Inside the scramble to oust Debbie Wasserman Schultz
By Glenn Thrush, Gabriel Debenedetti and Edward-Isaac Dovere
HILLARY CLINTON and her team aren’t thrilled that the head of the Democratic National Committee was forced out on the eve of the nominee’s coronation -- but they aren’t exactly distraught to see Debbie Wasserman Schultz booted from the tent. Several senior Democratic officials with ties to Hillary and Bill Clinton told POLITICO that campaign higher-ups have been trying to replace the oft-off-message Florida congresswoman from the start of Clinton’s campaign late last year.
John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman –- and a former top adviser to Barack Obama -– broached the idea of replacing Wasserman Schultz as early as last fall, only to be rebuffed by the president’s team, according to two people with direct knowledge of the conversation.
“It came down to the fact that the president didn’t want the hassle of getting rid of Debbie,” said a former top Obama adviser. “It’s been a huge problem for the Clintons, but the president just didn’t want the headache of Debbie bad-mouthing him… It was a huge pain in the ass.”
The Obama team -– especially 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina –- long viewed Wasserman Schultz as a major campaign liability, questioning her fundraising prowess and her tendency to appoint personal aides to positions of authority, prioritizing loyalty over competence and effectiveness as a spokesperson for Democrats. At the time, senior campaign officials leaked details of an internal survey conducted by pollster David Binder, showing Wasserman Schultz was the least-liked Obama surrogate; she later dismissed the report as “National Enquirer” dross.
After Obama’s 2012 victory, Messina and longtime political adviser Patrick Gaspard, who worked under Wasserman Schultz at the DNC, pressed the president to push her out, advising he tap former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak as her replacement. Obama –- who cared little for the party machinations -– figured the move would be more trouble than it was worth and told his aides that he was OK having Wasserman Schultz serve as chairwoman until he left office.
“It’s embarrassing that Obama left the problem for Hillary,” one former West Wing adviser told POLITICO.
Yet the aggregated animosity toward Wasserman Schultz led to a swift and brutal conclusion to her five-plus year tenure at the helm of the president’s party; she resigned less than 24 hours after WikiLeaks posted dozens of emails showing her staff working to undermine the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders to aid a Clinton organization they often derided as inept and timid.
“I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” Wasserman Schultz said today in a statement issued after a day of back-and-forth with top Democratic officials urging her to step down for the sake of party unity ahead of Clinton's big week. “I look forward to serving as a surrogate for her campaign in Florida and across the country to ensure her victory...
"Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as party chair at the end of this convention.”
The move had to happen on Sunday, said a senior Democrat: Sanders-supporting delegates -- without the buy-in of his campaign -- had been organizing an effort over the last day to have state delegations vote to demand her resignation at the Monday morning caucus breakfasts. Given how many delegations are made up of a majority of Sanders supporters, the movement was likely to have spread, overtaking any other news on the convention's opening day.
Clinton campaign officials declined numerous attempts by phone, email and text to respond to this story. But the Clinton campaign was very much involved in the DNC chair’s defenestration. [ Did they really throw her out the window, lol? -M.] Earlier in the day Sunday, Sanders had again suggested that Wasserman Schultz should resign, and DNC officials announced she would be replaced as convention chair by Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, an influential member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
By sundown, after intense negotiations with senior Clinton campaign officials, the committee tapped longtime Clinton aide, TV surrogate and party vice-chair Donna Brazile as interim chairwoman.
To senior Democrats, it represented a clean-up operation that brought Clinton and Sanders –- who has demanded her ouster for months -- into closer alignment a day before the Vermont senator was due to deliver his opening night endorsement of an opponent he long accused of rigging the election with the help of the D.C.-based party establishment.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party," Sanders said in a don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out statement Sunday afternoon. "While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people. The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race."
People around Wasserman Schultz didn't know it was coming until this morning in Philadelphia, when she finally had a meeting with senior Clinton campaign officials. In fact, no one saw it coming: she had introduced Clinton and Kaine at their first joint rally in Miami roughly than 24 hours earlier, and even that was just after she'd spent a week as Democrats' most prominent surrogate at the Republican convention, popping up at event after event in Cleveland. But the writing was on the wall ever since the WikiLeaks email dump, the source of the only disruption at Clinton and Kaine's entire rally, when a protester carrying a #DNCLEAKS banner heckled the presumptive nominee the second she thanked Wasserman Schultz.
All weekend, senior Clinton staffers and members of the Sanders brain trust were huddling in Philadelphia. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver and strategist Mark Longabaugh were in touch with Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, senior adviser Charlie Baker, and lawyer Marc Elias on Friday night and Saturday during the rules committee proceedings.
The WikiLeaks emails kept being raised as a topic of conversation; and while the Sanders aides didn't demand Wasserman Schultz's ouster, they made their preference -- that she exit as soon as possible -- known.
Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, was largely stating out of sight except for her Clinton/Kaine appearance. Her public events kept coming off her calendar through the weekend, including a scheduled appearance on Fox News Sunday. And when Baker didn't show up to a credentials committee meeting on Sunday morning, staffers immediately suspected something was coming.
It was a striking and telling shift to the DNC staffers monitoring her movements: They had just been laughing about how overexposed she'd been last week, showing up everywhere in Cleveland. But they knew for sure that something was up with the chairwoman -- who they had, for months, been sure was going to get showered in Ted Cruz-like boos at the convention -- when their 2:00 p.m. senior staff meeting in Philadelphia on Sunday was abruptly cancelled.
"This was the right move. She doesn't deserve every attack that's been thrown at her but her faults have become too big a distraction and she hasn't deftly managed the internal politics involved in managing a national committee," said a DNC staffer. "The DNC should be playing a consequential role in the general election and that hasn't been possible as long as she's been in charge."
All the while, state party chairs had been emailing each other in semi-panic, receiving no response from national committee staff as speculation about a move heated up throughout the weekend. The same held true for party fundraisers -- even those at a DNC retreat in town on Sunday, who were blindsided by the party’s split-second reorganization. Team Sanders got no warning either, but they were immediately cheered by the installation of Brazile. They had instructed Clinton aides in May -- the last time speculation swirled about Wasserman Schultz's exit -- that Brazile was preferable, and they regarded her as better than Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's option at the time.
Inside the White House, aides and lawyers have been poring through the Wikileaks dump all weekend. There's a lot of flagging of potential problems, but also a lot of eye-rolling and disbelief about what Wasserman Schultz and her staff were thinking, and that they were putting it in emails.
Still, Obama hadn't gotten involved at all as Wasserman Schultz was at the brink. Whenever the topic of replacing her had come up, despite the fact that Obama lost patience with her years ago and generally avoided having to talk to her, he'd always felt that it wasn't worth the trouble that would come of forcing her out. As the election got underway, he felt the leadership questions should be left to Clinton. And this weekend, as conversations between Brooklyn and Wasserman Schultz intensified, neither the president nor his staff was involved.
Once the decision was made, Wasserman Schultz called White House political director David Simas to tell him, and Simas then told the president. Obama decided to call to thank her for her work. The conversation was full of platitudes, a source familiar with the discussion said. He didn't go out of his way to say he was sorry to see her go, and certainly didn't twist her arm to get her to reconsider. Shortly before 4:00 p.m. ET, as word of the impending shakeup began leaking out, the DNC press shop put out its official announcement: Wasserman Schultz would step down. Obama’s statement, thanking her and describing her as a “dear friend,” landed around 20 minutes later, as did Clinton’s naming her the honorary chair of her campaign’s “50-state program.”
"We all knew this was coming yesterday after the WikiLeaks news; it felt like it had to happen. It was just a question of the timing, to be honest," said one state party chair.
"A lot of us thought this was going to happen a month ago. That would've been a more opportune time to do it. ... You won't find a lot of fans of hers among state chairs, but this is shitty timing."
Edward Isaac Dovere and Annie Karni contributed to this report.
http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/d ... dnc-226100