Hacked emails spur apologies, unease over offhand comments

By Robin Bravender | 10/18/2016 01:20 PM EDT

The steady stream of leaked emails allegedly stolen from John Podesta has proven embarrassing for some top Democrats, who thought they were engaging in confidential conversations. The emails are straining relationships for some who were the subjects of less-than-flattering exchanges and are causing Podesta’s friends to fret about what they might have said. Now come the apologies.

Former Clinton administration official Federico Peña received an apology from John Podesta shortly after a disparaging email was released via WikiLeaks.

Former Clinton administration official Federico Peña received an apology from John Podesta shortly after a disparaging email was released via WikiLeaks. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

John Podesta has spent some time apologizing lately.

The steady stream of leaked emails allegedly stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and a longtime Democratic insider has proved embarrassing for Podesta and some of his allies, who thought they were engaging in confidential conversations. Experts say it’s unlikely the leaks will have long-term political consequences, representing the kind of talk that’s commonplace among political operatives — particularly those running a tense presidential campaign.

But the leaks are straining some relationships for the subjects of less-than-flattering email exchanges and are likely keeping Podesta and some of his allies busy as they look to make amends.


Take Federico Peña, for example, who served as Energy secretary and Transportation secretary during Bill Clinton’s administration. He was the subject of an August 2015 email from Podesta that referred to "Needy Latinos."

The email mentioned some details about Peña’s personal life, like a "messy divorce," and said Peña was thinking about committing to Clinton’s presidential campaign but was "carrying some baggage."

After those emails surfaced, Podesta reached out, Peña said today in an interview. "He talked to me right after the email came out," Peña said. "He apologized."

Podesta hasn’t publicly commented on the authenticity of the hacked emails and has accused the Russians of illegally hacking his email account in an attempt to sway the presidential election.

Peña, too, said he’s worried about the "Russian hacks" and the barrage of Podesta’s emails being taken out of context.

The email about him left "the reader with the impression that an insult has been lodged," he said. The baggage that Podesta was referring to, he said, was that Peña had supported Obama’s presidential bid in 2008, and many people supporting Clinton at the time "were very upset with me. … That’s the baggage that John was referring to in the email."

After Podesta sent the email to Clinton in 2015, "she called me the next day, we had a very great conversation," Peña said.

He contributed financially to the campaign encouraging Clinton to run for president even before she announced her candidacy, he said. He’s since funded and supported her campaign. "I’m all in." He added, "Whatever was interpreted in that email which came out in 2015 has no bearing on what I’m doing today."

Still, he acknowledged that the tone of the email and the "Needy Latinos" comment "doesn’t read too nicely." The average reader and his friends who read it interpreted it "as an insult," he said. "I did not."

"For someone like me who understands political speak and when you’re involved in campaigns, this is a very typical term," he said of the word "needy."

Peña expects that other people are probably also having similar conversations with Podesta lately, and there’s "probably some mild discomfort on the part of some people who were the subjects of these emails."

Unfortunately, he said, "that’s what happens when you get hacked by the Russians."

Bill Richardson, another Clinton administration DOE secretary who was also mentioned in the "Needy Latinos" email, said in a statement last week, "I strongly support Hillary Clinton for President. I do not care about any characterization of me made in an email."

He added, "I have worked with John Podesta for many years and am neither concerned nor unhappy about this email repartee. I fully respect John and recognize the difficult job he has."

Another Democratic ally of Podesta’s, California billionaire megadonor Tom Steyer, also appears to have mended fences with Podesta despite a testy email exchange over a New York Times article that ran last year.

An email surfaced last week in which Podesta told Steyer, "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."

Steyer said last week in a statement about Podesta, "I think no one has had a greater positive impact on our climate progress in this administration except President Obama. I think John is a person of the very highest intellect and integrity."

‘Amoral catnip’

Meanwhile, as the emails continue to trickle out, Democratic operatives, friends of Podesta and many others have been poring over a hacked email database, searching for their names and wondering what they might have written in private emails in recent years.

"It revealed some of the power brokers and insider politics that shapes the party, nothing shocking but enough to fuel the frustration with many in the party that it has lost some of its populist impact," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

"The revelations will clearly make many political operatives uneasy," he said. "The ability of hackers to break into accounts and unload vast amounts of private correspondence is deeply unsettling for both campaigns. But this is the new world within which campaigns will be conducted. There will be perpetual October surprises, all year round."

Many Democratic operatives think the news value of the hacked emails has been dramatically overblown.

"News is when man bites dog. This story isn’t even dog bites man. It’s dog eats dog food," said Dan Weiss, a longtime environmentalist who was Podesta’s colleague at the Center for American Progress. "Part of the interest in John’s emails is due to the 60-second news cycle, with reporters that must file content every few minutes. The emails would have been much less interesting when the news cycle was longer."

Weiss said people will probably find "some embarrassing comments or gossip that they wrote to John. If I wrote something similar, I would write a quick apology note to the person who was the subject, and that should be the end of it." He added, "I don’t think embarrassing emails will cause much long-term or even short-term harm unless they were really nasty."

The political significance of the hacking is getting lost in the media’s attention on the content of the emails, said Paul Bledsoe, who worked in the White House and the Interior Department during the Clinton administration.

"This is an incursion by the Russian government into our election, and everybody is treating it as some normal WikiLeaks release," Bledsoe said. "It’s completely catnip, it’s just amoral catnip."

Ultimately, Bledsoe said he doesn’t think the emails will do much political damage for Podesta or Democrats.

"I don’t think it’ll hurt his reputation one bit," Bledsoe said. "As a matter of fact, it will show how forthright and squeaky-clean the whole campaign is."

One possible long-term impact of the hacks could be how the privacy of email communications is perceived.

These are emails "that do not fall under any sort of disclosure law where people have the belief that they have privacy," said a former Obama administration official. "It’s very hard to blame the senders of the emails for the contents that might be embarrassing."

That person added, "This opens up a whole new world where private email conversations and private records could fall into the public domain."