The Trump Campaign's "Leak" of a Whitewater Opposition Research Email Was No Accident

People are making fun of the monumental cockup, but they're also talking about what could very well be Hillary Clinton's Achilles heel.
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Publish date:
May 26, 2016
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politics, scandals, HIllary Clinton, Donald Trump

The Trump campaign's latest strategy to smear former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seems to be going swimmingly: Bring up Whitewater, and watch the fur fly. What's fascinating about it, though, is how spectacularly and almost unusually adroit it is — it seems that the Trump campaign may have picked up a few political operators who actually know what they're doing.

Here's what happened, for those who missed it: Marc Caputo, a reporter for Politico, was accidentally CC'd on an email discussing the Trump campaign's request for opposition research on Whitewater. Politico, of course, gleefully broke it, because who wouldn't.

And in my opinion, that's actually exactly what the Trump campaign wanted. This wasn't a bizarre email mistake, but a deliberate and carefully executed leak that had precisely the desired effect, because now everyone is talking about Whitewater, but Trump himself is staying above the fray. It's a brilliant backdoor way to talk about Crooked Hillary without actually engaging directly.

On the surface, the email suggests that the Trump campaign is thinking about dredging up Whitewater as part of its ongoing quest to portray Secretary Clinton as unreliable, dangerous, and corrupt. It's a little odd that the campaign wouldn't have done this research more in advance, but maybe they were a little busy with things like figuring out how to ban all Muslims and sneaking the candidate out of rallies via highway medians to avoid protestors, okay?

So, the theory goes that Trump could trot out Whitewater, hammer home some rhetoric about Secretary Clinton being The Worst, and then profit. Which would seem like a reasonable theory, except that the nature of this "accident" suggests that something else is going on.

Ostensibly, this happened because the email in question went to Marc Caputo (Politico) instead of Michael Caputo (Trump campaign, no relation). However, it's really difficult to ascertain how this would have happened. Michael Caputo was already on the email chain, so Hope Hicks wouldn't have needed to add him back in to her reply.

What seems much more likely is that Ms. Hicks, a spokeswoman for the campaign, made a calculated move to "leak" the emails to Politico, for one simple reason: She knew the news organization would publish them, and she knew that it would create a furor of discussion... all without the candidate himself having to lift a finger.

Yes, people are making fun of the Trump campaign for this monumental cockup, but they're also talking about Whitewater. Which means that a political scandal most people have completely forgotten about and have no interest in is suddenly center stage in the news, on the very same day that Secretary Clinton's email scandal was once again trending, thanks to a new State Department report.

The timing was absolutely ideal — pick a day when people are already feeling hostile about the email thing, and add on a little sprinkling of Whitewater to really get things hopping.

In the course of discussing this particular "gaffe," every news organization that's covered it has first had to explain what Whitewater was, because most people have forgotten. And it's a hot, tangled, steamy mess that doesn't make the Clintons look good, even though Secretary Clinton was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing.

Right, Whitewater... so what was that again? Oh, yeah, the time the Clintons were ensnarled in a series of investigations accusing them of involvement in fraud, misuse of funds, a failed real estate venture, and a whole host of other things, including the discovery of material leading to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Whitewater reads a lot like the Clinton's worst hits. It's not pretty, and to this day, there are definitely conspiracy theorists who are firmly convinced that the Clintons escaped accountability by virtue of their high public profiles and political clout.

Most of the rest of us can't be bothered to give a faff about Whitewater because it's old history. Really old history; and in fact, a Republican strategist says that the party once explored using Whitewater as opposition material against Secretary Clinton, only to find that it went over like a lead balloon. The moderate Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters that would theoretically be the target demographic here didn't really care.

But that was in 2000, and 2016 is a very different time, for a number of reasons. Secretary Clinton has already been through one failed presidential campaign, and she's been dogged at every step in this one by rampant misogyny — some of which has included the adroit use of everything even vaguely scandalous in her past to make her seem like satan incarnate. With both a right and a left already revved up to hate Secretary Clinton, something like this can be a real scale-tipper, in part because it didn't originate from Trump himself.

Trump's campaign is adding to the sliver of doubt that's starting to build among some voters, including the Bernie Bros who appear to be setting up for a swing to the hard right. Some voters just hate Secretary Clinton so much that they don't really care who gets elected, so long as it's not her, even if they might feel a few qualms about Trump. It's those voters that the campaign has reached with this absolutely brilliant ploy, and creating a bit of a firewall between the candidate and the story has given it legs — people used to tuning Trump's bombastic rhetoric out get a lot more interested when something isn't coming directly out of the horse's mouth.

Maybe I'm wrong, and this was just an honest mistake. If that's the case, It's the most fortuitous mistake the Trump campaign's made yet.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons