We tried to warn you about Rus­sia. No one lis­tened.

Clin­ton cam­paign aide Jen­nifer Palmieri on how Democrats can make the scan­dal stick now

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @jm­palmieri Jen­nifer Palmieri was com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

At the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia last sum­mer, Jake Sul­li­van and I took to our golf carts one af­ter­noon to make the rounds of the tele­vi­sion net­works’ tents in the park­ing lot of the Wells Fargo Cen­ter. It is stan­dard for pres­i­den­tial cam­paign staffers to brief net­works on what to ex­pect dur­ing that night’s ses­sion. But on this day, we were on a mis­sion to get the press to fo­cus on some­thing even we found dif­fi­cult to process: the prospect that Rus­sia had not only hacked and stolen emails from the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, but that it had done so to help Don­ald Trump and hurt Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Sul­li­van was Clin­ton’s pol­icy ad­viser. He had been Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, a deputy to then-Sec­re­tary Clin­ton at the State Depart­ment and a lead ne­go­tia­tor of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s nu­clear deal with Iran. He is a widely re­spected na­tional se­cu­rity ex­pert and, as he does ev­ery day, he spoke care­fully, with­out hy­per­bole. All we had to go on then was what had been re­ported by the press. We weren’t sure if Rus­sia was do­ing this to un­der­mine Amer­i­cans’ faith in our po­lit­i­cal process or if it was try­ing to make Trump the next pres­i­dent. But we wanted to raise the alarm.

We did not suc­ceed. Re­porters were fo­cused on the many daily dis­trac­tions, the horse race, the sto­ries they were do­ing based on the stolen DNC emails and the many other Trump scan­dals that were eas­ier to ex­plain. Vot­ers didn’t seem wor­ried. Ear­lier that week, our cam­paign man­ager, Robby Mook, was mocked for telling CNN that the leak of stolen emails be­fore our con­ven­tion was an in­di­ca­tion that Rus­sia was try­ing to help Trump. We did not know, as FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey told Congress this past week, that the bureau had al­ready opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence — and into pos­si­ble links be­tween Trump’s as­so­ciates and the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing whether they worked to­gether on his be­half. At the time, it seemed far-fetched that Rus­sia would med­dle so openly, and re­porters and vot­ers alike seemed con­vinced that it didn’t mat­ter any­way, be­cause Clin­ton was go­ing to win.

Now that Trump is pres­i­dent, though, the stakes are higher, be­cause the Rus­sian plot suc­ceeded. The lessons we cam­paign of­fi­cials learned in try­ing to turn the Rus­sia story against Trump can help other Democrats (and all Amer­i­cans) fig­ure out how to treat this in­ter­fer­ence — no longer as a mat­ter of elec­toral pol­i­tics but as the threat to the repub­lic that it re­ally is. For me, Comey’s dis­clo­sure on Mon­day brought nearly un­bear­able frus­tra­tion. I will never un­der­stand why he would send a let­ter to Congress 11 days be­fore the elec­tion to let law­mak­ers know that the FBI had hap­pened upon more emails — which they didn’t yet know the con­tents of — that may or may not have been rel­e­vant to Clin­ton, but he did not

think the pub­lic should know that fed­eral agents were also in­ves­ti­gat­ing Trump’s cam­paign.

With­out any­one know­ing about the FBI’s in­ter­est, it was dif­fi­cult to bring ap­pro­pri­ate at­ten­tion to the Rus­sia is­sue and Trump’s cu­ri­ous pro-Putin bent. The week after the con­ven­tion, we sought out cred­i­ble na­tional se­cu­rity voices to sound alarms. I was sur­prised by the en­thu­si­asm with which some, such as for­mer act­ing CIA di­rec­tor Michael Morell, jumped into the fray. When I worked in the Obama White House, peo­ple in na­tional se­cu­rity po­si­tions had been un­easy mak­ing broad pub­lic ar­gu­ments, par­tic­u­larly about po­lit­i­cal mat­ters. Not this time. They were so con­cerned about the sit­u­a­tion that, to me, the lan­guage they used to de­scribe the threat they be­lieved Rus­sia and Trump posed was shock­ing. I re­mem­ber my jaw drop­ping as I sat in our Brook­lyn cam­paign head­quar­ters and read the op-ed Morell sub­mit­ted to the New York Times in early Au­gust, in which he shared his view that Rus­sia had prob­a­bly un­der­taken an ef­fort to “re­cruit” Trump and that the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee had be­come an “un­wit­ting agent of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion.”

But the sheer spec­ta­cle of Trump kept the Rus­sia al­le­ga­tions from get­ting the at­ten­tion they would have had with any pre­vi­ous can­di­date. His un­con­ven­tional cam­paign had so dis­rupted the press-po­lit­i­cal ecosys­tem that no one could fathom or ab­sorb that — in ad­di­tion to all the drama they saw on stage — Rus­sia may have been con­spir­ing with Trump or his al­lies be­hind the scenes to win the elec­tion for him. Com­pared with the law­suits women were fil­ing against Trump for al­leged as­sault or his 3 a.m. tweets at­tack­ing a for­mer Miss Uni­verse, the de­tails of who hacked whom seemed less in­ter­est­ing and more com­pli­cated. And be­cause nearly ev­ery­one was sure that Clin­ton would win, and that she there­fore needed more watch­dog­ging, re­porters and an­a­lysts were faster to jump on the lat­est batch of stolen emails or an­nounce­ment from Comey.

We sought mo­ments for Clin­ton and Tim Kaine, her run­ning mate, to talk about Rus­sia when we knew they would be on live tele­vi­sion and couldn’t be edited. The de­bates of­fered the best op­por­tu­nity, and Clin­ton took ad­van­tage, cul­mi­nat­ing with her fa­mous line call­ing Trump Putin’s “pup­pet” in the third one. It was tough de­cid­ing how much of her time to de­vote to the is­sue. We were in a Catch-22: We didn’t want her to talk too much about Rus­sia be­cause it wasn’t what vot­ers were telling us they cared about — and, frankly, it sounded kind of wacky. At the same time, we un­der­stood the is­sue would never rise to the front of vot­ers’ minds if we weren’t driv­ing at­ten­tion to it. It was al­ready pretty clear they weren’t go­ing to hear much about it in the press.

On Oct. 7, I thought the Rus­sia story would fi­nally break through. We were at a de­bate prep ses­sion in Westch­ester County, N.Y., when the di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence and the sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity put out a joint state­ment say­ing that the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity was “con­fi­dent” that not only had the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment hacked Democrats’ emails, but “Rus­sia’s se­nior-most of­fi­cials” were prob­a­bly di­rect­ing their re­lease to in­flu­ence the elec­tion. In­cred­i­ble. Fi­nally, here was the break we had been wait­ing for. I was on a con­fer­ence call with my col­leagues to dis­cuss our re­sponse when some­one said: “Hey, Palmieri. There’s an ‘Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood’ video that just got re­leased.” Lit­er­ally min­utes later, Wik­iLeaks put out the first batch of John Podesta’s stolen Gmail. And that was that. The rest is his­tory.

All of us — the press, Congress, the pub­lic, the ad­min­is­tra­tion — are still guilty of the soft com­plic­ity of low ex­pec­ta­tions. As pres­i­dent, Trump does and says out­ra­geous and false things ev­ery week, from or­der­ing ar­bi­trary travel bans to ac­cus­ing Pres­i­dent Obama of il­le­gal wire­tap­ping with no ev­i­dence. The Rus­sia charges blend in, mak­ing it all too easy to treat them as just the lat­est thing the pres­i­dent has blus­tered his way through. I un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it is to put the threat in the right con­text. We trod lightly at times dur­ing the cam­paign be­cause it sounded too fan­tas­tic to be cred­i­ble, too com­pli­cated to ab­sorb.

In an­other era, Amer­i­cans would have been able to count on both Democrats and Repub­li­cans in Congress to stand up to this kind of threat. A lot of Democrats like to play the “If we were Repub­li­cans” game. I usu­ally hate it; I don’t want to be­have like the Repub­li­cans do. But it’s use­ful here. If Clin­ton had won with the help of the Rus­sians, the Repub­li­cans would have im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings un­der­way for trea­son. No doubt. In­stead, deal­ing with Rus­sia falls nearly solely on Democrats’ shoul­ders.

But Democrats can break out of the Catch-22 of the cam­paign: If we make plain that what Rus­sia has done is noth­ing less than an at­tack on our repub­lic, the pub­lic will be with us. And the more we talk about it, the more they’ll be with us. Polls show that vot­ers are now con­cerned about the Rus­sia story and over­whelm­ingly sup­port an in­de­pen­dent, bi­par­ti­san com­mis­sion to take over this in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Mem­bers of Congress should use ev­ery pro­ce­dural tool avail­able to force votes on such a com­mis­sion. Don’t let busi­ness con­tinue on Capi­tol Hill with­out in­sist­ing at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity that our na­tion should re­solve the Rus­sia mat­ter. Fili­bus­ter­ing Neil Gor­such is a good start. Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer is right that it would be “un­seemly” to move for­ward with a life­time ap­point­ment to the Supreme Court by a pres­i­dent whose cam­paign is un­der an ac­tive FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Democrats should push for this re­lent­lessly and above all else. They should talk about it in ev­ery in­ter­view. They should in­voke the “big gray cloud” that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chair­man, said hangs over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — so of­ten that an­chors sigh and roll their eyes when they say it. They should call out the Repub­li­cans in Congress who seek to dis­tract from the sub­stance of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion by ar­gu­ing that leaks are the real prob­lem. Democrats should be blunt: Th­ese apol­o­gists are com­plicit in help­ing Rus­sia un­der­mine our democ­racy. So far, the GOP has seen de­fend­ing Trump as be­ing in their po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests. But now we’re at a tip­ping point. If those Repub­li­cans feel enough heat for help­ing Vladimir Putin at­tack the United States to as­sist Trump, they will aban­don the White House and sup­port an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion.

The pos­si­bil­ity of col­lu­sion be­tween Trump’s al­lies and Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence is much more se­ri­ous than Water­gate. It is a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis. It rep­re­sents a vi­o­la­tion of our repub­lic’s most sa­cred trust.

The worst part about our lack­lus­ter col­lec­tive re­sponse to Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence is that it rep­re­sents ex­actly what the Rus­sians were hop­ing to pro­duce: ap­a­thy. Their goal, in ad­di­tion to in­stalling a pres­i­dent sym­pa­thetic to their views, was to un­der­mine Amer­i­cans’ be­lief in our democ­racy. For Amer­i­cans to think that none of this re­ally mat­ters, that it’s all a game. That’s how they truly erode U.S. moral au­thor­ity and strength over the long term. It’s what they have sought to do to Euro­pean ad­ver­saries for many years, and now they have brought this seed of de­struc­tion here.

We all have a role to play in stop­ping it. Each of us should be judged by how we re­spond at this mo­ment when the most fun­da­men­tal pre­cept of our democ­racy has been vi­o­lated.

DOM MCKENZIE FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, cen­ter, told the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee on Mon­day that the FBI started in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble ties be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and Rus­sian of­fi­cials last July.

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