Clinton Aides Share Hard-Earned Lessons With Biden on Ukraine

Emma Kinery

(Bloomberg) -- Hillary Clinton’s advisers from the 2016 campaign have some hard-earned advice for Joe Biden about dealing with Donald Trump: Come up with a script of facts and stick to it.

Clinton’s team instead followed the traditional playbook of rapid-response public relations, rushing to answer each allegation about the private email server she used when she was secretary of State with new proof that the accusation was false or misleading.

Yet while that strategy might have been effective for most of modern American political history, it turned out to be useless -- and even self-destructive -- in the new age of politics that began with Trump’s election.

“We did what you learn in crisis comms, which is to litigate every point and get the facts out there,” said Adrienne Elrod, a spokeswoman for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. But “we were running against a totally different beast of a candidate, we were running in completely different circumstances and we were going by the traditional rules you follow in crisis situations. What we should have done was stick to a very simple statement.”

Trump is targeting Biden with a steady stream of unsubstantiated allegations that the former vice president and his son Hunter were involved in corrupt dealings in Ukraine and China. And until very recently, Biden had largely chosen a muted response, refraining from calling for Trump’s impeachment as House Democrats began an inquiry into a July 25 phone call in which the president asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens.

But Biden’s relative restraint threatened to undermine his argument that he was the one candidate with the right experience and toughness to challenge Trump in 2020. While he had long been the front-runner in the race, his rival Elizabeth Warren has risen to a statistical tie with him, and he has underperformed Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in third-quarter fundraising.

Last week, however, Biden came out swinging with a fiery speech in Reno, Nevada, that attacked Trump for abusing the powers of his office and smearing Biden’s family. And on Wednesday, Biden said for the first time that he supported impeachment, a declaration that was immediately met with a dismissive tweet from the president.

While a more combative tone may help Biden reset his campaign, he needs to be careful not to take Trump’s bait and engage in an unending back and forth, the Democratic campaign advisers said. Instead, he should stick to a standard rebuttal and move on to talking about the issues he is running on.

“The goal is you don’t want others to control your campaign and you don’t want to let events control your campaign,” said Joel Benenson, a chief strategist and pollster for Clinton in 2016. “You have to know where and how people are going to come at you. You have to know there are landmines you’re going to deal with.”

In 2016, Clinton could never get ahead of the story, said Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to the Democratic nominee. The campaign’s decision to respond to Trump’s taunts by releasing the emails was supposed to put the controversy to rest, he said. But the delay between the messages being handed over to the State Department to be reviewed and their release months later led to public suspicion of mishandling that was hard to overcome.

“There really was no coming back,” Reines said. “In hindsight, this just wasn’t on the up and up. There was no answer the media was going to take and we just needed to say ‘enough. Do what you want with it. Vote against her, vote for her, but we’re not going to talk about this every 10 minutes.”’

Clinton compounded her error by initially dismissing Trump’s accusations, saying there was no classified information on the server when it turned out there was, though the bulk of the emails was classified retroactively.

She joked in August 2015 when a reporter asked if she had wiped the server “What? Like with a cloth or something.” But by the fall of that year she began to apologize.

The issue of the emails dogged Clinton to the end of the campaign. In July, FBI Director James Comey said that while neither she nor her colleagues had intended to violate any laws, “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” He then closed the inquiry.

Political Firestorm

Then on Oct. 28, 11 days before the election, Comey set off a political firestorm when he told Congress in a letter that the FBI was reviving the investigation because it had come across new emails. On Nov. 2, however, he reiterated his earlier conclusion that no crimes had been committed.

Nevertheless, Clinton aides said, the Oct. 28 letter contributed to her loss. And almost three years after his victory, Trump continues to pummel his former opponent as “Crooked Hillary” on Twitter and at rallies.

“For a long time in the campaign there was an assumption that if there was just one more sentence, one more explanation, we were one answer away from putting this to bed,” Reines said. “And what everyone learned was that it just wasn’t that way, because the answers, the honest answers, were just not compelling. For her to have checked the box the way people wanted her to for them to be satisfied, she would have had to lie.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emma Kinery in Washington at ekinery@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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