Justin Sullivan

Western Democracy Winter

Hillary Clinton Destroyed Her Own Campaign

Despite all the odds being in her favor, Clinton managed to sabotage her quest for the White House.
Betsy Woodruff

Betsy Woodruff

11.08.16 11:50 PM ET

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a woman stood in between a row of satellite trucks and a concrete wall outside the Javits Center in New York City—the Hillary Clinton’s “victory party”—sobbing and screaming into her cellphone, “How are we losing?!”

The answer on the other end was received by a wail.

And later that morning, the world learned that despite all the polling, all the momentum, and a second-to-none campaign operation, Hillary Clinton lost to a flaxen-haired maybe-billionaire best known for starring in an NBC reality-television show.

The Clinton campaign had hoped that the glass ceiling of the Javits Center would become the night’s enduring symbol. But instead, its basement cafeteria became a microcosm of the Clinton campaign.

Late into the night, grim Clinton supporters huddled around televisions on folding chairs, watching with blank faces as cable news commentators delivered blow after blow. And when Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” anthem played over the speakers, it sounded more like a taunt than a battlecry. Many supporters didn’t want to talk. Instead, they hunched over their iPhones and beers.

Lani Brandon, an environmental attorney from Attica, New York, drank Barefoot cabernet sauvignon from a tiny plastic bottle as the results rolled in. She volunteered on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and recalled her response to that loss with admiration.

“Even when she was conceding, she did it with class and elegance,” Brandon said. “This election alone, with him running, it has created—or maybe made people aware of—the hatred that already existed.”

Many were visibly misty-eyed.

“You’ve gotta make it quick,” said New Yorker Frank Capalbo when approached, “because I’m about to break out in tears.”

He loved Clinton for her brain, her guts, and her effectiveness, he said. His thoughts on a Trump win?

“A descent into fascism,” he said, “and America going over the precipice once and for all. And it scares the living daylights out of me.”

Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump marks the end of a decidedly tumultuous campaign season for Clinton, who faced a host of setbacks, many of her own making. Early exit polls from CNN showed 58 percent of the white vote went to Trump. White men and women voted for Trump 63 and 53 percent, respectively. He won whites with college degrees (49 percent) and without (67 percent).

There was trouble before she even entered the race when The New York Times ran a front-page story on March 2, 2015, reporting that she used a personal email server for State Department business as secretary of State.

Emails—both those released through Freedom of Information Act requests and the hacked emails belonging to campaign chairman John Podesta throughout the election—dogged her through the campaign.

As shown by emails that WikiLeaks published, Clinton’s team immediately knew this was a disaster—and that she was handling it horribly. In an exchange shortly after the story was published, top Clinton ally Neera Tanden bemoaned the situation.

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“This is a cheryl special,” Tanden wrote, referring to Clinton’s longtime attorney, Cheryl Mills. “Know you love her, but this stuff is like her Achilles heel. Or kryptonite. she just can’t say no to this shit. Why didn’t they get this stuff out like 18 months ago? So crazy.”

“Unbelievable,” John Podesta, now Clinton’s campaign chairman, replied.

“I guess i know the answer,” Tanden wrote back. “they wanted to get away with it”

But they didn’t. And the email scandal metastasized over the course of the campaign, damaging independent voters’ view of her trustworthiness and highlighting her penchant for secrecy.

Controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation also didn’t do her any favors. The fact that the organization took contributions from foreign governments while Clinton was secretary of State—violating its own commitment, as well as State Department protocol—fueled the perception that big corporations could influence Clinton’s decisions at State by giving to the group. And though evidence of direct quid pro quos never emerged, there were plenty of examples of corporations finding favor with the State Department after giving to the foundation.

Those liabilities became nuclear when WikiLeaks, the hacking group, started releasing troves of emails it says it hacked from Podesta’s Gmail account. The Clinton campaign never confirmed or denied the validity of those emails. And the emails revealed that Chelsea Clinton worried the Clinton Foundation had made serious ethical missteps, and that Doug Band—a top aide to Bill Clinton—thought the former president himself had conflicts of interest involving the foundation’s corporate backers.

The fact that the FBI investigated Clinton’s email set-up didn’t help. But on July 5, FBI Director James Comey announced that he wouldn’t recommend the Department of Justice press charges against Clinton. So the Clinton campaign was out of the woods—that is, until Oct. 28, when Comey wrote a letter to members of Congress who oversee the FBI announcing that the bureau had reopened its investigation of Clinton. Finally, on Nov. 6, Comey announced that the second round of investigating also hadn’t turned up anything.

But the damage was done.

And things could get worse. Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would appoint an attorney general who will try to find a way to convict and incarcerate Clinton. And crowds at his rallies have been chanting “Lock her up!” for months. In the second presidential debate, Trump even promised that if he were president, Clinton would be in jail.

His win would be viewed in some quarters as a mandate for more investigation of her foundation and email use.

It seems impossible that Clinton, after being cleared of wrongdoing, would be jailed.

But then again, Trump’s rise seemed improbable as well and there’s no clear picture of what he will do to deliver on his promise to “Make America Great Again.”

—with additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich