Person

John Podesta

Official portrait of John Podesta (link)
Occupation:

Democratic Party Political Consultant

Former Campaign Chair, Hillary Clinton 2016 Presidential Campaign

John Podesta is a Democratic political operative who has served as White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration, Counselor to the President in the Obama administration, and chair of the Hillary Clinton 2016 Presidential campaign. He is also the co-founder and former president of the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center think tank. His friend and fellow former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala has said Podesta “believes in and uses power in a way that many Democrats are too pusillanimous to do… ruthlessly if necessary.”[1]

In the administration of President Bill Clinton, Podesta’s “unofficial” title, according to the Washington Post, was “White House clean up chief” —the official who manages scandals;[2] Podesta reportedly began calling himself the “Secretary of [expletive].”[3] Podesta is notable for making unusual statements about UFOs; he vowed that a Hillary Clinton administration would have declassified government UFO documents were she elected on the show Ancient Aliens.[4]

Podesta co-created the campaign to blame Russian interference in the election as the reason for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential loss, allegedly on instructions from Clinton herself.[5] A prominent alleged tactic of the Russian interference effort was a spear-phishing attack on Podesta’s email account.[6] In September 2015, according to one of the emails stolen from Podesta and posted by the website Wikileaks, he and Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden discussed Hillary Clinton’s “terrible” instincts as a reason for many of her challenges.[7]

When he began working for the Obama Administration in 2014, Podesta declared he had jettisoned his investment stake in Joule Unlimited, a biodiesel firm that in 2011 acquired both Podesta as a board member and a $35 million investment from a Russian government-backed firm. It was later revealed Podesta had transferred his Joule investments to his children prior to 2014, leaving the appearance the Podesta family had an intact ownership interest in the fate of the Russian-backed firm while Podesta worked directly for President Obama on energy and climate policy. Podesta declined to be interviewed about the matter by the Wall Street Journal when the newspaper investigated during October 2016.[8]

Background

John Podesta was born in 1949 and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from Knox College in 1971, and later received his law degree from Georgetown University. He first met Bill Clinton in 1970, when both were assisting a U.S. Senate candidate in Connecticut. Prior to working for Bill Clinton’s 1992 U.S. Presidential campaign, Podesta worked for Democratic Presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.[9]

Podesta also worked as a Congressional staffer for nine years, working for U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vermont) and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).[10] [11]

As a longtime associate of the Clintons, he reportedly speaks very bluntly to them and everyone else. Former co-workers from various jobs have created the name “Skippy” to refer to Podesta’s allegedly hot-tempered alter ego. In 2015, the New York Times quoted former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala saying his friend Podesta “believes in and uses power in a way that many Democrats are too pusillanimous to do… ruthlessly if necessary.”[12]

John and his brother Tony Podesta co-founded a lobbying firm, originally called Podesta Associates and later renamed Podesta Group, in 1987. John left the firm in 1993 to enter the Clinton White House; Tony began a career as one of Washington, D.C.’s most prominent lobbyists.[13] According to December 2018 news reports, Special Counsel Robert Mueller referred an investigation of Tony Podesta over to the U.S. Department of Justice because of concerns Tony had not registered as a foreign agent while providing lobbying assistance for the government of Ukraine at the request of Paul Manafort.[14] Manafort, a former political aide to President Trump, was convicted of crimes related to a lobbying campaign on behalf of the party of former pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich.[15] The investigation reportedly does not involve John Podesta.

2016 Hillary Clinton Campaign

Podesta was the chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign and reportedly a co-equal leader of the campaign with campaign manager Robby Mook. Podesta and Mook feuded often, and by March 2016 were “in all but open warfare” with each other, according to Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, a 2017 book written by political reporters Jonathan Allen of NBC News and Amie Parnes of The Hill. One of the major flashpoints they detail was Mook’s “tight control over information that infuriated” senior campaign officials, and Podesta’s belief that Mook “wasn’t sharing information with him.” According the those interviewed by Allen and Parnes, Podesta would “rant and call Mook names—and, to his credit, he did it to Mook’s face,” and Mook “thought Podesta was a dick.”[16]

Allen and Parnes also report the observations of a “longtime ally” of Clinton who said she was “not being particularly self-reflective” after losing to Donald Trump, was failing to take responsibility, and wanted blame shifted to alleged meddling in the race by Russia. Allen and Parnes identify Podesta as carrying out this request:[17]

That strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech. Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.[18]

In December 2016, one month after Election Day, Podesta declared the Russia concern “did not receive the attention it deserved” and said the Clinton campaign would support a group of Electoral College voters who were seeking an intelligence briefing before voting to officially certify the race. According to Politico, this was the “first public statement from the Clinton campaign raising questions about the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s victory.”[19]

Appearing on CBS News’ Face the Nation in February 2018, Podesta declared Russian interference could have “tilted the election in Donald Trump’s favor.”[20]

Email Leak

In October 2016, during the final month of the U.S. Presidential election, the website Wikileaks posted a searchable database of what is purportedly Podesta’s private email correspondence over several years. U.S. intelligence reports have stated the Russian government was behind the hack, while Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has denied the information came from the Russians.[21] The Department of Justice charged a number of alleged Russian intelligence operatives with crimes related to the spear-phishing attacks in 2018.[22]

Podesta and the Clinton campaign acknowledged the emails had been stolen, vaguely asserted some emails could have been altered, but did not provide specific examples of any alterations. As the emails were released in the media, Podesta and the campaign stuck to a policy of not discussing them and neither disputing nor confirming the veracity of the contents.[23]

The emails include insights regarding Podesta’s role in the campaign, derogatory statements from Podesta regarding Democrats and other allies, and many campaign-related discussions between Podesta and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.

Hillary Clinton’s Judgment

In a September 2015 exchange, Podesta purportedly discusses the challenges of the upcoming campaign with Neera Tanden. Podesta states the Clinton cause had “taken on a lot of water that won’t be easy to pump out” because of “terrible decisions made pre-campaign” and “her [Hillary Clinton’s] instincts.” Tanden replied: “Almost no one knows better [than] me that her instincts can be terrible.”[24]

“Needy Latinos”

An email from Podesta to Hillary Clinton portrays him as encouraging her to ask former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Federico Peña for endorsements. Podesta states that Richardson “can be a dick.” The subject line of the note from Podesta begins with the phrase “Needy Latinos.”[25]David Brock

In an exchange supposedly taking place between Podesta and Neera Tanden, Tanden complains about statements regarding the campaign that had recently been made to the media by Clinton ally and operative David Brock. Tanden called Brock a “menace” and a “manchurian candidate of the GOP.”[26]

Podesta asked her to clarify whether she was seriously concerned that Brock was a saboteur, offering her the alternative theory that Brock was just an “unhinged narcissist.” Tanden selects the second option: “I truly believe he’s an unhinged soulless narcissist.”[27]

In a different email discussion between Podesta and Tanden, she argues that a coordinated effort between the Clinton campaign and a Brock-led super PAC related to Correct the Record would be a bad idea. Tanden told Podesta the idea “does seem shady,” and Podesta replied “Brock $ machine!”[28]

“Heads up” warning from DOJ

The Wikileaks trove includes a May 2015 email from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Peter Kadzik to Podesta, sent from Kadzik’s private email, alerting Podesta to developments regarding Congressional investigations of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was the U.S. Secretary of State.[29]

After saying he was giving the Hillary Clinton campaign chairman a “heads up” that U.S. Department of Justice officials would soon be testifying in a U.S. House oversight hearing, Kadzik warned Podesta that the DOJ witnesses were “likely to get questions on State Department emails.” The assistant attorney general also updated the campaign chairman about the status of a “FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act) lawsuit regarding the U.S. Department of State and release of the Clinton emails.[30]

Podesta forwarded Kadzik’s “heads up” email to other Clinton campaign staffers.[31]

Kadzik and Podesta have both a social and professional relationship. Other emails stolen from Podesta portray him as praising Kadzik as the attorney who “kept me out of jail”—referring to a period when Kadzik provided legal advice to Podesta during the 1998 investigation of Podesta’s role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.[32]

Ties to Russian-backed Energy Firm

In 2011, while he was president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, Podesta joined the board of directors of Joule Unlimited, a diesel fuel firm claiming to be a “pioneer of Liquid Fuel from the Sun.” Praising Podesta’s admission to the board, Joule’s founder cited the “strategic insights and support of a long-time government expert who can help Joule build the lasting relationships needed for long-term success.”[33]

Eight months later, an investment firm funded by the Russian government bought a $35 million stake in Joule, and the Russian firm’s chairman also joined Podesta on the board. An October 2016 Wall Street Journal report noted the Obama Administration was promoting a “reset” in relations with Russia during these 2011 business developments with Joule, and that Podesta’s left-of-center think tank had been supporting the warming of relations with the Kremlin.[34]

In 2014, Podesta became counselor to President Obama and declared on his government disclosure paperwork that he had divested his shares in Joule. It was later revealed those shares had been transferred to—and were under the control of—Podesta’s children, retaining an intact financial interest between the Podesta family and the Russian-backed firm. Shortly before the November 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal asked Podesta to respond to questions regarding his connections to Joule, but the Clinton campaign “declined to make Mr. Podesta available for an interview.”[35]

In July 2017, BioFuels Digest reported Joule had gone out of business. Joule’s former CEO blamed a loss of needed capital investment in the company—“particularly post election”—for the firm’s demise.[36]

Obama Administration

In 2008, Podesta was co-chair of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, helping the incoming administration set its priorities, develop its policies, and make selections for the Cabinet and other high-level offices.[37] He was reportedly asked by President Obama to accept a role in the new administration, but declined, choosing to return to his post as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.[38]

Podesta did join the Obama Administration five years later, on January 1, 2014, as Counselor to the President, in what a Washington Post report described as an effort to “jump-start” the President’s agenda, “after a disappointing fifth year marked by partisan standoffs and the bungled rollout of the president’s health-care law.”[39] The previous month, President Obama’s job approval rating, according the RealClearPolitics polling average, had declined to 39.8 percent, the lowest point his approval rating would ever reach.[40] Podesta would work in the White House for just over a year, leaving in February 2015 to join the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Proposing that President Obama use the regulatory state and the presidency to unliterally impose environmental policy changes without Congressional approval was the subject of a 2010 Center for American Progress report co-authored by Podesta. The New York Times reported this report was used by Podesta as a strategy document while he worked for the White House.[41]

The centerpiece of Podesta’s work was President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, announced in August 2015. A set of new requirements that would have been imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the plan required steep restrictions on carbon output from power plants (32 percent below 2005 emissions levels) within 15 years.[42] In October 2017, the Trump Administration announced the Clean Power Plan would be repealed.[43]

Center for American Progress

In 2003, during the administration of President George W. Bush, Podesta co-founded the Center for American Progress (CAP) with the assistance of wealthy left-wing donors such as George Soros and Herb Sandler.[44] From its founding, CAP has repeatedly been portrayed as a left-of-center “answer” or “counterweight” to the most prominent right-of-center policy think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.[45] [46]

In February 2004, as former First Lady Hillary Clinton was beginning her fourth year as a U.S. Senator from New York, an investigative researcher for The Nation, a left-of-center magazine, noted the large number of former Clinton Administration staffers and allies working at the newly-formed CAP, and suggested the purpose of the organization had less to do with policy and more to do with Clinton’s political career:In looking at Podesta’s center, there’s no escaping the imprint of the Clintons. It’s not completely wrong to see it as a shadow government, a kind of Clinton White-House-in-exile–or a White House staff in readiness for President Hillary Clinton.[47]

Similarly, the executive director of the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies is quoted with a more directly critical observation: “It’s an attempt to redefine liberalism as Clintonism.”[48]

Nearly five years later, after President Obama won the White House, and with Podesta heading the Obama transition team, a November 2008 profile of CAP in the New Republic noted it had become “a combination of highly efficient liberal war room and Democratic administration-in-waiting” and had developed the definitive Democratic policies on foreign affairs and health care reform. The commentary was titled “The Shadow President” and credited Podesta as the man who “invented the Obama Administration.”[49]

Despite the earlier associations of both Podesta and some in his think tank’s team with Hillary Clinton (then recently defeated by Obama for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination), the New Republic piece noted the new Democratic President could not “snub” CAP—even if they had wanted to—because “it is a testament to Podesta’s mighty machine that there is really no other alternative” and “Obama’s own campaign drew heavily from CAP’s staff and expertise.”[50]

In 2011 Podesta became the chairman of CAP, turning over the title of “president and CEO” to Neera Tanden, another longtime ally of the Clintons.[51] Podesta remained at CAP until the end of 2013, when he left to work for a year in the Obama Administration.

In its first year of operation, CAP reported revenues of almost $12 million.[52] Total CAP revenues for 2016 exceeded $40 million, with net assets of $49 million.[53] Also, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy partner for CAP and publisher of the ThinkProgress blog, reported $7.7 million in revenue for 2016 and net assets of $4.2 million.[54]

Clinton Administration

In the administration of President Bill Clinton (1993-2000) Podesta worked first as the White House Staff Secretary, then White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and finally as White House Chief of Staff from October 1998 through the end of Clinton’s second term. His “unofficial” title, according to a 1994 Washington Post profile was as the “White House clean up chief”—the official who manages scandals.[55] According to another Washington Post profile, Podesta began calling himself the “Secretary of [expletive].”[56]

A 1998 Chicago Tribune profile began: “Whenever there was a dirty job to do at the Clinton White House, John Podesta got to do it. And there were plenty.” The report notes Podesta’s damage-control work in many controversies, such as the Congressional Whitewater investigation (regarding alleged improprieties by the Clintons in an Arkansas real estate project), “Travelgate” (the abrupt firing of long-serving nonpolitical staffers in the White House Travel Office when the Clinton team took over the White House in 1993), and President Clinton’s 1998 impeachment.[57]Two representative examples of his interventions include the 1997-1998 effort to help White House intern Monica Lewinsky find a job and the 1994 controversy regarding Hillary Clinton’s unusually successful performance as a commodities trader.

Beginning in mid-1997, President Clinton attempted to prevent White House intern Monica Lewinsky from providing truthful testimony under oath regarding her sexual relationship with him. A major part of this effort, later included in the impeachment articles voted against Clinton, was to find a job for her and enlist others in the effort. Along with several high-level officials in and outside of the White House, Podesta was a presumably unwitting participant who intervened at least twice to assist Lewinsky. [58]

One of the two articles of impeachment approved against Clinton arose from his alleged lying under oath in the sexual misconduct lawsuit filed against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. The Jones attorneys were searching for evidence Clinton had a history of sexual relationships with subordinates and had discovered the possibility Lewinsky could be such an example. When the President was asked in January 1998 by Ms. Jones’ lawyers if he had participated in a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, he denied it—a statement later shown to be untrue. Following Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998, the federal judge in the Jones case ruled the President in contempt of court for intentionally violating Ms. Jones’ rights and obstructing the judicial process.[59] [60]

The second article of impeachment voted against Clinton was for obstruction of justice, one element of which was the President’s use of other people to find employment for Lewinsky so as to “corruptly prevent” her “truthful testimony” in the Jones case, and thus deny justice to Jones.[61]

According to the report of Independent Counsel Ken Starr, on January 13, 1998, three days before Lewinsky would submit an affidavit in the Jones lawsuit denying her relationship with the President, a job offer from Revlon was formalized, with Revlon asking for references. The Revlon job had been arranged by the President’s friend, Vernon Jordan, who had also worked with Lewinsky to draft and sign the affidavit denying her relationship with Clinton. With a job offer ready, Podesta—following a request that originated from Clinton—asked the White House legislative liaison to provide the requested reference. Lewinsky accepted the Revlon job on January 14, providing the legislative liaison as a reference, and sent her affidavit regarding the Jones case on January 16.[62] [63]

The next day, the President provided his own testimony in the Jones lawsuit in which he—consistent with Lewinsky’s affidavit—denied a sexual relationship between them.[64]

Earlier, as part of the Lewinsky job search in October 1997, Podesta contacted then-United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson, asking Richardson to help find employment for the intern. Richardson both interviewed Lewinsky and then offered her a job at the U.N. (an offer she refused).[65]

Hillary Clinton Commodities Trading

In October 1978, as First Lady of Arkansas while Bill Clinton was the governor, Hillary Clinton invested $1000 in the commodities futures market and over the course of nine months, made a profit of nearly $100,000 ($386,000 in 2019 dollars). When a New York Times report revealed this in March 1994, the newspaper reported Ms. Clinton had done it with the “advice of a friend who was the top lawyer for one of the state’s most powerful and heavily regulated companies.” The Times identified Clinton’s confidant as Jim Blair, then the lawyer for Arkansas poultry giant Tyson Foods.[66]

Podesta denied any wrongdoing in the matter on behalf of the Clinton White House: “Mrs. Clinton put up her own money, invested it in her own accounts, and assumed the full risk of loss.”[67] He also accused the mainstream media of manufacturing a conspiracy: “Hillary and Jim were friends. He gave her advice. There was no impropriety. The only appearance is being created by The New York Times.”[68]

An investigation published in the Journal of Economics and Statistics calculated the odds against such an investing success at 250 million to 1.[69] (The odds against winning the multi-state Powerball grand prize are roughly 292 million to 1).[70]  A futures market expert interviewed by Newsweek compared Hillary Clinton’s investing performance to competing as an Olympic figure skater one day after lacing up skates for the first time.[71]

The Washington Post revealed the broker Hillary Clinton used had been accused of “allocating” trades during the period of her investing with him.[72] Allocating is a process whereby a broker waits until the results of a trading day are known, and then decides—after the fact—which clients made the winning and losing bets. Allocating is sometimes used to secretly transfer large amounts of money from one individual to another, where a donor wishing to give money reports a trading loss, the intended recipient of the secret donation records a gain, and a cooperating broker fills in the official paperwork that conceals the true nature of the transaction. [73]

According to the Post: “The Clintons’ large profits in commodities trading were nearly as large as their combined salaries for those years and came at a time when they had virtually no assets.”[74]

Interest in UFOs

Podesta is a staunch advocate of declassifying government secrets regarding UFOs. In April 2018, he was one of the individuals interviewed for the season premiere of the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” TV show. On the show, Podesta stated Hillary Clinton, had she become President, “would have ordered a more thorough declassification review.” The narrators use this comment to suggest Clinton’s alleged openness to reviewing UFO declassification led to a conspiracy by government agencies to deny her the White House. [75]

Podesta promoted the broadcast on Twitter, ending with the hashtag “#TheTruthIsOutThere.”[76]

Similarly, NBC News reported on a hacked email exchange between Podesta and a former astronaut that took place in 2014 and 2015. The astronaut was seeking a meeting (ideally with President Obama) to discuss “the difference between celestials in our own solar system and their restraint by those from the nonviolent contiguous universe.” NBC News noted that Podesta “has called for lifting the veil on Area 51”—the location of secret evidence regarding extra-terrestrials, according to some UFO conspiracies.[77]

Fusion GPS

On November 26, 2019, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, co-founders of left-wing opposition research Firm Fusion GPS, released a book titled “Crime in Progress” which detailed John Podesta’s involvement with the firm as well as his efforts to raise money for the Mueller Investigation into President Donald Trump’s involvement with Russian influence in the 2016 Presidential Election. [78] According to the book, in early 2017 Podesta met with Simpson and Daniel Jones, the founder of advocacy group Democracy Integrity Project (TDIP), and became one of Fusion GPS’s “most helpful resources” by helping set up potential donors to meet with Jones and Fusion GPS. [79] By October 2017, Podesta met with the Senate Intelligence Committee and claimed to not know who donated to Fusion GPS for the Trump investigation, even though it was later revealed that TDIP was among its several donors. The other donors were from California and New York and donated roughly $50 million. [80]

References

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