The release of thousands of embarrassing internal email exchanges between Democratic Party officials threatens to overshadow the party’s message of unity on the eve of the party’s convention in Philadelphia.
A trove of messages released by hackers on the website Wikileaks apparently shows party officials working to boost Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during the primary.
The controversy comes at a critical time – just as Clinton is hoping to patch up disagreements with supporters of her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. And it undermines Clinton’s assertion that her party’s convention would reveal markedly less disunity than the Republican convention in Cleveland last week.
Democrats now face the possibility that their embattled chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., will be marginalized in the convention to avoid acrimony on the floor.
She will not preside over the convention as its permanent chairman. But former representative Barney Frank, a co-chairman of the convention’s rules committee, denied that the appointment of Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, as permanent chairman was related to the email controversy.
“She was never going to be the permanent chairman of the convention,” Frank said in an interview Sunday. “The national chair is never the permanent chair of the convention.”
Democratic convention officials and the Clinton campaign would not say whether Wasserman Schultz would have a speaking role at all. Frank noted that if she did not speak, it would be “unusual.”
On Sunday, Sanders renewed his call for Wasserman Schultz to resign and said that the emails vindicate his allegations during the primary that party officials were actively working to undermine his candidacy.
“I think she should resign, period,” Sanders said on ABC News’ “This Week,” “and I think we need a new chair who is going to lead us in a very different direction.”
Seeking to minimize the damage, Clinton campaign officials framed the leak as a political ploy, carried out by the Russian government to aid in the election of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, said that the DNC would need to investigate the hack, including checking to see if any emails were “doctored,” and that the party would “take appropriate action.”
“What’s disturbing to us is that experts are telling us that Russian state hackers broke into the DNC, stole these emails, and other experts are now saying the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump,” Mook said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I don’t think it’s coincidental that these emails were released on the eve of our convention here, and that’s disturbing.”
But that explanation seems unlikely to mollify Sanders supporters who are angry about the messages and are already distrustful of Clinton and the party.
On Saturday, after a tense meeting of the party’s rules committee, supporters of Clinton and Sanders reached a compromise to curtail the role of “superdelegates” in the party’s nominating process.
But the meeting also revealed unhappiness among Sanders supporters with Clinton’s choice of Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Va., as her running mate. By the end of the day, some of Sanders’s supporters mulled putting an alternate name into nomination in opposition to Kaine.
Even while Sanders sought to redirect the outrage over the leaked emails and urged his supporters to focus on Trump, he acknowledged that Kaine is not the vice presidential pick he had hoped for.
“Would I have preferred to see someone like an Elizabeth Warren selected by Secretary Clinton? Yes, I would have,” Sanders said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Asked about Kaine on CNN’s State of the Union, he added: “Are his political views different than mine? Yeah, they are. He’s more conservative than I am.”
Sensing an opening, Trump sent out a flurry of tweets criticizing Sanders for shifting his support to Clinton – and urging Sanders supporters to “fight.”
“Looks like the Bernie people will fight,” Trump tweeted on Sunday morning. “If not, their BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS was a total waste of time.”
Monday’s convention program is expected to open with a showing of some of the party’s biggest political stars, and it will also highlight some of the party’s most progressive voices.
Sanders, first lady Michelle Obama and liberal firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are all expected to kick off the opening session, which will be focused on hammering home Clinton’s agenda for families.
Sanders moved quickly on Sunday to separate the dispute with the DNC from his support for Clinton. He strongly denied that the revelations had changed his support for Clinton and said that the real threat was Trump.
“To my mind, what is most important now is the defeating of the worst candidate for president that I have seen in my lifetime, Donald Trump, who is not qualified to be president by temperament, not qualified to be president by the ideas that he has brought forth,” Sanders said on ABC.
Meanwhile, other Democrats acknowledged that the dispute threatened to cause a serious rift.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a co-chair of the convention whose emails were also caught up in the leak, said that she apologized to Sanders’ campaign for the revelations.
“I think, the allegations, the emails, the insensitivity, the stupidity needs to be addressed and we are going the address it,” Brazile said on ABC News’ “This Week.”