The Slatest

Hacked Email Appears to Show That Donna Brazile Fed Clinton Campaign a Town Hall Question

Donna Brazile speaks during Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not a fun day for Donna Brazile. The interim DNC chairwoman who was brought on following Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s abrupt, WikiLeaks-provoked resignation in July is now facing an uncomfortable WikiLeaks revelation of her own: that she fed a question to the Clinton campaign ahead of a March town hall co-hosted by CNN.

“From time to time I get the questions in advance,” Brazile—then a CNN contributor—wrote in the subject line of a March 12 email to Clinton aides, which turned up in WikiLeaks’ hacked trove of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. “Here’s one that worries me about HRC,” she wrote in the body text. She then pasted this:

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DEATH PENALTY

19 states and the District of Columbia have banned the death penalty. 31 states, including Ohio, still have the death penalty. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, since 1973, 156 people have been on death row and later set free. Since 1976, 1,414 people have been executed in the U.S. That’s 11% of Americans who were sentenced to die, but later exonerated and freed. Should Ohio and the 30 other states join the current list and abolish the death penalty?

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During the March 13 Democratic presidential town hall in Columbus, Ohio, co-hosted by CNN and TV One, host Roland Martin of the latter network (and a previous contributor to CNN himself) introduced a question that began with a similar prelude. “Secretary Clinton,” Martin said, “since 1976, we have executed 1,414 people in this country.  Since 1973, 156 who were convicted have been exonerated from the death row. This gentleman here is one of them.” He then turned the floor to Ricky Jackson, who, battling his own emotions, asked Clinton, “I would like to know how can you still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what we know right now.”

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Two parties look bad here.

The first is Brazile, for tipping off the Clinton campaign to the rough draft of a question she would be asked the following night. In addition to her CNN duties, Brazile was serving as a vice chairwoman of the DNC during a contested primary. Did she send Sanders any questions?

The second is either CNN or TV One, who apparently don’t maintain very strict control over their documents and allow partisan or candidate-aligned pundits access to them ahead of time. (Brazile is a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns.)

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In the scheme of things, this is small and didn’t lose Bernie Sanders the nomination. It is not like the Clinton campaign had never heard of the death penalty before. (“Yes, it is one she gets asked about,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri replied to Brazile. “Not everyone likes her answer but can share it.”) Hillary Clinton did not learn of this question and then rush to her computer to Google “death penalty wikipedia” and read up about this obscure aspect of the criminal justice system. But, as Palmieri pointed out, it’s a difficult question for Clinton, who still supports the death penalty in limited circumstances even as her party now supports its abolition. A little tip-off for late prep never hurts.

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There’s no evident wrongdoing on the Clinton campaign’s hands here. There’s no evidence that the campaign compelled Brazile to send them any information, and once she did, it would have been foolish of them not to act on it. This could still hurt Clinton, though, in her efforts to lock down disaffected Sanders supporters who already felt the DNC had its thumb on the scale throughout the Democratic primary. Donald Trump, who feels so deeply for Bernie Sanders and his supporters, is sure to make hay of this.

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Brazile released a statement Tuesday afternoon addressing the email:

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Hmm. She doesn’t deny sending this email, but suggests that the hacked WikiLeaks emails might be fake anyway. She says she never had access to and would never share questions from “CNN Debates,” but this was a town hall.

Update, 4:20 p.m.: A “top Democratic Party source familiar with the exchange” tells Business Insider that “Brazile’s emails were not referencing a question at the town hall. Instead, the question Brazile forwarded on to Palmieri was a topic for conversation on a panel that Brazile was to set to appear on.”

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If true, that would explain why Palmieri instructed an aide to “send her answer on death penalty.” It seems odd that Brazile would be grilled so hard about her position on the death penalty as it pertains to Ohio during a CNN panel. Brazile didn’t mention this possibility in her statement, and hasn’t returned Slate’s request for comment. We would love to chat with either her or this “top Democratic Party source” to get more information, and for CNN to share the transcript of the panel where she was asked this question.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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