Emails hacked from John Podesta’s account reveal how major Democratic donors are plugged in at the highest political levels.
The thousands of documents allegedly hacked from Podesta’s personal account offer a glimpse into big donors’ unique levels of access to the top Democratic operative, who has served in top roles in the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Obama White House, a leading liberal think tank and the Bill Clinton administration.
The emails released by the group WikiLeaks are packed with exchanges between Podesta and some of his party’s top contributors, showing that donors often meet with top politicians, put in plugs for administration jobs and are kept in the loop on major policy decisions.
It isn’t surprising that Podesta would have close ties to some of the party’s top funders, and political insiders say that’s merely part of how politics works.
"There’s absolutely nothing, I think, improper or wrong with talking to people who support you on policy matters," said former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, who served as chairman of Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm. "It’s not unusual for any candidate to work with and discuss policy with people who are their supporters," he added. "What would be wrong, obviously, is for any candidate anywhere to say, ‘Well, you gave me a million dollars or a hundred dollars and therefore I’m going to influence legislation.’"
But some critics of the Clinton campaign see the level of influence evidenced in Podesta’s emails as problematic.
"I think that it concerns what I’ve been saying for a very long time, and that is that the Democratic Party and the Democratic establishment has a very, very cozy and comfortable relationship with the more strident in the environmental community and that the Democrats are funded heavily by folks who are involved in that group. They have an unusual, I would argue, level of access to folks in power," said Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire California megadonor who has made climate change his top priority, appears frequently in Podesta’s hacked emails.
In early 2014, Steyer emailed Podesta, asking when he would be available to talk. "Call anytime," Podesta wrote back, sending his cellphone number.
Steyer also sought some advice from Podesta in 2014. "I could use a little," Steyer told him. Podesta got back to him quickly. "Will call today," Podesta said.
Emails from February 2015 show that Steyer had a "pull-aside" conversation with Clinton and that the campaign debated giving him a formal role, such as "California co-chair."
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook discouraged a formal role for Steyer, saying, "He will be the story. Arch rival to the Kochs. His views may differ from hers. I also think the optics of a Chair bankrolling independent work is not great."
Podesta replied, "Maybe. Could be leaving a lot of $ on the table."
In early 2015, Steyer sent a news article to Podesta about the Keystone XL pipeline, which Steyer and Podesta both opposed.
Podesta and Steyer also had one notable spat in the released emails. In 2015, Podesta blasted Steyer for saying he’d only offer financial backing to a presidential candidate who vowed to meet ambitious renewable energy targets.
"I am deep in the middle of dealing with getting fucked by the NYT, but I didn’t expect to get fucked by you in the NYT. Thanks a lot for jumping us," Podesta wrote (Greenwire, Oct. 14).
They seem to have made up since then. Steyer said this month after that email was released publicly, "I think John is a person of the very highest intellect and integrity."
And in an email exchange in February of this year, Podesta was asked how well he knew Steyer. "Extremely well. On my Board, good friend and collaborator," Podesta wrote back. Steyer is on the board of the Center for American Progress.
Podesta is also quite close to Wendy Abrams, a Chicago environmentalist who founded the climate advocacy group Cool Globes Inc.
Abrams is also a philanthropist who was an Obama bundler and is well known in Democratic political circles. Her family founded the medical equipment giant Medline Industries Inc.
In 2014, Abrams wrote to ask whether Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) could join them for dinner. Podesta wrote back, "That’s fine. Invite his wife. 8:00 my house." In a 2015 email, Abrams told Podesta "you’re welcome to stay with us" during an upcoming trip to Chicago.
Emails also show that Herbert Sandler, a major Democratic donor who helped fund the Podesta-founded Center for American Progress, passed along recommendations to Podesta back in 2008 when Podesta was co-chairman of the Obama transition team.
In 2015, the campaign organized a call with big donors interested in climate and energy policy.
The expected participants included Nathaniel Simons, co-founder of the philanthropic Sea Change Foundation; construction mogul Dan Tishman; investor Mark Gallogly; Antha Williams, head of the environment program at Bloomberg Philanthropies; former Goldman Sachs general partner Larry Linden; Steyer; retired investment banker Carl Ferenbach; and Kathleen Welch and Bill Roberts of the investment advisory firm Corridor Partners.
A detailed tick-tock of the Clinton campaign’s climate rollout in 2015 included sharing a video and fact sheet with donors.
Podesta also meets periodically with major Democratic donor George Soros, the emails show. Ahead of a planned meeting in March of this year, Soros aide Michael Vachon wrote to Podesta, "In general I think George is more interested in talking about policy than the campaign per se, though I can’t imagine you won’t spend some time on politics."
The Clinton campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment about this story, although it hasn’t publicly verified the authenticity of the hacked emails. The campaign, Podesta and the Obama administration have accused the Russian government of orchestrating the hacks in order to sway the U.S. elections.
Still, Pyle of the American Energy Alliance said the emails offer "a nice look into the level of undue influence that national environmental organizations have into the Democratic establishment."
Former Sen. Breaux said that for a campaign to avoid discussing policy issues with its supporters "doesn’t make any sense at all." If those discussions were prevented, he said, "the only people you could talk policy with would be people who oppose you."