Clinton’s WikiLeaks strategy: Doubt, delay, distract

The emails are full of potential damage for Hillary Clinton. She weighed the political implications of policies. She is close to Wall Street. Her aides gathered information to discredit a woman who’d accused her husband of rape.

So how has she so far remained largely unscathed by the unprecedented release of hacked emails? It’s one part a deliberate strategy of casting doubt on the authenticity and distracting from the content of the emails, one part fatigue by Americans who already have seen tens of thousands of Clinton’s emails and one part a whole lot of luck.

With Clinton leading in both national polls and battleground-state surveys, the Democrat is in some ways trying to run out the clock on the election.

The WikiLeaks emails do threaten to reinforce voter doubts about Clinton’s honesty. But her strategy – refuse to confirm the authenticity of the emails, blame Russia for the hack and say little else – has so far successfully defused the impact by avoiding any talk that would keep voters looking at the content of the messages. Her undisciplined opponent has taken care of the rest.

“When you start explaining, you’re in trouble,” said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll in Pennsylvania. “They are handling it the best way they can. It’s about as an effective argument you can make.”

Clinton demonstrated her approach during this week’s final presidential debate.

When moderator Chris Wallace asked her about a particular email, for example, she shifted to Russia and Republican opponent Donald Trump’s praise of its leader, Vladimir Putin.

“What’s really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans,” Clinton said. “They have hacked American websites, American accounts of private people, of institutions. Then they have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the internet.”

Later the same evening, Clinton ally and interim Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile used a similar approach to brush aside questions about an email suggesting she’d given Clinton a question in advance of a primary debate.

“I have seen so many doctored emails. I have seen things that come from me at 2 in the morning that I don’t even send. There are several email addresses that I once used. This has not been verified. This is under investigation,” Brazile told Megyn Kelly of Fox News. “Go to Russia,” she added later.

Clinton’s campaign declined to comment for this story other than to refer to its statement of the day, which is about Russia. (The campaign writes a new WikiLeaks statement each day.)

The Obama administration has publicly accused Russia of being behind the hacks of Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails, which WikiLeaks has been releasing to the public for two weeks.

At the same time, Ecuador cut off the internet access of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who took refuge in that nation’s London embassy more than four years ago, saying it did not want to interfere in any other nation’s internal affairs.

“In any other election this would probably not be enough,” Christopher Budzisz, the director of the Loras College Poll in Dubuque, Iowa, said of the Clinton team’s effort to turn people away from the emails.

“In an ordinary election year it would require a candidate to spend an extraordinary amount of time.”

But Clinton also has striven to stay out of the way as the media focused instead on salacious allegations against Trump – aided by his own eagerness to keep people talking about those stories.

The email releases came just as attention turned to multiple women accusing Trump of sexual assault following the release of a decade-old video in which he bragged about groping women.

“If the Trump stuff was not occurring, this (the emails) would be one of the biggest stories in presidential history,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who ran party nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 Ohio campaign. “It’s like a great movie released the same weekend as ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who doesn’t support either candidate, said Trump should have quickly moved past his own controversies and left the WikiLeaks emails to do their damage. But instead, Trump has kept the sexual misconduct allegations in the news by insulting the women and challenging their stories.

“Donald Trump has shown himself incapable of staying out of the way,” he said. “He should allow there to be space to let them get the attention they deserve.”

Trump has spoken about the emails and issued news releases about them. On Friday, the Trump campaign’s “Crooked Hillary question of the day” was based on WikiLeaks: “Why Wouldn’t A Clinton Administration Be As Riven With Conflicts Of Interest As The Clinton Foundation?” But supporters say he has not gone far enough.

“I wish Trump would have pushed harder on that,” said Jarrett Cathcart, 19, a Trump supporter and student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “I don’t know why he didn’t, because he’s been eager to do it before. I feel that was one issue she was quick to get away from.”

At least one Republican, though, thinks any attention on the emails is a longer term mistake.

“These leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process, and I will not indulge it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told ABC News. “Further, I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us.”

Many of the Podesta emails are complicated or mundane, not necessarily provocative reading for voters inundated with Clinton-related emails for a year.

Others describe infighting and name-calling. Some raise questions about potential conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation and State Department. One said Bill and Chelsea Clinton’s “office crap” had almost driven a top foundation official to commit suicide. On Thursday, WikiLeaks released a handful of Obama’s emails. And on Twitter it threatened to hurt Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, and Brazile.

And the emails may never have had as much of a chance of breaking through, given how many already have been released from one source or another.

Even before WikiLeaks, 55,000 pages of emails had been released from Clinton’s time as the nation’s top diplomat. Conservative groups and news organizations are expected to make available more emails of Clinton and her top aides.

“I think the American people have sensory overload getting these thousands of email dumps every day,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s just become now part of the background noise, the static that doesn’t demand that much attention. It’s just too much.”