But a batch of correspondence obtained by POLITICO shows members of Clinton’s inner circle — including senior aides Jake Sullivan and Jennifer Palmieri — were in touch for weeks with one of the effort’s organizers as they mounted their ill-fated strategy. And despite repeated requests for guidance, Clinton’s team did not wave them off.
Call logs, emails and text messages reveal a Clinton campaign walking a tightrope — never fully endorsing the effort, but intentionally declining to stamp it out. The approach was comparable, one former campaign official said, to the campaign’s passive-but-not-dismissive response to long-shot recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Indeed, as news of Russia’s role in influencing the election emerged, an exhausted and shell-shocked Clinton team at times appeared torn between accepting the election results and continuing to publicly fight Trump’s ascension to the White House.
The ambivalence resulted, however, in weeks of agonizing among anti-Trump activists working to flip the Electoral College against Trump.
The first conversation appears to have occurred on Nov. 29, when Sullivan and other aides joined a conference call that included Colorado elector Micheal Baca, a member of a group working to persuade Republicans in the Electoral College to abandon Trump. Baca relayed the group’s long-shot strategy: to persuade Democratic and Republican electors to unite behind an alternative candidate to Trump.
In an email after the call, Baca apologized to Sullivan for his urgent tone.
“Not at all! We all share a sense of urgency,” Sullivan replied. “Look forward to being in touch.”
The next day, after Baca updated Sullivan on the group’s progress, Sullivan wrote that he personally believed the Clinton campaign should not be involved because it might send “mixed messages.” “But I'm consulting with our leadership,” he added.
That appears to be the last time Baca and Sullivan communicated. The same day, Baca sent an email to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, urging him to endorse the effort, but did not receive a reply.
“They were too concerned about the appearance of ever being perceived as sore losers,” said one Democratic elector and Clinton ally. “All 230 of us [Democratic electors] had no idea what was going on — what do they want from us, what are they thinking, what’s possible, what’s not possible?”
Baca, 24, a former Marine, was an unlikely leader of the effort to stop the election of Donald Trump. A Bernie Sanders supporter during the Democratic primary, he became an elector by virtue of Clinton’s win in Colorado. Shortly afterward, he decided that he wasn’t content with electors simply rubber-stamping a Trump victory. On Facebook, he connected with Washington state elector Bret Chiafalo, and the two formed Hamilton Electors, a group intent on preventing Trump from winning the Electoral College vote.
The strategy was simple, if virtually impossible to execute: persuade Democratic and Republican electors wary of Trump to unite behind a mainstream Republican alternative such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich or 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. If they could persuade 37 of the 306 Republicans on the Electoral College to ditch Trump, the election would have been thrown to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives in January.
The goal was as audacious as it was unprecedented. The Electoral College has never overturned the votes cast by the states in the history of the country. It would require converting dozens of Republican die-hards into turncoats.
For more than a month after Election Day, Clinton aides were publicly silent about their view of the budding anti-Trump efforts and whether they would order their electors to remain steadfast in support of Clinton.
But the dam appeared to break on Dec. 12. Following reports that Russia intervened in the presidential election in support of Donald Trump, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta issued an urgent statement supporting a call by Democratic members of the Electoral College to receive an intelligence briefing before their vote.
“Electors have a solemn responsibility under the Constitution and we support their efforts to have their questions addressed,” Podesta said in the statement.
Podesta still did not express support for efforts to topple Trump, but his statement nonetheless energized the Hamilton Electors. Its members became convinced that top Democrats were moving in their direction.
Christine Pelosi, a Democratic member of the Electoral College and the daughter of the House minority leader, told POLITICO on Wednesday that the intelligence briefing call — which she helped organize — brought her into contact with members of the Hamilton Electors. But she said she intentionally stayed in a separate “lane,” never endorsing their push. Pelosi added that she never received a cue from Clinton or her allies about whether they would support the effort to back an alternative Republican to Trump.
“I did not get a signal either way. If I didn’t get a signal either way, I wanted to make it clear last week — I am voting for Hillary Clinton,” she said.
A few days later after Podesta weighed in on the Russian hacking issue, Baca continued his correspondence with Clinton’s team, connecting with Palmieri, her campaign communications director. The two spoke by phone for 15 minutes on Thursday, according to a log of the call, four days before the Electoral College vote. Two days later, while Baca was in Washington trying to drum up support, he and Palmieri had a short text message exchange in which Baca made what he described as his “final plea” to the Clinton team for assistance.
“I know I will have done everything I could to stop Trump but I am just a guy at the end of the day,” he wrote. “Thank you so very much and I’ll trust whatever happens was the right decision.”
Palmieri replied, “I hear you. Are you doing a press conference today?”
Baca described an event he was planning at D.C.’s Sylvan Theater and asked whether she’d suggest any messaging. “What are you planning to say?” she asked. After Baca provided a short summary of his remarks, there was no further response from Palmieri.
On the eve of the vote Sunday, Podesta made his first public comments on the anti-Trump Electoral College effort. Asked by host Chuck Todd what he thought of the call for Democratic electors to defect in support of a mainstream Republican, Podesta demurred.
“I assume that our electors are going to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “But the question is whether there are 37 Republican electors who think that either there are open questions or that Donald Trump, based on everything we know about him, is really unfit to be president of the United States. And if they do, then they'll throw it to the House of Representatives.”
That night, Baca sent two more urgent appeals to Podesta for guidance. He received no response.
The actual vote showed their revolt wasn’t even close. Eight Democratic electors, including Baca, attempted to cast votes against Clinton, and just two Republicans — both in Texas — spurned Trump. It was a historic level of vote-flipping, but not anywhere close to changing the outcome of the election.
When it was over, former Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon called the effort a “half-baked” idea that Clinton officials never believed would succeed. Baca on Wednesday was referred to the Colorado attorney general for prosecution, since his anti-Clinton vote violated a state law requiring him to support the popular vote winner. He cast his ballot for Kasich.
Multiple backers of the effort acknowledged their plan was always an extreme long shot, but they say buy-in from any serious political operatives or leaders would have given them at least a slim shot at success.
“The biggest hurdle we faced was being taken seriously,” said Jason Wesoky, a Denver attorney who backed members of the Hamilton Electors in court.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University constitutional law professor deeply involved in recruiting Republicans to rebel against Trump, said he sensed a Clinton team that was undecided about “to what extent they should be encouraging this.”
“I imagine that in the end, nobody was sure they could survive the political blowback if you became president because you flipped the college,” he said.
Not everyone in the Hamilton Electors’ orbit supported the notion that a Clinton nod would have improved their chances. “Had Hillary’s name been involved, if she released her delegates or something … I’m certain that Trump would’ve used that in a very negative way,” said Colorado elector Polly Baca (no relation to Micheal) in a phone interview. “I think we had to get the Republicans first.”
The former Clinton campaign official noted this concern, wondering whether a more active Clinton role might have hardened Republican opposition. He said any electors who asked for guidance on Monday were told to cast their votes for Clinton.
The absence of any high-profile support left the ragtag group with little horsepower to counter a well-oiled Republican whip effort, led by Trump campaign operative and the Republican National Committee. GOP electors reported receiving calls from a team of seasoned operatives: Tom Midanek, Brian Jack, Matt Mowers and Wells Griffith. The effort, spearheaded by top RNC adviser Chris LaCivita and top Trump aide Justin Clark, also got an assist from former Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri, a veteran of the 2012 elector whip effort as well.
The operatives relied on ground-level help in key states from additional Trump aides who were serving as electors: In Ohio, Trump state director Bob Paduchik whipped his colleagues; in Florida, Susie Wiles kept tabs; and in Pennsylvania, Ted Christian was an elector as well.
The GOP plans were thorough. On the day of the vote, they engineered the replacement of more than a dozen Republican electors who were constitutionally disqualified because they held federal positions. In the days leading up to the vote, electors in North Carolina and Texas were treated to a joint dinner. And in Alaska, where a snowstorm threatened electors’ travel to Juneau, the whip team had engineered a backup plan to permit electors to cast their ballot from an alternate location.
In the end, the anti-Trump organizers were easily vanquished.
Baca said he appreciated that Clinton aides heard him out and listened to his pleas.
At the same time, he added, “they missed an historic opportunity led by concerned electors and future leaders in the Democratic Party.”
Author: Kyle Cheney