Emails: Sen. Whitehouse urged Clinton aides to link Sanders with Karl Rove

Clinton campaign manager misspelled Raimondo, said Cicilline was 'begging' for tasks

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse urged a top adviser to Hillary Clinton to publicly link her Democratic primary rival Bernie Sanders to Republican political operative Karl Rove, according to a hacked email.

In a Feb. 4 email to Clinton policy adviser Jake Sullivan made public by Wikileaks, Whitehouse shared some unsolicited advice on how Clinton could push back against the Vermont senator, who at the time was giving her a tough challenge from the left:

forget who’s most progressive; shift focus to who can win in November. Cite Karl Rove backing Bernie with attack ads funded by Wall Street, saying she’s too close to Wall Street. Ask why does Karl Rove so badly want Bernie to win? Why is Wall Street money coming in against Hillary, not against Bernie?

She’s stood up against their attack machine not just for months but for decades, and there she stands, still fighting. He’s never taken a punch.

And I think if asked she can be sad that so many young Democrats have absorbed the Republican attacks in what they think of her. Bernie will look a lot different once the Republican attack machine starts working him over, not helping him.

Whitehouse is a longtime Clinton ally, and he’d made a similar point about Sanders the prior month in a WPRI.com interview, though he did not specifically mention Rove, a reviled figure among Democrats for his work on behalf of George W. Bush.

Sanders and Whitehouse have spoken warmly of each other in the past. When Sanders was asked in 2014 which of his fellow senators he likes to spend time with, he replied: “People I’m closest to are generally people who share my political views, people like Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Sherrod Brown [of Ohio], Barbara Boxer [of California].”

The exchange with Sullivan followed an email Whitehouse sent to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, suggesting she support his legislation to claw back executive compensation from top employees at bailed-out banks. Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill had told Whitehouse she thought it “could help Hillary re the Wall Street stuff,” he wrote.

Clinton campaign officials have refused to comment on the authenticity of the emails apparently stolen from Podesta’s account and published by Wikileaks, which has been accused of ties to the Russian government.

Rhode Islanders are also mentioned in another exchange the group published, this one centering on Clinton aides’ concerns in June 2015 that the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers’ union might endorse Sanders over Clinton.

“Can we have Cicilline and Kennedy help with this? Or have Raimundo in RI?” asked Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, misspelling Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s surname.

Nikki Budzinski, the Clinton campaign’s labor outreach director, agreed and said her team was “reaching out to Kennedy and Raimondo for outreach to the RI NEA affiliate.” (It appears the Kennedy referenced is Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III, though it’s possible it is a reference to former R.I. Congressman Patrick Kennedy.)

Raimondo has had a strained relationship with NEA in Rhode Island after she spearheaded the 2011 pension overhaul that cut its members’ benefits, and in a followup email Budzinski said: “Not good NEA/Gov relationship so need other option.”

Brynne Craig, the Clinton campaign’s national political director, said she would ask Rhode Island’s senators to work on it.

Mook then chimed in again, suggesting they tap Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline. “Cicilline has been begging me for stuff to do,” he wrote. “might as well have all call.”

“Raimondo suggested that Magaziner call – that he has good relationships,” Craig replied, referencing either General Treasurer Seth Magaziner or his father, longtime Clinton confidante Ira Magaziner. “Will call him and the others.”

In the end, NEARI remained neutral in the primary, and Clinton was backed by all of Rhode Island’s top Democratic elected officials. Nevertheless, she lost the state’s April 26 primary to Sanders by double-digits.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram