In private call, Clinton fundraisers fret over ‘email fiasco’ and ‘new Benghazis’

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Hillary Clinton. (AP Photo/Scott Morgan)
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Marc Caputo

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Concerned about her “email fiasco” or the threat of “new Benghazis,” some of Hillary Clinton’s top Southeastern fundraisers fretted at times in a Wednesday conference call with her campaign, which insisted it had recently “defanged a lot of the criticism” of the Democratic presidential frontrunner.

The call, led by Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon and listened to by a POLITICO reporter, provided what sounded like a frank look at the campaign’s strengths and weaknesses — from Clinton’s slipping early state poll numbers to her sometimes-plodding crisis response.

In addition to bracing for more fallout over Clinton’s emails, the campaign will establish a “war room” to respond to next month’s congressional Benghazi hearings, Fallon said. He said a team will also be ready to push back against the pending release of a book by on-again-off-again Donald Trump consultant Roger Stone entitledThe Clintons’ War on Women.

But the emails Clinton mishandled as secretary of state are a more complicated and “unique animal,” Fallon said, because their monthly release by the Department of State is out of the campaign’s hands — as are “the reviews that the FBI’s doing.” 

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“I’ll be very clear — that issue is going to be with us for the next several months, if only because the emails themselves are on a schedule where they get released every 30 days,” Fallon acknowledged. “And that will be true until the end of the year. Unfortunately, we can’t control that.”

Over the summer, Fallon said, Clinton laid the groundwork to make the economy and college affordability central to her campaign. Clinton will focus more on health care soon, especially as the threat of a federal government shutdown looms over Planned Parenthood funding. 

The campaign has also been rebuilding “from scratch” Clinton’s list of 3 million supporters from 2008. It has 140 organizers in 29 offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, he said. It’s focusing on March caucus states such as Colorado and Minnesota right now, and had begun organizing in numerous states such as Florida in late spring.

“One of the lessons from 2008 was always be prepared for a long nomination process. And so we have over 60,000 active volunteers identified across the country,” Fallon said. 

Before a question-and-answer session with the three dozen fundraisers — each of whom raised about $27,000 — Fallon proactively brought up the emails. He said Clinton’s decision to start publicly answering questions has been effective.

“She expressed in the clearest terms so far that this is a serious issue — she acknowledges it,” he said. “And she expressed remorse and called it a mistake, in fact. And we have noticed that that has caused the temperature to drop markedly in terms of media attention around the issue. ... That has sort of defanged a lot of the criticism.”

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, who’s hosting an Oct. 2 fundraiser for Clinton at his home, said there’s “a fine line between apology and looking weak.” 

Stressing that he was “not trying to be critical,” Berger said he appreciated the briefing, but he wondered aloud: “Is there a lesson learned? Because there will be five or six more of these between now and then. … There’s no question in my mind that between now and next November there will be new Benghazis and new emails.”

He said he hoped the lessons learned “are calculated into the next email fiasco.”

Fallon said he agreed with Berger’s observations. 

“We know that more stuff is coming, we know that in the next few weeks, there’s another anti-Clinton book coming out written by Roger Stone,” Fallon said. “When this Roger Stone book comes out — we’ll obtain the book. Our research team will be able to go through it … and with the Benghazi hearing, there will be a great amount of prep work that goes into that. There will be a war room set up to deal with that to deal with that.”

The campaign also changed its media strategy, which used to entail stonewalling reporters and led to more unanswered questions and more stories. So the campaign began holding more conference calls with reporters to “soak up all the oxygen,” Fallon said, “so there wasn’t all this pent-up energy.”

Clinton eventually spoke out in conventional news interviews and in daytime and late-show appearances. That showed “the campaign had complete confidence, even in the face of the coverage here, that there was nothing underlying to the whole issues,” Fallon said.

“That’s going to be the new normal for us,” Fallon said, promising more cable, Sunday show and talk show appearances by Clinton. “Whatever blip arises, it won’t build up for two weeks in between interviews.”

Berger, who represented Al Gore in the 2000 recount and recalled Stone’s involvement in helping shut down Miami-Dade’s ballot counting, said he worried that the Clintons’family nonprofit foundation was “likely” to be attacked again said that “a rapid response is required.”

Miami’s Chris Korge, Clinton’s largest fundraiser in 2008, spoke up and predicted that “until she’s sworn in, and then after she’s sworn in, she’s going to be attacked every day in her presidency. It’s in the media’s best interest to create as much of a race out of this as possible. She’s a frontrunner. And with that comes a price.”

Like Berger, Korge subtly suggested he wanted more out of the campaign. 

“It’s going to be a fight," he said. "It’s going to be hand-to-hand combat. … We just need to react fast and be precise."

He expressed concerns that Clinton has appeared “overly guarded, not forthcoming and measuring every one of her words. … She ought to just cut it loose. Because that’s what the electorate is looking for right now. I don’t think the electorate wants to have the same-old same-old.”

Korge also asked for better information from the campaign because it’s “helpful to us in our efforts in trying to raise money when people throw questions at us.”

The only non-Florida fundraiser to speak up on the call, North Carolina developer Tom Hendrickson, expressed some worries about “how deep things” are in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Clinton has slipped in the polls.

“Obviously there’s been a major shift in these early couple of states,” Hendrickson said.

Fallon replied by saying there are “a hodgepodge of public polls in the early states. And a lot of them are garbage.”

He said Clinton has a “consistent and sizable lead in Iowa in our internal numbers approaching double digits, if not in the double digits. … There is a tightening going on. But we’re definitely not tied or trailing in Iowa as you might assume from some of the public polls.”

He said it’s worse for Clinton in New Hampshire, where the former secretary of state faces a stiff challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The campaign’s “internal tracking effectively suggests that we’re tied there," Fallon said. "But that’s to be expected given that he’s the next-door neighbor representing Vermont and especially the liberal communities in the western part of New Hampshire know him [Sanders] pretty well.”

But the public polls showing Sanders up by “9 or 10 in New Hampshire ... that’s just not true,” Fallon said. “We’re confident that we’ll win both of those states when the voting takes place.”

Fallon did not share what the campaign’s “internal” numbers are.

Hendrickson suggested the campaign should start concentrating more on states other than the early four. The point dovetailed with an earlier question from Florida fundraiser Ben Pollara, who inquired about hiring Florida staff while expressing confidence of Clinton's standing in the state.

“We should do very well to go ahead and capitalize on our strengths there before it looks like we’re having to play a retreat game if some of these latest little blips end up being a trend,” Hendrickson said.

“You will not be disappointed in the operation that we ultimately build in Florida," Fallon said. "So it’s not an afterthought. And it’s not going to be something that’s going to be left as a backup or a Plan B strategy. But in terms of priorities, it’s something that’s probably a few weeks away.”