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Elizabeth Warren had a list for Hillary.
In December 2014, Clinton’s team began worrying that Warren was reconsidering a presidential run and arranged a meeting between the two principals at Clinton’s home in Washington.
Warren came in “aggressive” and “firing on all cylinders” catching Clinton off guard, said a Clinton official familiar with the meeting. She pressed Clinton to commit to not appointing Wall Street-friendly people to her administration, as Warren felt Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had done.
After the meeting, Warren sent Clinton a list of people she wanted the campaign team to consult on economic policy in order to broaden their horizons beyond people like Robert Rubin and Michael Froman, high-ranking officials in the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations who had also worked at Citigroup.
The list, recompiled by POLITICO based on the accounts of those involved, included a hodgepodge of sometimes obscure liberal academics and economists including MIT’s Simon Johnson, UConn’s James Kwak, Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz, Vanderbilt’s Ganesh Sitaraman (policy director for Warren’s 2012 campaign), University of Chicago’s Amir Sufi, U.C. Irvine’s Katie Porter and Vermont Law School’s Jennifer Taub. The progressive think-tank types included Demos’ Heather McGhee; public servants who had clashed with the Obama administration included former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chair Sheila Bair and longtime Senate aide Elise Bean. AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers represented unions.
The common thread among most of the names: They had been critical of the Obama administration’s response to the financial crisis, as Warren had.
That list, the contents of which have not been previously reported, was just the beginning of an intensive two-year campaign by Warren, her staff and outside allies to push, prod and shape the would-be Clinton administration — an effort that also included an informal blacklist of Clinton allies that Warren and outside partners would resist if nominated for jobs in the Clinton administration, which included BlackRock Chairman Larry Fink and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
The constant interference sometimes frustrated and annoyed the former secretary of State and her team.
“It was kind of a pain in the ass to be thinking about her all the time,” recalled one Clinton transition official.
But Clinton’s team listened — aware of both Warren’s credibility among progressives and her willingness to use her bully pulpit to condemn members of her own party. Even more acutely, they felt the ever-present threat that she’d throw her own hat into the ring.
“I think if the outreach hadn’t been done then she might have felt obligated to run,” a Clinton official explained of their approach.
Warren’s initial list in 2014 and the ensuing influence campaign over administration personnel, according to interviews with more than 20 people involved in the process, offers the clearest possible window into how Warren would staff her own administration — and just how sharply a Warren administration’s economic team would depart from recent Democratic administrations and those of her rivals such as former Vice President Joe Biden.
The two-year campaign to mold the would-be Hillary Clinton administration is also a case study in Warren’s theory of power, an approach her aides and allies sometimes refer to as the “inside-outside game” — combining tough, often hyperbolic rhetoric to create leverage with quieter, hands-on, person-to-person outreach.
As the Clinton transition team fielded ideas from senators in the final months of the campaign, Warren was treated as a “first among equals,” according to a Clinton transition official. Warren’s chief of staff Dan Geldon and Clinton senior staffer Jake Sullivan were in close contact and met repeatedly in the final months of the campaign. Warren was deep in the weeds on personnel and pushed the Clinton transition team to hire her allies like Rohit Chopra, a veteran of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
With her mantra of “personnel is policy,” she lobbied on the obscure but important transition “landing teams” for economic policy — helping install people on her list like Johnson and Porter to top positions. Clinton transition aides remember Bharat Ramamurti, a top Warren policy aide now on her presidential campaign, occasionally dropped into the office.
Warren also personally and persistently lobbied campaign chairman John Podesta, members of the transition team and Clinton herself. When Warren visited the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters shortly after endorsing Clinton in 2016, she insisted on a separate meeting with the campaign’s policy team.
“There were the do’s and the don’t’s — do [hire] this person and don’t with this person,” recalled Podesta of their conversations in the fall of 2016. “She was more fired up about the don’t’s than the do’s.” Podesta wouldn’t name names but said: “If you worked at the Obama Treasury Department or the SEC then you were probably in trouble.”
Or as one transition official half-jokingly described the “don’t” personnel: “Anyone who’s ever talked to Larry Summers.” Before becoming Facebook COO, Sandberg had been Summers’ chief of staff when he was Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration. He had been her thesis adviser at Harvard as well.
“She wasn’t making recs on who the secretary of Defense should be,” Podesta added. “It was all concentrated on Treasury, financial regulators and that cluster of agencies.”
“She was the pushiest and most engaged outside person that I can think of in terms of telling us to hire people, pushing us to hire people,” one Clinton transition official said. “We didn’t necessarily have the same priorities. After all, she wasn’t going to be president. Hillary Clinton was going to be president.”
Clinton’s team was right to think that Warren was reconsidering a 2016 run. As “Draft Warren” efforts became louder and more organized in late 2014 and early 2015, Warren publicly brushed them off but privately asked her husband, Bruce Mann, what he thought.
Mann gave a careful spousal reply: “I want you to do whatever you want to do,” Warren recalled in her 2017 book “This Fight Is Our Fight.” When she pressed him, he was unenthusiastic. “But a race like this one looks pretty terrible,” he told her. “The Senate thing was bad enough, and running for president would be worse — a lot worse.”
She asked whether he would be OK if she decided to run. He said yes but she wrote that she didn’t believe him. Her decision not to run prompted sighs of relief on Clinton’s team, some of whom believe Warren could have beaten them by marshaling a broader coalition than that eventually put together by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“We were worried,” a Clinton campaign official said. “In retrospect, she could have been a pretty potent candidate in the primary.” Her decision also led Sanders to make a run of his own from Clinton’s left which would become more formidable than Warren, Clinton, or even Sanders himself expected.
Warren didn’t want to be out of the game entirely, however. If she wasn’t going to run, Warren set her mind on a different sort of campaign to push Clinton toward her sphere of progressive policy wonks.
In early 2015, Clinton’s team still was not taking any chances. After Warren sent her lengthy list to the former secretary of State, Clinton dispatched senior aide and speechwriter Dan Schwerin to go over the names with Geldon, then Warren’s chief of staff and now a senior adviser on her presidential run.
They met in early January for nearly an hour and a half. Afterward, Schwerin reported back that Warren’s team “seem wary -- and pretty convinced that the Rubin folks have the inside track with us whether we realize it yet or not -- but open to engagement and to be proven wrong,” according to emails later published by WikiLeaks, a cyberattack that American intelligence later concluded was part of a Russian campaign to hurt Clinton’s chances in 2016.
Schwerin added that Geldon “laid out a detailed case against the Bob Rubin school of Democratic policymakers, was very critical of the Obama administration's choices.”
The same week Schwerin met Geldon, Warren coupled the private push with a public speech at the AFL-CIO that urged Democrats not to take victory laps because the gross domestic product and unemployment numbers looked good. “Despite these cheery numbers, America's middle class is in deep trouble,” she declared. “All of the new money earned in this economy over the past generation—all that growth in the GDP—went to the top.”
The speech raised eyebrows among Clinton allies such as Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who emailed top Clinton aide Cheryl Mills that “we need to craft the economic message for Hillary so that Warren’s common inaccurate conclusions are addressed.”
It was the first of many instances of Warren putting public pressure on the Clinton team while working her relationships on the inside, at times to the Clinton team’s frustration.
“Warren clearly was getting info about what was happening inside,” recalled one transition official. “We’d have some internal conversation and then Warren would say something to reporters -- firing little warning shots.”
To the surprise of some in Warren’s orbit, Clinton’s team began proactively engaging with the people on Warren’s list -- and not just in a check-the-box fashion, according to some who were contacted.
In various ways, the list was a collection of progressives who shared Warren’s conviction that the Obama administration had bungled the recovery by being too close to banks and thinking about shorter-term fixes rather than using the opportunity to enact a structural overhaul of the government’s role in the economy. They tended to be sharply critical of Obama’s Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, who was perceived as close to Wall Street.
“She didn’t want to see an administration that was fully staffed by deputy secretaries-in-waiting from Brookings,” said Georgetown Law professor Adam Levitin, a former student of Warren’s who remains close to her, referring to the center-left think tank with ties to businesses.
Simon Johnson wrote in 2011 that Geithner’s vision for the economy was “deeply disturbing” and “amounts to a huge, uninformed gamble with the future of the American economy.” Mian co-authored the book “House of Debt” in 2014 that argued banks and creditors had too much power over policymaking. Taub similarly argued that the housing crisis was metastisizing in her book “Other People's Houses: How Decades of Bailouts, Captive Regulators, and Toxic Bankers Made Home Mortgages a Thrilling Business.” Sheila Bair had had several showdowns with Geithner while she ran the FDIC during the crisis.
In pushing for her allies to be incorporated into Clinton’s campaign, Warren began hitting the phones -- reaching out to people like Gary Gensler, Mandy Grunwald and the few other links she had to Clinton.
Gensler, who had worked for Clinton in 2008 and had been a Warren ally during the financial crisis, was tapped to be Clinton’s chief financial officer for the 2016 campaign and would become a central point person to manage the Warren-Clinton relationship -- dubbed by Sullivan as the “Elizabeth whisperer.”
Their contact was nearly constant, to the point that some Clinton aides wondered whose side he was on.
“It seemed like every meeting he’d say, ‘I just talked to Elizabeth and ...’” recalled one campaign official with an eye roll.
The Bernie Factor
As Sanders’ campaign took off in early 2016, Warren felt pressure building from both Sanders and Clinton to endorse.
Ideologically, she was much closer to the Vermont senator. But there was skepticism within Warren’s orbit that he could actually pull it off and that endorsing him would diminish her ability to influence Clinton.
Sanders, who is usually reluctant to ask for endorsements or get immersed in transactional politics, did make a personal hard sell in early 2016 as the primary raged on. At a private hangar at Dulles International Airport, Sanders took a cellphone and paced around privately while talking to Warren, remembers one aide. Some Sanders senior staffers were thrilled she had stayed neutral while others felt victory would be in sight if Warren would throw her weight behind the senator. At the end of the long conversation, Warren still declined to endorse Sanders.
From the other side, Podesta repeatedly called and urged Warren to endorse Clinton to help bring the primary fight to an earlier end. “I think her view was that if she was respectful and waited that she’d be more useful in bringing Bernie supporters to Hillary,” Podesta remembered. “I always thought that was overthinking it.”
One former Clinton adviser characterized Warren’s moves as part of a larger strategy to avoid alienating the left while also maintaining her relationships with the Clinton team that she thought was likely to win: “She stayed neutral, but she made sure she had influence with the nominee so she and her advisers had a seat at the table in a real way.”
Election Night 2016
Warren was preparing a warning shot for President-elect Clinton.
It was Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Warren’s team had already arranged for her to give a high-profile speech that Thursday morning at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. The address would lay out what Warren believed the priorities should be for the new White House, according to a Warren ally familiar with the speech, in an attempt to pressure the transition team from the beginning.
She wasn’t going to mince words. The two-year campaign to influence the Clinton administration was finally about to bear fruit. At least three people on Warren’s 2014 list -- Simon Johnson, Katie Porter and Elise Bean -- had been slated for top positions on little-known but consequential transition “landing teams” that would help staff the administration, according to one transition official.
The Warren-allied Roosevelt Institute -- a leftist rival to the Center for American Progress -- had identified over 150 economic policy jobs and interviewed over 1,000 potential candidates for them ahead of the Clinton transition. Other progressive allies of Warren were preparing blacklists of people to avoid.
But as many politicians did in November 2016, Warren had to scrap her planned remarks. “That speech was now in the trash,” she later wrote.
The speech she actually delivered echoed what she had told Clinton at that December 2014 meeting. “If we have learned nothing else from the past two years of electioneering, we should hear the message loud and clear that the American people want Washington to change,” she said. “It was clear in the Democratic primaries. It was clear in the Republican primaries. It was clear in the campaign and it was clear on Election Day.”
It was not long after that she and her team began making preparations for a 2020 run. The final decision wasn’t made but the team began taking the necessary steps, essentially turning her 2018 Senate reelection into a dry run, stockpiling over $10 million in cash for good measure.
When she did make the leap into the presidential fray on New Years’ Eve, the last day of 2018, she began tapping into the same list of people she gave Clinton four years before. Many of them have been cited in her many plans. Ganesh Sitaraman has been one of the key architects of Warren’s innumerable plans. She used Johnson as a validator for her math on “Medicare for All.” Porter ran for Congress herself, won, and is now one of the three-co-chairs for Warren’s campaign. Heather McGhee and Demos have provided much of the blueprint for how Warren combines economic and racial justice in an effort to expand her base. Bair, a George W. Bush appointee, has been an outside validator for her agenda.
Rohit Chopra is now a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission. While he is not involved in the campaign, his tough critiques of powerful technology companies like Facebook echo Warren’s. And Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO remains in the background as an important booster for Warren among union officials. And the Roosevelt Institute continues to build its own list of progressive personnel. It’s unclear how many of them would stock a would-be Warren administration but their influence would be undeniable.
Even if she doesn’t become the nominee, people close to her say she will be just as tough and exasperating a presence on any other transition team.
In some ways, her speech at the AFL-CIO was the first of her presidential campaign. She argued that the 2016 results proved the points she’d been making the past two decades. “The final results may have divided us -- but the entire electorate embraced deep, fundamental reform of our economic system and our political system,” she said.
“The truth is that people are right to be angry.”