A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Clinton Campaign’s Calculated Decision to Oppose the TPP

Branko Marcetic

By the time Clinton was set to launch her campaign, various segments of the U.S. population had lined up against the deal: labor unions, environmental groups, social justice activists and others. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

How do polit­i­cal lead­ers decide to take a stance on an issue? Does it come down to prin­ci­ple, a mat­ter of draw­ing a line that they refuse to cross? Or do they exam­ine pages of data, research and evi­dence to deter­mine what would best serve the country?

If the emails from Hillary Clinton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign are any indi­ca­tion, the answer is nei­ther. The process of devel­op­ing one’s stance appar­ent­ly involves weeks, if not months, of back­room dis­cus­sions by advis­ers and aides that may only min­i­mal­ly involve the leader. Her posi­tion is then care­ful­ly weighed against a num­ber of com­pet­ing inter­ests — from the feel­ings of key con­stituen­cies and oth­er seg­ments of the pub­lic to the tim­ing of pend­ing leg­is­la­tion — to ensure the least pos­si­ble damage.

That’s the impres­sion cre­at­ed by the thou­sands of pri­vate emails recent­ly released by Wik­iLeaks, many of which cov­er one par­tic­u­lar top­ic: how to man­age the epic flip-flop Clin­ton was forced to make in the course of her cam­paign over the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship (TPP).

In the ear­ly days of her cam­paign, pushed by orga­nized labor and the sur­pris­ing­ly threat­en­ing cam­paign of Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clin­ton and her team real­ized she would have to reverse course. This would have to be done del­i­cate­ly. Clinton’s team had mul­ti­ple nee­dles to thread: min­i­mize the embar­rass­ment of a bla­tant flip-flop, sig­nal that her new­found oppo­si­tion to the deal was sin­cere and not oppor­tunis­tic, and cast as few asper­sions as pos­si­ble on Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Con­gres­sion­al allies cham­pi­oning the deal.

The emails present an almost step-by-step, behind-the-scenes look at the cam­paign as it worked to devel­op a ten­able posi­tion on the TPP for Clin­ton. It’s a process that vir­tu­al­ly ignored mat­ters of prin­ci­ple and pol­i­cy and focused exclu­sive­ly on the pol­i­tics of the issue.

The Clin­ton cam­paign did not imme­di­ate­ly respond to a request to com­ment on this story.

Bat­tle lines are forming”

The TPP is a 12-coun­try free trade agree­ment that essen­tial­ly exists as a coun­ter­weight to Chi­nese influ­ence, involv­ing, as it does, sev­er­al Asian and Pacif­ic coun­tries and leav­ing Chi­na out of the loop.

Nego­ti­a­tions over the deal began in 2010, when Oba­ma was pres­i­dent and Clin­ton was sec­re­tary of state. To say Clin­ton was involved in the TPP’s cre­ation is an under­state­ment. She pub­licly pro­mot­ed it no less than 45 times between 2010 and 2013, call­ing it the gold stan­dard in trade agree­ments” and claim­ing it would low­er bar­ri­ers, raise stan­dards and dri­ve long-term growth across the region.” As late as March 2015, one email shows, the Clin­ton camp was pro­mot­ing the agree­ment to envi­ron­men­tal groups as a unique opportunity.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Clin­ton, by the time she was set to launch her cam­paign in mid-2015, var­i­ous seg­ments of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion had lined up against the deal: labor unions, envi­ron­men­tal groups, social jus­tice activists and oth­ers. Lori Wal­lach, of watch­dog group Pub­lic Cit­i­zen, called it a mas­sive assault on democ­ra­cy,” while Eliz­a­beth War­ren accused it of under­min­ing U.S. sovereignty.

As Samuel Berg­er, a for­mer advis­er to Bill Clin­ton who co-found­ed and co-chaired the con­sult­ing firm Albright Stone­bridge with Clinton’s for­mer sec­re­tary of state, Madeleine Albright, warned in an email in March 2, 2015: Bat­tle lines are forming.”

This could def­i­nite­ly rain on our roll­out parade”

The campaign’s first inkling that the issue could cause prob­lems seems to have come on March 21, 2015, when cam­paign man­ag­er Rob­by Mook posed a few ques­tions on the TPP and the Trade Pro­mo­tion Author­i­ty (TPA), or fast-track author­i­ty. If passed, the TPA would have for­bid­den Con­gress from either sub­mit­ting an amend­ment to or fil­i­bus­ter­ing the deal, instead requir­ing a sim­ple up-or-down vote. With­out it, the trade deal was dead in the water.

1. Do we think this thing is actu­al­ly going to move – or can we just hang back? 2. If we do think it’s mov­ing, do we want her to announce her sup­port via let­ter before we announce the cam­paign so we can press reset’ with labor dur­ing announce­ment?” asked Mook, appear­ing to say that, if nec­es­sary, the cam­paign could sup­port the TPA’s pas­sage, then change its mind upon launch­ing the campaign.

Mook and Jake Sul­li­van, Clinton’s senior pol­i­cy advi­sor, agreed that with the TPA stalling in Con­gress at the time, Clin­ton should keep her pow­der dry.” Three days lat­er, how­ev­er, Sul­li­van divulged he’d been informed that the White House was mak­ing a renewed push for the TPA, which meant we will like­ly have to take a posi­tion in April.” It strikes me that we should have a col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion with HRC about this, weigh­ing the pros and cons,” he wrote.

This could def­i­nite­ly rain on our roll­out parade,” wrote Mook.

Sul­li­van out­lined why he thought it would be strange for her to oppose fast track for POTUS”: She opposed giv­ing fast track to GWB. She was a big cham­pi­on for TPP as Sec­State.” He elab­o­rat­ed: “ …deny­ing potus nego­ti­at­ing author­i­ty to fin­ish a deal she has cham­pi­oned? The mes­sage of that would be, I thought this was a good idea, but he screwed it up, and so now I don’t trust him enough to bring home a good deal.”

The exchange illus­trates the tough posi­tion Clin­ton was in: anger the myr­i­ad groups that opposed the TPP on the one hand, or, on the oth­er hand, pub­licly oppose Oba­ma, whose lega­cy she would be run­ning on.

The ini­tial state­ment draft­ed by Clinton’s staff assumes that she’s ulti­mate­ly going to sup­port both TPA and TPP,” wrote Dan Schw­erin, Clinton’s speech­writer. It based her sup­port for the TPA on the idea that U.S. nego­tia­tors need the strongest pos­si­ble hand to dri­ve the hard­est pos­si­ble bar­gain on behalf of the Amer­i­can mid­dle class.” It also paid lip ser­vice to a num­ber of TPP oppo­nents’ biggest con­cerns, argu­ing that the Unit­ed States should walk away if they weren’t reme­died — even though they were pro­vi­sions nego­ti­at­ed under her watch.

Con­trary to the claims of Clin­ton and her sup­port­ers, many of the trade deal’s most con­tro­ver­sial ele­ments were in the deal when she was sec­re­tary of state. Thanks to a steady trick­le of leaks, we knew as ear­ly as 2012 about what is per­haps the TPP’s most out­ra­geous pro­vi­sion: investor-state dis­pute set­tle­ment (ISDS), or the expand­ed pow­er of cor­po­ra­tions to sue coun­tries over law changes that affect their prof­its, such as envi­ron­men­tal regulations.

Schw­erin not­ed that this let­ter would change dra­mat­i­cal­ly” if the cam­paign team came to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion” after meet­ing with Clin­ton. By ear­ly April 2015, how­ev­er, all Clin­ton had changed was adding stronger lan­guage crit­i­ciz­ing ISDS and cit­ing a free trade deal with South Korea that had fall­en short of its promises.

The cam­paign appeared to set­tle on a line that com­bined tough-sound­ing but ulti­mate­ly tooth­less words of con­cern with an ambi­gu­i­ty that would allow Clin­ton to sup­port or reject the deal lat­er, depend­ing on what the sit­u­a­tion called for.

Major nee­dle-thread­ing”

The fact that Clin­ton ulti­mate­ly came down firm­ly against the agree­ment can be cred­it­ed to two things: the fierce oppo­si­tion to the TPP among orga­nized labor, cou­pled with the emer­gence of a viable Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger that didn’t allow Clin­ton to take labor’s sup­port for granted.

The tim­ing is so annoy­ing,” Mook emailed on April 5, 2015, refer­ring to the TPA’s move­ment through the leg­is­la­ture. Steps right on launch. Would be a shame to have labor boo­ing her right out of the gate.”

With us com­ing out against ISDS, there’s a chance the boo­ing will be a lot more tem­pered,” wrote anoth­er staffer.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly I doubt it,” Mook replied. I feel like any­thing short of oppos­ing it will be seen as try­ing to have it both ways. They’re so wound up about this Trump­ka [sic] will use it to be a hero.” Mook was refer­ring to Richard Trum­ka, pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest fed­er­a­tion of unions.

The campaign’s woes with labor con­tin­ued. After con­sult­ing with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME) — the country’s largest pub­lic employ­ee union — Mook wrote that sup­port­ing fast track will be a HUGE prob­lem for them.” Nei­ther the AFL-CIO nor AFSCME respond­ed to requests for comment.

Over the next few days, the cam­paign con­sid­ered a vari­ety of solu­tions to this dilem­ma. What if she’s FOR Fast Track, but against the TPP agree­ment.?” asked Aman­da Rente­ria, Clinton’s polit­i­cal direc­tor. I’m not sure this is pos­si­ble, but try­ing to gauge whether they hate Fast Track or it’s more about TPP.”

Sul­li­van sug­gest­ed oppos­ing the TPA on the basis that its open-end­ed nature could give a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent fast-track author­i­ty in the future (“heck, that’s why I vot­ed against fast track for Pres­i­dent Bush,” a mock-up state­ment read). This is a alter­na­tive if we can’t do pure dodge,” wrote Sul­li­van. This feels more sus­tain­able than full dodge.”

Lat­er, he laid out three pos­si­ble state­ments for staff to choose from. The first would sup­port the TPA while express­ing con­cern about its open-end­ed­ness, before mov­ing on to talk­ing about the tests” the TPP would have to pass. The sec­ond state­ment reversed the order of these points and the third would lean more heav­i­ly and deci­sive­ly against TPA and TPP.”

Cam­paign advis­er John Anza­lone went for the third, as it sends the strongest sig­nal not only [to] Labor but to where vot­ers are on trade.”

I am less con­cerned about his­tor­i­cal blow­back on her past posi­tion than this issue eat­ing us alive for being on the wrong side and giv­ing Pro­gres­sives a real rea­son to try and push some­one more weighty into the pri­ma­ry,” he explained. There are no oth­er issues that Labor cares about. This is it for them and they actu­al­ly have vot­ers on their side.”

We clear­ly need a big­ger strate­gic dis­cus­sion about how to deal with labor,” wrote Joel Benen­son, anoth­er advisor.

As Anza­lone fur­ther explained, the issue of decid­ing whether or not to make Clin­ton flip-flop was so much big­ger than” charges of hypocrisy or because she would be oppos­ing Obama.

Get­ting on the wrong side of Labor on the only issue they care about has ram­i­fi­ca­tions on the ground in these ear­ly states,” he wrote. I say we suck it up and be as defin­i­tive as pos­si­ble from the begin­ning that we don’t like these deals. We will be right with vot­ers and right with labor.”

John artic­u­lat­ed my thoughts bet­ter than I did,” wrote back Mook; but I know the boss won’t be com­fort­able putting her foot down.”

Per­haps owing to Clinton’s dis­com­fort with tak­ing a firm stance one way or anoth­er on the issue, the state­ment even­tu­al­ly put out by the cam­paign, on April 17, 2015, was far more sub­dued. As Politi­co put it, it was a case study in some major nee­dle-thread­ing” that sim­ply reit­er­at­ed Clinton’s tests” while say­ing she would be watch­ing close­ly” to see where it came down on issues like cur­ren­cy manip­u­la­tion, the envi­ron­ment and labor rights. Still, the cam­paign believed it did the trick.

We good to make Labor heads up calls with this state­ment?” asked one staffer.

Ok that was well done on tpp,” wrote Tom Nides, vice chair­man at Wall Street firm, Mor­gan Stan­ley, and Clinton’s for­mer deputy sec­re­tary of state. How long we get to stick god only knows but well done.”

Lethal for labor”

Despite the campaign’s ini­tial relief, the issue didn’t go away. 

The Wash­ing­ton Posts Charles Lane ques­tioned the cam­paign over Clinton’s vac­il­la­tion from our well-estab­lished van­tage point as strong sup­port­ers of TPA.” The Hills Brent Budowsky called Clinton’s posi­tion on trade an exer­cise in equiv­o­ca­tion, hedg­ing and maneu­ver­ing” that only increased vot­ers’ per­cep­tion of her as untrustworthy.

Well into June 2015, her advis­ers con­tin­ued to craft care­ful­ly word­ed state­ments and posi­tions that strad­dled some sort of mid­dle ground and kept Clin­ton away from tak­ing any defin­i­tive stand. The goal here is to pre­vent peo­ple from mis­tak­ing her state­ment as an out­right no’ on TPA,” wrote her press sec­re­tary on June 18. Around the same time, Clin­ton was mak­ing ridicu­lous claims that she did not work on TPP” and nev­er had any direct respon­si­bil­i­ty for the nego­ti­a­tions at all.”

The AFL-CIO’s Trum­ka was report­ed­ly sick of Clin­ton sit­ting on the fence. He turned up the pres­sure on the cam­paign dur­ing a Sep­tem­ber 6, 2015 Meet the Press appear­ance.

I think if she does­n’t take a posi­tion on TPP, then you can say she’s look­ing for our vote,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. If she does take a posi­tion on TPP, then she’s look­ing for our sup­port,” which would mean send­ing let­ters, mak­ing calls, knock­ing on doors and more. That’s what’s at stake for her.”

In the same inter­view, he also praised Joe Biden as a cham­pi­on for work­ing peo­ple all of his life,” who would make a good pres­i­dent.” At this point, Biden was still con­sid­ered a poten­tial rival to Clin­ton and had not ruled him­self out of the race.

The inter­view incensed Clinton’s senior pol­i­cy advi­sor, Ann O’Leary. This Trum­ka line about Joe Biden real­ly annoys me when­ev­er I hear him say it — that Biden has been fight­ing for work­ing peo­ple his whole life,” she wrote. It implies that HRC has not. Is there any­thing we can do to get him to add some­thing nice about HRC?”

I agree. He is annoy­ing,” wrote back Nik­ki Budzin­s­ki, Clinton’s labor out­reach director.

Even as late as Octo­ber, the cam­paign still hadn’t total­ly made its mind up about what posi­tion Clin­ton would side with. On Octo­ber 3, 2015, Sul­li­van and oth­ers received an email from Ron Klain, a for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic advis­er who is now the exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of invest­ment firm Rev­o­lu­tion LLC.

*She has to be for TPP*,” he wrote. She called it the gold stan­dard’ of trade agree­ments. I think oppos­ing that would be a huge flip flop.”

I agree with you on TPP but oth­ers (includ­ing on this email!) feel strong­ly to the con­trary,” Sul­li­van replied.

Mook wrote: TPP would be lethal with labor. We’d loose [sic] afscme and like­ly seiu [Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union] as well.”

In addi­tion to labor, the Sanders’ cam­paign was adding pres­sure on Clin­ton to change her posi­tion on the TPP. Sanders, who was keep­ing upsteady drum­beat against the agree­ment, was look­ing more and more like a viable can­di­date as 2015 rolled on, receiv­ing a major union endorse­ment from Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed and steadi­ly clos­ing Clinton’s lead in the polls. By July 2015, one email shows, the cam­paign had a Sanders watch list” for unions and planned to lob­by their lead­er­ship hard to at least pre­vent them from endors­ing Bernie.”

Lar­ry Cohen, for­mer pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), advis­er to the Sanders cam­paign and now polit­i­cal direc­tor of the senator’s new orga­ni­za­tion, Our Rev­o­lu­tion, has no doubt what role the cam­paign played.

The only rea­son she shift­ed on TPP was Bernie Sanders,” he says.

As of today, I am not in favor”

So it was that by ear­ly Octo­ber, the cam­paign appears to have decid­ed to have Clin­ton oppose the TPP. They held a meet­ing to plan what Budzin­s­ki called Clinton’s oppo­si­tion roll out.”

I’m very glad HRC has got­ten to the oppose posi­tion, this will be very help­ful with mobi­liza­tion on the ground and sup­port with­in labor dur­ing and after this pri­ma­ry,” Budzin­s­ki wrote.

Still, the roll out” itself required myr­i­ad polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. There was the ques­tion of tim­ing, for instance. Budzin­s­ki was in favor of wait­ing for the full text of the trade deal to be released before Clin­ton made her oppo­si­tion known. If she flipped now with­out any doc­u­men­ta­tion, rea­soned Budzin­s­ki, Clin­ton would under­cut her pre­vi­ous state­ments that she want­ed to wait to con­sid­er the final text, mak­ing the deci­sion seem political.

It will not make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in cap­i­tal­iz­ing polit­i­cal­ly with labor if we do this tomor­row or three weeks from now,” she wrote.

Budzin­s­ki also want­ed to push Trum­ka to have the AFL-CIO put out a strong state­ment in sup­port of HRC’s posi­tion” after she came out against the deal. This makes it trick­i­er for Biden to cred­i­bly get around too, the more pub­lic the AFL-CIO is,” she explained.

John Podes­ta, cam­paign chair­man, dis­agreed: We can’t sur­vive hem­ming and haw­ing for 3 weeks.” As oth­er staffers point­ed out, the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate was a lit­tle over a week away.

There was also the mat­ter of putting out the right state­ment to make clear Clinton’s oppo­si­tion. Schw­erin, the speech­writer, sent around a draft state­ment on Octo­ber 6, 2015. The goal here was to min­i­mize our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the authen­tic­i­ty attack and not piss off the WH any more than nec­es­sary,” he wrote.

Staffers sent back their var­i­ous cri­tiques. Anza­lone believed the state­ment was too wonky and nuanced. I would favor more of the par­a­digm of how we approached the Key­stone oppo­si­tion,” he wrote. More black and white.”

Long­time advis­er Mandy Grun­wald agreed: This is so full of com­pli­ments. I can bare­ly tell that HRC is oppos­ing the deal.” Rente­ria want­ed to see some soft stuff” about work­ers instead of the more pol­i­cy-focused content.

Benen­son, mean­while, didn’t want the state­ment to be too disin­gen­u­ous. The real­i­ty is HRC is more pro trade than anti and try­ing to turn her into some­thing she is not could rein­force our neg­a­tive around authen­tic­i­ty,” he wrote. This is an agree­ment that she pushed for and large­ly advo­cat­ed for. That it fails to meet her very spe­cif­ic cri­te­ria seems to be the best ter­ri­to­ry to me.”

Staffers worked well into the night to refine the state­ment, with Schw­erin send­ing anoth­er draft at 9:18 p.m. the same day.

Thanks to all for the feed­back,” he wrote. This is indeed a hard bal­ance to strike, since we don’t want to invite mock­ery for being too enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly opposed to a deal she once cham­pi­oned, or over-claim­ing how bad it is, since it’s a very close call on the merits.”

The work con­tin­ued the next day, with cam­paign staff con­tin­u­ing to tweak and refine the state­ment, ready­ing it for release to the media. That after­noon, the cam­paign put out a state­ment say­ing that Clin­ton was con­tin­u­ing to learn about the details” of the deal and that based on what I know so far,” she couldn’t sup­port it. The bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agree­ment has met it,” it con­clud­ed. Clin­ton rein­forced this with an inter­view with PBS’ Judy Woodruff, whom she told: As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.”

Tough stuff”

What is strik­ing about the Clin­ton campaign’s var­i­ous dis­cus­sions about her TPP stance is how lit­tle pol­i­cy or prin­ci­ple came into the campaign’s deci­sion-mak­ing. Advis­ers, sup­port­ers and staffers were over­whelm­ing­ly focused on the optics of Clinton’s shift­ing stance and the ben­e­fits — or draw­backs — they would face in terms of the vot­ing public.

In the few emails that did con­sid­er pol­i­cy impli­ca­tions as rea­sons to sup­port or oppose the deal, almost none were about the most con­tro­ver­sial ele­ments of the deal, such as its poten­tial impact on work­ers, its effect on access to afford­able med­i­cine and the pos­si­ble loss of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty it heralded.

When Rente­ria sent Sul­li­van a high­ly crit­i­cal report on the TPP by Michi­gan Rep. Sander Levin, a mem­ber of the U.S. House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, that goes through why he’s against it and how TPP makes all the issues HRC cares about worse,” Sullivan’s only reac­tion was: Tough stuff.” As Schwerin’s line that the TPP is a very close call on the mer­its” sug­gests, Clinton’s staff — like her — believes in the ben­e­fits of TPP.

It’s easy to be cyn­i­cal and believe that the process laid bare by the emails — that of Machi­avel­lian schem­ing over prin­ci­ple — is sim­ply the way pol­i­tics works. Cohen, the for­mer CWA pres­i­dent and advis­er to Sanders, believes this mind­set is exact­ly what’s wrong with pol­i­tics today, and that the Sanders cam­paign point­ed to anoth­er way.

Accept­ing that is basi­cal­ly to accept that work­ing peo­ple have no real val­ue, polit­i­cal­ly,” he says. They’re just there to be pan­dered to in an elec­tion and then ignored.”

In the mean­time, anti-TPP forces are focused on the here and now. With TPA hav­ing passed back in June last year, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion is pin­ning its hopes of TPP pas­sage on a vote in the lame-duck ses­sion of Con­gress after the election.

We’re going to demand Pres­i­dent-elect Clin­ton oppose it now,” says Cohen. She’ll be the leader of the party.”

While the emails prove Clinton’s anti-TPP stance was the prod­uct of naked polit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion, they also sug­gest the more hope­ful con­clu­sion that, with con­cert­ed oppo­si­tion from the Left, Clin­ton can be pushed to do the right thing. Any­one who cares about stop­ping the TPP and mov­ing her on oth­er issues mustn’t let up the pressure.

Full dis­clo­sure: In These Times staff are mem­bers of the CWA, and the union is a spon­sor of the mag­a­zine. Spon­sors play no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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