The latest WikiLeaks dump of hacked emails reveals the behind-the-scenes campaign effort to address Hillary Clinton’s 2015 remarks that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was a “defensive” move to thwart a more punitive constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
The remarks generated concern among her campaign staffers, who acknowledged in the leaked email exchange they didn’t think they could back up the candidate’s assertion.
“There is no way we have friends to back us up on her interpretation,” Clinton campaign political director Amanda Renteria said in one email. “This is a major problem if we revisit her argument like this. It’s better to do nothing than to re-state this although she is going to get a question again.”
Among the emails made public by WikiLeaks was a chain on the comments Clinton made on “The Rachel Maddow Show” in October 2015 calling DOMA a “defensive” act aimed at stopping a federal constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.
The hacked chain starts with Clinton campaign director of communications Jennifer Palmieri sounding the alarm. Citing forthcoming media reports in the Huffington Post and the New York Times, Palmieri said she has “no understanding of the issue – but clear this has a head of steam.”
“I would suggest a conference call with relevant parties for how we are going to handle all around – press, groups, politics,” Palmieri added.
During the 2015 interview, Clinton made the dubious assertion that DOMA, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage, was passed at a time when there was enough “political momentum” in Congress to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage entirely.
“And there had to be some way to stop that,” Clinton continued. “There wasn’t a rational argument because I was in on some of those discussions on both ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and on DOMA, where both the president, his advisers and occasionally I would chime in and talk about, ‘You can’t be serious. You can’t be serious.’ But they were.”
The idea that former President Bill Clinton signed DOMA in 1996 to avert a constitutional gay marriage ban was raised before by Hillary Clinton and subsequently by Bill Clinton, but discredited because there’s no evidence in public comments anyone was thinking about a constitutional amendment at the time. That idea came up later under the administration of George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Massachusetts Supreme Court making the Bay State the first in the nation with marriage equality in 2003.
Clinton’s remarks invoked the ire of gay rights activists. Among those who rejected the idea DOMA was a “defensive” act were Clinton supporters Elizabeth Birch and Hilary Rosen, whose objections were reported in a Washington Blade article that LGBT liaison Dominic Lowell cited in the email as evidence the LGBT community wouldn’t support the candidate’s explanation.
“The most recent Blade article has Elizabeth Birch quoted as saying there was no amendment threat in 1996,” Lowell wrote. “Hilary Rosen has already tweeted the same. I’ll ask on the call, but my sense is that there aren’t many friends who will back us up on the point. That’s why I’m urging us to back off as much as we can there.”
Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seized on Clinton’s remarks the day after during the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. The senator recalled his vote against DOMA as a U.S. House member in 1996 and said Clinton was attempting to “rewrite history.” (Sen. Barbra Mikulski backed up Clinton in a brief exchange with the Blade on Capitol Hill, saying “it did stop a constitutional amendment,” but she was alone in that assessment.)
Jake Sullivan, an adviser to Clinton’s campaign, said in one email Clinton research director Tony Carrk recalls Clinton making a “similar argument” in 2008 that DOMA was a “defensive” act, but not being able to “turn up much to support idea that alternative was a constitutional amendment.”
“I think we should pull her statements around the time she embraced marriage equality and place greatest emphasis on the fact that she fully acknowledges that she evolved,” Sullivan added.
Clinton campaign manger Robby Mook, who’s gay, responded he agrees with Sullivan’s plan and wanted to “get our people on a call and push back.” Other staffers in subsequent emails are seen coordinating the best times for a conference call.
Subsequently, campaign staffers proposed various statements for Clinton to use and pointed to Bill Clinton’s 2013 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal urging the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA as a reference point.
Lowell cited a possible statement from Gautam Raghavan, a Clinton supporter and former White House LGBT liaison for President Obama, which drew on Clinton’s experience in the Obama administration.
“I’m not my husband,” Clinton was to have said. “I understand why he believed that was the right thing to do at the time, but obviously I wish it had gone differently. Look, we’ve all come along way since the 90s and I’m proud to have been a part of an Administration that has made it possible for gay troops to serve openly and loving gay couples to get married. I’m also proud of MY record as Secretary of State. I think the community knows I will be the ally they deserve.”
Maya Harris, senior policy adviser to Clinton, forwarded another possible statement from Clinton supporter Richard Socarides, who was more willing to admit a mistake.
“Since I was asked on Friday about the Defense of Marriage Act in an interview on MSNBC, I’ve checked with people who were involved then to make sure I had all my facts right,” Socarides suggested that Clinton should say. “It turns out I was mistaken and the effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage came some years later. The larger point I was trying to make about DOMA, however, is still true. It was neither proposed nor supported by anyone in the Clinton administration at the time. It was an effort by the Republicans in Congress to distract attention from the real issues facing the country by using gay marriage, which had very little support then, as a wedge issue in the election.”
Clinton spokesperson Dan Schwerin proposed another statement that drew upon both Bill and Hillary Clinton calling on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 to overturn DOMA. The proposed statement also recalled Clinton’s work on international LGBT rights as secretary of state and took a subtle dig at Sanders.
“And as Secretary of State, I put LGBT rights on the global agenda and told the world that ‘gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights,” Clinton was to have said. “In my speech last night in Iowa, I didn’t look back to the America of the past, I looked forward to the America we need to build together. I pledged to fight for LGBT Americans who, despite all our progress, in many places can still get married on Saturday and fired on Monday just because of who they are and who they love. In this campaign and as President, I will keep fighting for equality and opportunity for every American.”
Lowell interjected and flagged Clinton’s initial remarks as problematic in part because her wording closely linked Clinton to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA and “even as no one in the community was asking her to ‘own’ them,” recommending the statement leave out Bill Clinton.
“To the extent we can, I advocate for owning that so that we can clean this up completely, rightly position her as a champion of LGBT issues, and make sure we move on from any discussion of looming amendments or her being involved in passing either DADT or DOMA,” Lowell said.
Schwerin responded he’s fine not referencing Bill Clinton, but added “you’re not going to get her to disavow her explanation about the constitutional amendment” and the best exercise provides context, then “goes on offense.”
“I’m not saying double down or ever say it again,” Schwerin wrote. “I’m just saying that she’s not going to want to say she was wrong about that, given she and her husband believe it and have repeated it many times. Better to reiterate evolution, opposition to DOMA when court considered it, and forward looking stance.”
Schwerin said campaign officials are in general agreement Clinton shouldn’t restate her argument, but doesn’t think the candidate will disavow her remarks. The final email in the hacked chain came from Renteria, who asked about “broadening the perspectives at that time” and acknowledging different views as opposed to saying she was wrong.
Clinton ultimately retooled her explanation for DOMA and recollection of the circumstances under which it was passed in a subsequent forum hosted by Maddow, who asked the candidate whether she stood by her remarks. Clinton said she would “obviously take responsibility” if the public record doesn’t reflect her recollection, but didn’t retract her words.
“Certainly in thinking back on it, those were private conversations that people did have, and I am more than willing to say again that that was something that came up in private discussions that I had,” Clinton said. “The important thing is DOMA is gone.”
The Blade has placed a request for comment with the Clinton campaign on the hacked email chain.