Hillary Clinton campaigns alongside former Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., in August 2016.
What, exactly, did the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign agree to in 2015, before any votes had been cast in the Democratic primary?
The question has roiled Democratic politics since Thursday morning, when Politico published an excerpt of Donna Brazile’s upcoming book about the 2016 presidential race.
Brazile took over the DNC as interim chair in the wake of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s sudden resignation during the Democratic National Convention. Once she was at the party’s helm, Brazile wrote that she discovered an agreement that “specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff.”
This agreement has been seized on by everyone from President Trump to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as proof that the DNC “rigged” the 2016 primary for Clinton.
The DNC and former Clinton staffers pushed back on Brazile’s claim, but never outright denied it.
In a letter to DNC members, Chairman Tom Perez noted that the party reached joint fundraising agreements with both Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “The joint fundraising agreements were the same for each campaign except for the treasurer, and our understanding was that the DNC offered all of the presidential campaigns the opportunity to set up a JFA [joint fundraising agreement] and work with the DNC to coordinate on how those funds were used to best prepare for the general election.”
That may be true – but two Democratic officials tell NPR that Brazile and Perez are referring to two different things. In addition to that joint fundraising agreement the DNC reached with both campaigns, the party and the Clinton campaign struck that separate memorandum of understanding giving the campaign staffing and policy oversight.
That document was signed on August 26, 2015 – before, among other things, Vice President Joe Biden ruled out a run for president.
The DNC has not denied this characterization or timeline.
A Democratic official who has reviewed the document pointed out that in addition to the Clinton sign-offs Brazile characterized, it included language stating that “nothing in this agreement shall be construed to violate the DNC’s obligation of impartiality and neutrality through the Nominating process,” and that “all activities performed under this agreement will be focused exclusively on preparations for the General Election and not the Democratic Primary.”
The agreement also noted that the DNC “may enter into similar agreements with other candidates.”
Still, Sanders’ 2016 campaign Manager, Jeff Weaver, said the agreement was the latest evidence the DNC tried to tip the scales against his candidate. He and other Sanders backers have regularly pointed to the party’s scheduling of debates on weekend nights as one example of how DNC officials tried to aid Clinton’s campaign.
“I think the DNC should apologize to the millions and millions of people who put their heart and souls into the campaign on both sides, frankly,” Weaver told MSNBC Friday. “There are many people who campaigned for Hillary believing it was a fair process. It was not a fair process. And those people are the people who the Democratic Party has to reestablish faith with – the people, the rank-and-file of this party – allied, independents, and other people.” (Weaver did not respond to multiple requests for comment from NPR.)
Weaver’s big-picture complaint isn’t new. Sanders and his supporters have long alleged that the DNC tipped the scales in the 2016 primary. A frequent piece of evidence cited for this was the decision to hold debates on weekends when viewership would be lower. Emails released by Wikileaks on the eve of the 2016 Democratic National Convention showed that some DNC staffers favored Clinton and were vocal about it. U.S. intelligence believes those leaked emails originated with Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 campaign.
Perez was not at the DNC during 2016, but the contested primary and its lingering aftermath have loomed over the former Labor Secretary as he’s tried to rebuild the party.
“Even a perception of impropriety – whether real or not – is detrimental to the DNC as an institution,” he wrote in the letter to DNC members. “You have my commitment that 2020 will be a transparent process. That is why I want to make sure that the primary debate schedule is decided well ahead of the presidential primary process and why I stand by the essential work of the Unity Reform Commission.”
That commission is charged with recommending changes to the Democratic primary process. On MSNBC, Weaver said its final conclusions – and whether or not they’re adapted – will be a key indicator of whether the DNC stands behind its promise to be more welcoming to Sanders and his supporters.
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