As Democrat Hillary Clinton was gearing up for her official launch last year, her own campaign manager did not even know what her position was on trade, according to hacked emails released by WikiLeaks.
White House political director David Simas emailed campaign manager Robby Mook in February 2015 to tell him that former cabinet officials of both parties were signing a letter in support of free trade. He asked if Clinton would sign it.
“That’s what’s so curious about this … The fact that she and her campaign made such a big deal over this and fretted so frantically … I’m not sure how to interpret that without turning [to] psychology.”
Mook replied on March 1 that he did not know.
“I can’t recall where we landed exactly on trade,” he wrote. “Is she going to say she supports it? Regardless of her position, signing a letter feels like poking the bear with labor to me.”
It may seem odd that the campaign manager would not know his own candidate’s position on such a high-profile issue, but it foreshadowed continual headaches the issue would cause for Clinton and her campaign team.
That may be because of Clinton’s inconsistent record on trade and apparent internal divisions within her campaign organization.
Later in March of last year, Mook discussed the issue with chief foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan. Sullivan told Mook that former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger was trying to get Clinton to sign onto a letter supporting a bill to give President Obama wide latitude in negotiating a 12-nation trade deal.
Sullivan said Clinton either could pass on signing the letter or sign it with “tweaks” indicating that while she was supporting the trade negotiating authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she was withholding judgment on the deal, itself.
“Personally, I recommend the latter approach because she is going to have to take a position on this in any event and it is hard for me to see how she opposes TPA,” he wrote.
Mook responded that he had talked to White House political director David Simas about either slowing down or reducing “the universe of signitories so her absence isn’t obvious” to the public.
“Agree w [sic] you we then need to have an internal convo [sic] about what our position is,” he said.
It took many emails and conversations, but the campaign arrived at a strategy of distinguishing between her support for Trade Promotion Authority — which Congress passed last year after a bitter fight — while reserving the right to pose the final agreement.
Along the way, Mook sought to downplay Clinton’s record in favor of other trade deals as a senator from the state of New York. In April 2015, he told head speechwriter Dan Schwerin to remove a reference to Clinton’s prior support.
“I only see downside to that,” he wrote.
Ultimately, Clinton came out against the TPP in October of last year.
Alan Tonelson, an economic policy analyst and longtime critic of U.S. trade policy, told LifeZette that he does not know why it took so much time and effort for the campaign to arrive at its eventual position.
“That’s what’s so curious about this,” he said. “The fact that she and her campaign made such a big deal over this and fretted so frantically … I’m not sure how to interpret that without turning [to] psychology.”
Tonelson said it seems reasonable for a politicians to support some trade deals and oppose others, depending on their individual merits. He said, though, that Clinton was in a tougher bind with the TPP because she had praised the proposal as secretary of state, adding, “There’s no record and no evidence of her having expressed any reservations about it behind the scenes.”
Tonelson said Clinton’s public pronouncements on the TPP have failed to convince trade skeptics.
“They doubt it reflects a genuine commitment on her part to thoroughly rethink U.S. trade policy,” he said.