What the WikiLeaks emails show, and why they haven't sunk Clinton

WikiLeaks has brought shades of Cold War subterfuge to the U.S. presidential campaign, publishing documents that in any other election might have tarnished Hillary Clinton. Here’s a sprinkling of what the emails contain.

Contents range from embarrassing to mundane to potentially politically harmful

WikiLeaks has published thousands of pages purportedly from the personal email of John Podesta, campaign chair for U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

WikiLeaks has brought shades of Cold War subterfuge to the U.S. presidential campaign, publishing documents that in any other election might have tarnished Hillary Clinton.

But not this time. Not while the Democratic candidate's Republican opponent, Donald Trump, continues to dominate the news cycle.

Some 20,000 pages of emails, purportedly hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee in July, as well as from the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, are said to reveal, among other things:

Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta, talks to reporters outside her home in Washington, D.C., on October 5, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Some revelations are embarrassing, like the 84 slogans Clinton's campaign rejected before settling on "I'm With Her" and "Stronger Together." Some proposals: "No Quit," "Next Begins With You" and "Unleash Opportunity."

But there's much more Trump could mine for attacks. The emails — believed to have been stolen by Russian hackers — might have been a sharper political weapon had Trump not made himself the dominant news story with conspiracy theories about a "rigged" election and accusations of sexual impropriety or sexual assault against him from a series of women.

​"The thing with Trump is he's just a walking controversy," says Geoff Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "[WikiLeaks] is getting covered, but those aren't the stories people are clicking on. They're clicking on stories that say Donald Trump makes lewd comments; Donald Trump walks into Miss Teen USA's dressing room; Donald Trump makes unsolicited approaches on women."

None of the correspondence directly involves Clinton, and much of the daily trickle of WikiLeaks material appears to be pretty innocuous. Anyone looking for a fuller roundup is encouraged to dive into WikiLeaks themselves, but here's a sprinkling of what the emails contain:

Wall Street speeches and 'open borders'

Clinton has long refused to release transcripts from a series of lucrative talks she gave to bankers and other special interest groups between 2013 and 2015. It now seems clear why.

In a closed-door speech to the National Multi-Housing Council, she describes the need for politicians to hold "both a public and a private position" on policy. 

In remarks from a 2013 speech to a Brazilian banking crowd, she said: "My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders."  As WikiLeaks did release the full transcript of her speech, it's not clear if she is talking about movement of goods or people, though Clinton has claimed she was talking energy policy. It would be a far cry from how she frames her "secure our borders" stance on immigration.

Cracks about Catholics

It began with an email chain referring to News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch and Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson raising their children Catholic. John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, jokes that the pair "must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations" of the faith.

Podesta does not reply, but Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri writes that many conservatives appear to choose Catholicism as "the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion." 

Palmieri, who is herself Catholic, adds: "Their rich friends wouldn't understand if they became evangelicals." She has since said she does not recognize the email correspondence.

Burning Bernie

Emails from the Democratic National Committee's servers showed apparent favouritism of Clinton over Sanders, her rival in the primaries, and what appeared to be efforts to undermine Sanders's presidential campaign, despite the committee's supposedly neutral stance.

Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders stand together during a campaign rally where Sanders endorsed Clinton in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 12, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned after the emails surfaced, including one in which she refers to Sanders's campaign manager Jeff Weaver as a "damn liar" and another in which she accuses Sanders of having "no understanding" of the Democratic Party, as an Independent running for the leadership.

DNC officials also discussed ways to exploit Sanders's possible vulnerability on faith questions by getting him to discuss whether he believes in God

Sanders has since endorsed Clinton.

Discussion of a court date

Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon wrote in an email that he had received information from the Department of Justice about an upcoming court hearing to discuss the schedule for the release of emails from Clinton's private email server.

The Trump campaign jumped on that email as evidence of collusion between the Justice Department and Clinton's campaign about an FBI probe into her mishandling of emails as secretary of state. But, in fact, the Fallon email predated the FBI investigation by two months.

In any case, what the email discussed was public information, available on the federal court's website, as it was only about the scheduling for a legal proceeding.

A questionable question

Another email in the Podesta Gmail hacks carries the subject line "From time to time I get the questions in advance." In it, interim DNC chair Donna Brazile shares a question about the death penalty with Palmieri the day before Clinton's March 13 CNN Town Hall debate against Sanders.

Brazile, a CNN commentator at the time, denies she ever sent any draft question, but the episode has been difficult to shake while Trump continues pushing a narrative about election collusion.

A WikiLeaks document dump seems to show Donna Brazile, the acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, emailing an advance question to Hillary Clinton's campaign before a March town hall debate. Brazile denies the allegation. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Podesta's way with words

In an email about the San Bernardino shooter, Podesta laments that the gunman was later identified by MSNBC  reporter Christopher Hayes as having the Muslim-sounding name Syed Farook.

Podesta's response on Dec. 2, 2015: "Better if a guy named Sayeed Farouk was reporting that a guy named Christopher Hayes was a shooter."

Another email mocks Sanders as a "doofus." Asked this week by CNN's Wolf Blitzer whether he did, in fact, make the comment, Podesta said he had "great respect" and "affection" for Sanders, though he disagreed with Sanders's opposition to the Paris climate change deal.

"I'll take that as a yes," Blitzer responded.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong