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The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House
Read by Donna Brazile
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“Explosive… A blistering tell-all.”—Washington Post
“People should sit up, take notes and change things.”—Ace Smith, Los Angeles Times
“Brazile most certainly has a story to tell…. Vivid.”—The Guardian
From Donna Brazile, former DNC chair and legendary political operative, an explosive and revealing new look at the 2016 election: the first insider account of the Russian hacking of the DNC and the missteps by the Clinton campaign and Obama administration that enabled a Trump victory.
In the fallout of the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee–and as chaos threatened to consume the party’s convention–Democrats turned to a familiar figure to right the ship: Donna Brazile. Known to millions from her frequent TV appearances, she was no stranger to high stakes and dirty opponents, and the longtime Democratic strategist had a reputation in Washington as a one-stop shop for fixing sticky problems.
What Brazile found at the DNC was unlike anything she had experienced before–and much worse than is commonly known. The party was beset by infighting, scandal, and hubris, while reeling from a brazen and wholly unprecedented attempt by a foreign power to influence the presidential election. Plus, its candidate, Hillary Clinton, faced an opponent who broke every rule in the political playbook.
Packed with never-before-reported revelations about what went down in 2016, Hacks is equal parts campaign thriller, memoir, and roadmap for the future. With Democrats now in the wilderness after this historic defeat, Hacks argues that staying silent about what went wrong helps no one. Only by laying bare the missteps, miscalculations, and crimes of 2016, Brazile contends, will Americans be able to salvage their democracy.
There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.
The Phone Call
When the name HILLARY CLINTON popped up on my phone in February 2017, I realized hers was a call I’d stopped waiting to receive. On Election Day, the tradition in politics is that candidates personally thank the people who helped most in the campaign. Win or lose, in the days that follow, the candidate extends that circle of gratitude to members of the party and the donors. Bernie Sanders called me on November 9, 2016, and Joe Biden, too. The vice president even came to our staff holiday party. But I never heard from Hillary.
I figured she might be hurting too bad to make that call. I had a tender spot for Hillary. I sympathized with everything she had gone through in the wretched election of 2016. I had been through plenty of rough campaigns in my forty years in politics, but I had never seen anything like the viciousness and turmoil of that horrible season as I fought alongside her. The only thing that was keeping me going as we faced the blazing fury of Donald Trump, when I was getting hit every day and thinking I just wanted to stop, was knowing my friend Hillary was getting the shit kicked out of her, too. Look at what they are doing to her, how they are destroying her, I’d think. I felt a duty to Hillary that went far beyond just being the chair of the Democratic Party.
We had met when I was still in my twenties. I was working as a consultant at the Children’s Defense Fund in the 1980s, which was where I met Hillary. I was a high-minded, strong-willed young woman who, through my aptitude for politics, crawled out of poverty in Louisiana to a career in Washington, DC. Hillary was one of my idols. While I was rough and bossy, Hillary was cool and smooth, polished by the Ivy League, and comfortable in the halls of power. Also, she was fearless fighting for children’s rights, and I saw in her many qualities I wanted to make stronger in myself.
I never forgot that it was Hillary in 2003 who told some of the party leaders to pay attention to a talented young Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. Without that assist from Hillary, Obama would not have been offered the keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and almost certainly would not have gone on to become the first black president. Hillary’s gesture back then always stayed with me. So when several decades later, I suddenly was asked to serve again as interim party chair on the eve of the Democratic Convention in July 2016, just until she won in November, I couldn’t say no.
But I wanted to. I had promised myself, after I managed Al Gore’s campaign in 2000, that I never would let politics break my heart again. Acting as a media surrogate and staunch supporter of the team that got the first black president elected more than healed that wound. Getting Obama reelected was joy. So when I was asked to serve as interim chair—for what would be my second stint in this thankless job—I decided I had one more fight left in me, and a noble one at that. I could help get the first woman president elected. After she won, Hillary’s staff would assume control of the party. I could dance out the door to the sweet music of victory and go back to my perfect life. I never could have guessed how the months that followed would alter my life—and my country—forever.
Instead of being able to dance out the door in November, I had to stay through the end of February to perform the somber duties of the defeated: the painstaking work of filing all the financial reports with the Federal Election Commission, filing similar reports in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, shutting down offices, laying off thousands of people.
After that disastrous Election Day I didn’t want to think about politics or talk about it, and I was guessing Hillary felt that way and worse: that she had blown this chance and had let her sisters down. My heart went out to her. No matter how strong our differences were in the campaign, I know she is a good woman. I heard from time to time that she was asking about me, but I never took it seriously. She had all my numbers. I knew what I wanted to say to her and it was: I have nothing but respect for you for being so brave and classy considering everything that went on. But in the weeks after the loss, every time I checked my phone thinking I might have missed her call, it wasn’t her.
After the loss, the Democrats went into hiding, or started picking through the carnage, while the country was hungry for answers from a party that honestly didn’t know what to say. We had lost to Donald Trump! How was that possible? And what did we have to do to make sure that didn’t happen the next time?
It took me until the end of the year, after a holiday in Hawaii, to start getting my mojo back. We needed to remember that Hillary had won the popular vote. We did not have to hang our heads in shame. No, we had to find a way to stand this party back up if we were ever to have a chance to win again.
What inspired me was my kids, all 150 of them. I’ve never given birth to a child, but politics is a family affair. In a campaign, you see what the others are made of, you see people under pressure, and you see their limits tested in triumph and defeat. You get to know one another, in ways better than you do members of your real family. When I spotted young people with a real spark, that true combination of idealism and cunning essential to surviving in politics, I found work for them. Those were my kids, ages twenty-two to forty-five, scattered all around the country. I wanted to rebuild the party to give them a chance to lead.
Back in December when I thought about what the party could do, what I could do, I remembered how Terry McAuliffe took over as Democratic National Committee chair after our loss in 2000 and how Howard Dean stepped up after the defeat of then U.S. senator John Kerry in 2004. They reached out to the voters to understand what the party had gotten wrong about the mood of the country. They wanted to let the grassroots decide the future direction of the party. I would do the same. First we needed to get this loss out of our system.
I set up four regional meetings in January and February—we called them Future Forums—mostly in states where we hoped to regain our electoral advantage, or where we wanted to expand our electoral map in 2020. We’d lost Michigan, but by less than eleven thousand votes, so I planned to spread a little love in Detroit. I scheduled one in Houston and another in Baltimore. I started the tour in Arizona because, even though we lost there, we were making steady gains in that state. If the party was going to rise from the ashes, we might as well begin in Phoenix.
In each city I held a town hall with millennials, asking them what we did wrong and where we should go from here. I arranged for an inspirational speaker to open the general meeting, hoping that an uplifting message would help us expel the ghosts of 2016. In Phoenix I found that the mood was raw: angry, saddened, disappointed, and scared. I started the event telling the story of what we had been up against, but it did not seem like it was a story that people wanted to hear. People were bitter, and all of them wanted to blame the DNC. The Bernie people were saying how no one trusted Hillary, and Hillary people were complaining that the Bernie people never did come on board, even after the convention. These voters had many harsh words for how we didn’t connect with folks, about why turnout was down, and the harassment that some voters had experienced at the polls. No matter how many times during these forums that I was goaded to do so, I never threw the Clinton campaign under the bus. I knew my job was to stand there and take the body blows, acknowledge it, absorb it, so that all of us could let it go.
The meetings were cathartic. I began to feel that I could end my tenure knowing I had done what I could to set things right. As I drove up to Baltimore from Washington, DC, on a cold February morning, I was looking forward to the last of these forums before heading to Atlanta for the election of new DNC officers and then on to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras with my family. After the forum, the staff and I gathered at a restaurant near the Chesapeake Bay for crab cakes and beer. We were toasting each other at the moment when I felt my phone vibrate, looked down, and saw that it was Hillary.
She asked me how I was doing and I said I was fine. She sounded rested and confident, as if the Hillary I knew had returned. I told her about the Future Forums and that I felt good about the people who were running to be the new leaders of the party. We were in better shape financially than we had been in months. Before leaving the White House, the president had agreed to do one more fund-raising appeal, and our online fund-raising was outpacing previous months. We had almost $11 million in the bank, which would give the new chair a head start. This was chitchat, like I was talking to someone I didn’t know. This was not I can’t wait to see you. Let’s get together. You stepped up and I really wanted to thank you for doing it. I know Hillary. I know she was being as sincere as possible, but I wanted something more from her.
The 2016 campaign, convention, and election had shattered long-standing relationships, leaving old friends wary of one another. This was more than the burnout and dejection that follows a crushing loss. The Russian dirty cybertricks that were still just coming to light had left everyone scarred and scared. We were all unable to reach out to the people we normally counted on.
As the call wrapped up, Hillary said she hoped I would be okay. That was when I almost lost it. Even if the party was starting to regain its footing, I was not okay. I had nothing left to return to. This campaign had tarnished my reputation, forced me to step down from CNN, and strained my relationships with colleagues and friends. The hacking of the DNC by the Russians shook my world, depleted my energy, creating in me a fear so deep that now I had surveillance cameras on every door and window at my house. I was struggling within myself to find a way to say this to Hillary, and if it would do either of us any good if I did, when she offered that if there was anything she could do to help I shouldn’t hesitate to give her a call.
“Don’t forget what happened to the DNC,” I suddenly blurted out.
Words started rushing out. I summoned that strength that comes from down deep. I had held it. I had taken all the hits. Hearing her voice was the first moment I understood how tired I was of taking it. What about the Russians? They had tried to destroy us. Was she going to help? I wanted to file a lawsuit. We needed to sue those sons of bitches for what they did to us. I knew the campaign had over $3 million set aside in a legal fund. Could she help me get this lawsuit started? And don’t forget the murder of Seth Rich, I told her. Did she want to contribute to Seth’s reward fund? We still hadn’t found the person responsible for the tragic murder of this bright young DNC staffer.
You’re right, she said. We’re going to get to that. But she really had to go. She had made the call and checked it off her list, and I accepted after we said our good-byes that I might never hear from her again.
In the weeks that followed, as I put my life back together, I thought about the notion that the Democratic Party is a family. I’m one of nine children, and I know how families squabble and forget because they have to move forward. They start to shrivel if they live only in the past. The other thing families are good at is keeping secrets. This Democratic family needed to stop doing that. So many things happened during this campaign that we were not supposed to talk about, and those secrets became part of our bigger problem and part of our defeat. I knew I needed to speak up. I was likely to be the first person to do so, at least in so public a way.
I wanted to tell the story of all the things that contributed to the loss, some of which we could not control and some of which we brought on ourselves. In the midst of the reality show that became the campaign, no one was focused on what was happening to the democracy, and the distractions have only continued with Trump in the White House. Amid the chaos of the new administration, the truth of what happened in 2016 is starting to slip away. We can’t allow that to happen.
We were hacked by the Russians. I want to talk about what this means for our democracy. Most people are not aware of the full-scale terror it creates—fear that slows everything to a crawl as people start to doubt one another. I want to talk about the arrogance and isolation of the Clinton campaign and the cult of Robby Mook, who felt fresh but turned up stale, in a campaign haunted by ghosts and lacking in enthusiasm, focus, and heart. More than that, Hillary’s campaign and the legacy project of the outgoing Obamas drained the party of its vitality and its cash, a huge contributing factor to our defeats in state and local races. I became so frustrated that in the days following Hillary’s shocking collapse at the 9/11 memorial ceremony I nearly replaced her as the party’s candidate for president. I want to explore the reasons why I decided not to do that and instead gave her time to heal and return to the campaign trail.
Many people don’t want me to write this book. They told me no one cared about what happened at the DNC. To them, the hacking was something we would rather forget. Some seemed to think that this was only Hillary’s story to tell. Others were still not convinced that the Russians were behind it. The purpose of this exhumation is to once and for all get everything out in the open.
As galling and heartbreaking as it was, the ascendency of Donald Trump to the White House has also created a tremendous opportunity for the Democrats. Once we understand exactly what happened in the debacle of 2016, we can stand up from this defeat and come back stronger.
As you can imagine, I have a lot to say about that.
As my good friend Lucy Spiegel and I drove toward the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Philadelphia on the last Monday in July 2016, we gasped at the enormous dark clouds looming over the site where the Democratic Convention would soon open. As a child in New Orleans I saw those same tall, black clouds erupt with such fury that they could bring a city to a standstill. As we got closer, my instincts were shouting at me to turn around, but we drove on. As vice chair, I was next in line to succeed Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz should she decide to step down as the chair of the Democratic Party. The last thing I wanted to be was the person who took her place. But suddenly that seemed almost inevitable.
The party was about to make history as it gathered to nominate the nation’s first woman presidential candidate, but we were stumbling—bleeding, nearly dead from a bruising primary season. And everyone was blaming Debbie. Obama swept into office in 2008 with a majority in both houses of Congress, but in the last eight years we’d lost all of the ground we gained. We lost control of the House in 2010 and, since Debbie took office in 2011, we’d also lost the Senate and more statehouses and governorships. As Democrats started pouring into Philadelphia for the convention, Debbie did not have a lot of friends among them.
I had known Debbie for many years, and it pained me to hear her critics talk about her behind her back. I was even more pained when I joined in that chorus. I knew how hard she had worked holding down two jobs, being both a congresswoman and the party chair. One of the major complaints was that she was using her position to advance her career at the expense of the party. Calls for her to step aside started months before the Iowa caucuses and grew louder throughout the primary season during the disputes about adding more candidate debates and forums. Debbie was under fire from all sides no matter where she looked, and the Bernie people just plain hated her.
After it was clear in June that Bernie Sanders had lost the nomination, he announced he would support Hillary, but he spent the six weeks leading up to the convention complaining to anyone who would listen about Debbie and the DNC. He claimed that she put the fix in for Hillary from the start. He attacked the rules that allowed party leaders chosen as superdelegates to declare their support for a candidate independent of the results of the state primaries and caucuses. He said all the rules for the primaries had been written to favor Hillary. I have served on the rules committee since 1997, and I could assure him that the rules were not written one way or the other. The Rules and Bylaws Committee meets immediately after the presidential election is over to begin the process of writing the rules for the next cycle. The goal of these meetings is to fix whatever problems arose in the previous presidential cycle. Bernie has always been an independent, and became a Democratic candidate only for the 2016 election. Those who have run under our party rules in the past operated under them better than someone who comes from outside party politics. The Bernie folks and some other unsettled state delegations from the West were not persuaded that was the full story.
I saw these powerful divisions playing out during the negotiations over the party platform back in Orlando in the second week in July. Thousands of people had been drawn to this election for the best of reasons. In 2008 it was a time for change, but in 2016 it was a popular revolt. From the left to the right, many Americans wanted something different. That energy became concentrated on the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Their supporters worked hard for their candidates, because they believed the system needed radical reform and they wanted to have an impact. As the bruising primary campaign played out, some of their supporters came to believe that the process was rigged. In Orlando, the platform delegates who supported Bernie were outraged and wanted their grievances heard. I was hoping that as we negotiated the planks of the platform, the party could show people that we were working to make sure that everyone’s voice could be heard.
I guess I succeeded a bit too well. In Orlando many delegates were inspired to make long, impassioned speeches. We had multiple drafts from different factions for each one of the platform planks. The meeting on Saturday, July 9, was supposed to be over by 7 p.m. but it went until 3 a.m., thirteen hours. As we approached midnight I had that weary feeling that we would never get out of there with all these people arguing and sermonizing. Fortunately, at around 9 p.m. I had realized what I needed, and what these people needed, was a drink.
I went next door to a store and bought $400 worth of liquor. I set up an impromptu bar and started mixing drinks and ordered food to be delivered. The hotel hosting the meeting threatened to shut me down for serving alcohol without a license, but somehow the DNC staff made that problem disappear. After a few drinks and some dinner, people were in a mood to compromise. We negotiated a very progressive platform that both Bernie and Hillary could stand on, which I hoped would mean fewer conflicts at the convention. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had placed myself in this situation, though. This was Debbie’s mess, not Donna’s mess.
At least our convention would not be the ghoulish sideshow that the Republicans had created in Cleveland. It seemed like every prominent Republican I knew who wasn’t being paid by a TV network to be there had conveniently found an excuse to stay home. In their place emerged such inspiring figures as Gen. Mike Flynn and Scott Baio. When I spotted Sen. Orrin Hatch in the convention hall, he even came up and hugged me—so relieved was he to see someone he recognized.
This was the only convention I’ve ever been to that literally made me sick. It wasn’t just the speeches. Between the air outside, which was poisoned by the tear gas police had sprayed on the protestors, and my moldy, dusty hotel room, I ended up at the Cleveland Clinic to figure out why I was having such a hard time breathing.
The GOP convention had been so dispiriting and chaotic that I felt there was a big opening for the Democrats to build on. I knew that there would be disruptions from the Bernie folk, but our program was hopeful, and we had talent for every hour of our convention program and inspiring speakers.
I had been to nearly a dozen conventions in my time in politics, first as a delegate and later as a pundit. It was a life beyond what I could have imagined when I started in politics at the age of nine, working to elect a Kenner, Louisiana, city council candidate who promised to build a playground in my neighborhood. The councilman won, the playground was installed, and I was on my way. I’ve been on the staff of seven presidential campaigns, culminating as manager for Gore 2000. I have served as a strategist for more than fifty-six House and Senate races, and nineteen state and local contests. At the point when I stopped working on campaigns in 2000, I’d helped elect Democrats in forty-nine states; one more state and I would be named Miss USA without having to wear a bikini.
As I got to the end of my forties, I had come to a time in life where I did not want to be in the battle anymore. I was happy teaching my course on women in politics at Georgetown University, running my consulting firm, and getting paid to talk politics on CNN and ABC. Although I am through and through a Democrat, my decades of experience had helped me master the skill of being able to say nice things about everybody when I was on television.
I could say good things about Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, Joe Biden, Lincoln Chafee, or Bernie or Hillary. Hell, a few times I even found a way to say something good about Donald Trump. In some ways I thought of myself as an actress, playing the part that the producers wanted me to play. In the morning when I was getting ready to go to the studio I’d know if I was going to play the part of the bitch who stands up to the GOP talking points. Or they might ask me to be the cool, calm Donna, the voice of reason and experience, who will just give it to you straight. When I looked into the TV cameras, I envisioned that I was speaking to someone older, whiter, and living in middle America who was staring at me and trying to open their minds to what this black lady had to say.
This, to me, was my perfect life: still with a voice and in the mix of politics, but no longer responsible for the outcome. I had been asked by President Obama to serve as the vice chair of the party in 2009, and I focused my attention on strengthening the Voting Rights Act. While the chair of the DNC is a paid position, the other officers do not take a salary and serve much like a board of directors for the party. I was rarely in the DNC office. I helped raise money and worked with my staff at the Voting Rights Institute to protect the right to vote in states where it was under assault. The day-to-day operations at the DNC were in the hands of Debbie and her full-time professional staff.
The notion of being the party chair, even for a little while, did not appeal to me at all. Maybe it was just the mellowing that comes with age. I had a strong suspicion that my resistance to taking on this job was because of Kai, a little boy who had stolen my heart.
Kai was born strong and healthy late in May 2016, but the birth really tore up his birth mom, Mia. She had to stay in the hospital for six weeks with a horrible infection that threatened her life. During that time she and her wife, my best friend Betsy, asked me to care for the child. Now, I was thinking: Here’s this girl who spends all of her life guarded. Don’t want no more love. Don’t want no more attachments. I’m done with that. I’m enjoying my life at age fifty-six. Then here comes this little boy who touched my heart in a way no child ever had before. Maybe this was because I cared for him and him alone ten to twelve hours a day, rather than seeing him among all the other people in a room during a visit. I fell in love. I told CNN and ABC that I needed to go on maternity leave because I did not want to be separated from Kai.
In July, after seven weeks together, I left Kai to speak in Seattle and Colorado Springs and to go from there to Cleveland to serve as a commentator on the GOP convention. I was surprised by how much I missed Kai. I rushed home on Friday after the convention to see my little Boo, even though we would only have a short time together before I left for Philadelphia. As I was relaxing with him in my arms, letting the unpleasant feeling of that GOP convention slip out of my body, I got to thinking about what a great summer we were going to have. When the days got hot, there was a piece of shade in my garden where he and I could sit and listen to the birds and look at the flowers I had planted there. In the fall, I’d bundle him up and we could see the leaves change color in Rock Creek Park. I’d still go off and do my pundit thing, but most days I could spend long pieces of time with Kai.
I was looking into those sweet blue eyes of his on July 22 when WikiLeaks dropped the bomb on the DNC.
My first sign of the trouble came when my phone started acting like it was possessed. It kept asking me for my password, and other ways to verify my identity, as if it had some kind of hardware malfunction. As that phone was not my primary mode of communication, I decided I’d deal with it later, but it would not let up. Then I got worried that I might lose the pictures of Kai I had on it because I had not backed them up. I called the tech help line at the DNC, and the man I spoke with advised me to delete my DNC email account immediately from my devices. All of my emails would be wiped out as a result. He didn’t express alarm to me and never mentioned the name WikiLeaks or referenced an email dump. He promised me that the pictures would still be safe, so I would have no trouble if I deleted that account. Then at 3 p.m. the party told all the officers about the WikiLeaks dump.
On June 14 Debbie invited the Democratic Party officers to a conference call to alert us that a story about hacking the DNC that would be published in the Washington Post the following day. That call was the first time we’d heard that there was a problem. Debbie’s tone was so casual that I had not absorbed the details, nor even thought that it was much for us to be concerned about. Her manner indicated that this hacking thing was something she had covered. But had she?
WikiLeaks had been releasing small batches of emails ever since that phone call. There were some from the DNC and Hillary, but WikiLeaks seemed to have a grudge against everyone. It also released a few embarrassing emails from Donald Trump’s campaign and Sarah Palin. Maybe these were just test batches to see how the public would react, and in truth, people were so focused on the GOP convention, these small dribbles of emails barely surfaced amid all the news.
Then came that Friday, when WikiLeaks dumped twenty thousand Democratic Party emails in a move deliberately timed to disrupt our convention.
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