UPDATE: This post has been altered to reflect information released by WikiLeaks on October 31st.
During his recent campaign rallies, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has blasted Hillary Clinton for secretly receiving questions ahead of a presidential debate, also criticizing the media for not talking about this. What is Trump referring to here? Is he right that Clinton got questions ahead of time?
Well, yes and no. When Trump first began speaking about this, he was talking about an email released by WikiLeaks that appears to show Hillary Clinton’s campaign receiving a question ahead of a CNN town hall during the Democratic primary. Donna Brazile, interim chairperson of the Democratic National Committee and former CNN commentator, allegedly sent Hillary Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, an email with the subject line, “From time to time I get the questions in advance.”
This is the question that Brazile sent to Palmieri, telling her it would appear at the Democratic town hall:
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?
A similarly-worded question about the death penalty was posed at the town hall. Here is what TV host Roland Martin asked during the event:
Secretary Clinton, 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. This is Ricky Jackson, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1975, he spent 39 years in prison. He is undecided. Ricky, what is your question?
The host went on to introduce a voter, Ricky Jackson, a man who was formerly on death row in Ohio. The wording of Martin’s introduction and of what Jackson says is a bit different from what Brazile sent over. But Politico obtained an email exchange reportedly between Roland Martin and CNN producers ahead of the debate, and in that email, Martin sends over the death penalty question, and it is 100 percent identical to what Brazile sent Palmieri. Every single word and punctuation mark is exactly the same.
In an extremely awkward interview with Megyn Kelly recently, Donna Brazile denied all of this, saying that she never receives debate questions in advance. But her responses were a bit strange; she just says that she will not comment on emails that have been stolen, suggesting they could be fake but not saying that these ones necessarily are.
“I have seen so many doctored emails,” Brazile said. “I have seen things that come from me at 2 in the morning that I don’t even send. There are several email addresses that I once used. This has not been verified. This is under investigation.”
One would think that if Brazile never sent an email like the one in question, she would simply say so and unequivocally assure Megyn Kelly that WikiLeaks’ information is doctored. Obtaining a debate question and sending it to a candidate does not seem like a thing a person would forget doing. Instead, Brazile dodged the question and said the situation is being investigated, as if she would need an investigation to determine if the email is hers.
This is the first example, and it’s the only one that was known by the public at the time Trump began using this talking point. On October 31st, WikiLeaks released more information which, if accurate, does not look good for Donna Brazile. In an email sent to John Podesta and Jennifer Palmeri, Brazile appears to tip Clinton off to a question someone in the audience at a Flint, Michigan debate will ask. The subject of the email is, “One of the questions directed to HRC tomorrow is from a woman with a rash.”
In the email, Brazile writes:
Her family has lead poison and she will ask what, if anything, will Hillary do as president to help the ppl of Flint.
Folks, I did a service project today. It’s so tragic. And what’s worse, some homes have not been tested and it’s important to encourage seniors to also get tested.
The first two questions in the debate ended up coming from women from Flint who Brazile might be referring to. The second undecided voter asks the following question:
After my family, the city of Flint and the children in D.C. were poisoned by lead, will you make a personal promise to me right now that, as president, in your first 100 days in office, you will make it a requirement that all public water systems must remove all lead service lines throughout the entire United States, and notification made to the — the citizens that have said service lines.
All of this information strongly suggests that Donna Brazile did indeed send Hillary Clinton inside information ahead of a presidential debate, and she did so at least twice that we know of.
However, Trump distorts the truth a bit in his representation of events, even though the real version is pretty damning by itself. During a rally in North Carolina recently, Trump claimed that Clinton got “questions and answers” ahead of a presidential debate. This line of attack has continued in subsequent events. While it’s fair to say that, assuming WikiLeaks information is correct, Clinton received more than one question, she was not sent anything that approaches an “answer.”
Trump compares the situation to that of Charles Van Doren, a man who appeared on a quiz show in the 1950s and was given all of the questions and answers before competing. The circumstances here are nothing like that, though, because it’s not as if there are correct and incorrect responses in a presidential debate the way there are in a trivia program.
In the first case, all the Clinton team found out was that their candidate would need to explain her position on the death penalty. This perhaps gave them an advantage over Bernie Sanders, as Jennifer Palmieri and her coworkers could then fine tune Clinton’s answer and make sure she’s ready to give it. But even without the help of Donna Brazile, it’s not unreasonable to think that the death penalty might come up as a topic in a debate.
In the second case, Clinton is tipped off to the fact that a woman whose family was affected by the Flint water crisis will ask about this issue. Once again, Clinton perhaps has a bit of an upper hand in that she can prepare to address that particular woman. But the town hall was being held in Flint, Michigan, so anyone who has worked in politics for more than a day would already be making sure their candidate was prepared for a question about the water crisis from someone affected by it. It’s not as if this came out of left field and took Bernie Sanders off guard. To compare all of this, as shady as it might be, to getting answers in a game show where there is just a single right answer is an exaggeration.
Trump has also been floating the idea that this kind of thing may have occurred in the main presidential debates. There is nothing to support this theory. The only people who saw the questions before the fall debates were the moderators: Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper, Martha Raddatz, and Chris Wallace, all of whom are highly respected journalists who would have no incentive to leak questions the way a Democratic operative like Donna Brazile would.