and Republican operative, on Oct. 2. He was incorrect on two counts. The splashy release of Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails from WikiLeaks came on the following Friday. And Hillary Clinton is not done.
A little more than two weeks have passed since the stolen messages were turned into a searchable online database. Since then, Clinton’s lead in the RealClearPolitics poll average has widened slightly.
Why is that? The emails show the Clinton campaign team to be obsessively calculating political operatives. Some are privately rude to the populists on their left flank, whom they need on Election Day. The revealed transcripts of Clinton’s private speeches suggest she may hold some disingenuous positions in public. That’s pretty bad, right?
Certainly, Julian Assange thought so. He leaked the trove minutes after Donald Trump’s behind-the-scenes “Access Hollywood” recording surfaced, which Podesta believes was an attempt to turn media attention away from Trump’s boasts about groping women. But, Podesta observed, “he didn’t succeed in doing that.”
In the alternative universe where Clinton runs against a generic Republican politician, the media might have turned the emails into a sensationalized feeding frenzy. A taste of what might have been can be found in this report from The Hill about a May 21, 2015 exchange: “Top Clinton aide in leaked email: 'Can we survive not answering questions' from press?” As you learn from a close reading of the story, the headline is misleading.
The aide proposed to Podesta “not answering questions from press at message events” – events designed to drive a campaign theme. The proposal wasn’t a total media blackout. Moreover, Podesta’s response was negative: “If she thinks we can get to Labor Day without taking press questions, I think that’s suicidal.“ In fact, Clinton participated in a few press conferences that summer. But you don’t learn that from The Hill, which instead offered, “At one point, Clinton went 275 days without holding a formal press conference until breaking the drought in September.” That’s true … in 2016. It was not true in the summer of 2015 when the email exchange took place.
But we don’t live in the alternative universe. We live in the universe where WikiLeaks tried to take down a candidate with embarrassing private emails and failed.
Clinton didn’t suffer much from contextually challenged coverage like that in The Hill because Trump hogged most of the negative coverage for himself. A firm believer in the “no such thing as bad publicity” school, Trump chose to rail against those accusing him of sexual assault, thereby ensuring tons of stories about Trump.
So Clinton dodged a bullet. And, to paraphrase “The Wire,” if you come at the queen, you best not miss.
In failing to turn unvarnished internal political machinations into a paralyzing scandal, WikiLeaks may have inadvertently raised the bar on what constitutes a successful act of political cyberwar. If all an email hack accomplishes is the temporary embarrassment of some political aides and supersized serving of gossip for Washington cocktail parties, then the hack is hardly potent ammo.
The truth is, if we saw the raw email from the Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders campaigns we would surely see similar political calculations over tricky issues, deliberations how to quash negative media narratives and intemperate comments made about adversaries or even allies. (Whereas the Trump campaign emails are probably in their own category of insanity.) What we see in the Podesta emails is the grist of political life. It’s doesn’t make our politicians fundamentally dishonest or our democracy a sham.
After seeing how the Clinton sausage got ground, perhaps the voting public will now be more likely to view the contents of stolen emails through the prism of political reality. Without a truly scandalous bombshell, each subsequent cyberattack on Clinton’s team, or that of another politician, may be greeted with bigger and bigger shrugs.
The Russian government, which American intelligence believes stole the emails and fed them to WikiLeaks, doesn’t necessarily expect to elect Trump, but wants to, as The Economist put it, “discredit and erode universal liberal values by nurturing the idea that the West is just as corrupt as Russia.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp fears that "Russia has weaponized the American press” to achieve that goal: “This is how Russia gets us. Once WikiLeaks publishes a trove of newsworthy emails, the press is stuck in a corner: Doing its job will help a hostile foreign power manipulate the American election and arguably even help weaken faith in the press itself. And that’s why Putin’s plan is so devilish: He’s undermining the credibility of two key American institutions in one go.”
But that is only true if Americans are gullible enough to be led down the path Russia want us to take. The blasé reaction from American voters to the contents of Podesta’s emails is a heartening sign that we will not.