The Corner

Who’s the Palin Leaker from the McCain Campaign?

The publication of a Vanity Fair profile of Sarah Palin appears to have opened old wounds in the McCain campaign. At issue is a question that was never resolved following McCain’s loss in November: Who in the McCain campaign was secretly trashing Sarah Palin to the press?

After being forwarded some explosive emails from inside the McCain campaign, I spoke to various campaign officials – including a central figure in the current controversy – to better understand what’s happening here. But first, this requires some unpacking. The best summation of the fallout from the VF piece is this Politico story by Jonathan Martin. In a nutshell, the controversy centers on this sentence from the VF profile: “Some top aides worried about her mental state: was it possible that she was experiencing postpartum depression? (Palin’s youngest son was less than six months old.)”

Yesterday on The Weekly Standard’s blog, Bill Kristol fingered that anonymous top aide making speculative assessments about Sarah Palin’s mental state: “In fact, one aide who raised this possibility in the course of trashing Palin’s mental state to others in the McCain-Palin campaign was Steve Schmidt.”

Schmidt, who headed up day-to-day operations for the McCain campaign, angrily denied the accusation to Jonathan Martin. However, Randy Scheunemann, a top foreign policy advisor to the McCain campaign, backed up Kristol’s claim saying Schmidt has “a congenital aversion to the truth” and that he had heard Schmidt speculate about Palin having postpartum depression two different times.

Schmidt responded by questioning Scheunemann’s credibility, alluding to stories that emerged at the end of the campaign that Scheunemann had been fired, and, more specifically, he had been fired for leaking about the McCain campaign to Bill Kristol. From The Politico:

“At the end of the campaign there were a series of leaks that were so damaging that it was consuming the 24-hour cable news cycle. Leaks to reporters where Sarah Palin was called all manner of names. [McCain senior adviser] Rick Davis and I jointly felt that was outrageous. So we made an attempt for the first time in the campaign to try to ID who was leaking information that was so damaging and demoralizing to a campaign that was in very difficult circumstances,” Schmidt said, noting that an IT professional executed a system-wide search by keyword.

“What was discovered was an e-mail from a very senior staff member to Bill Kristol that then entered into the news current and continued the negative in-fighting stories for an additional news cycles. I recommended tough medicine for that individual that was carried out,” Schmidt said, again referring to Scheunemann. “Bill Kristol might not have liked that decision, and he might be mad about what happened to his friend, but going all the way back he has been a part of this story and I’ve preserved his confidentiality in that until now. But his use of his public forums to take a personal fight and make character attacks is just simply dishonest and wrong.”

Scheunemann, confirming that his e-mail had been searched, accused Schmidt of “acting in a manner of Iranian secret police” in going to his account.

The foreign policy hand said what was discovered was a message from Kristol inquiring who was the source in the campaign of the “diva” leak, the now-famous complaint from a senior McCain campaign official to CNN’s Dana Bash that Palin was acting like a spoiled and selfish celebrity.

Schmidt suggested that Scheunemann had fingered Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain adviser who helped work with Palin, to Kristol in the message.

“It led to a whole another round of speculation, including Fred Barnes the next night attacking Nicolle Wallace on the air,” Schmidt said, suggesting without saying directly that was why an effort was made to terminate Scheunemann. Barnes, another Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor, accused Wallace on Fox News in late October of being “a coward” for running up tens of thousands of dollars in high-end clothes for Palin and then letting the governor take the blame for the purchases. After Wallace denied she had purchased the clothes, Barnes apologized on the air the following night.

What follows is the email exchange with Bill Kristol that Schmidt rooted out, where Scheunemann speculates that the source of the “Diva” leak was Nicolle Wallace’s husband. Read from the bottom up:

—– Original Message —–

From: Randy Scheunemann

To: William Kristol

Sent: Sat Oct 25 19:44:44 2008

Subject: Re: who is this?

He is beyond pretentious – and knows something about divas, being married to one

Mw is arrogant, incompetent, annoying

—– Original Message —–

From: William Kristol  

To: Randy Scheunemann

Sent: Sat Oct 25 19:01:00 2008

Subject: Re: who is this?

right—very weird quote: “Divas trust only unto themselves, as they see

        themselves as the beginning and end of all wisdom.”

kind of pseudo-literary…doesn’t sound like Schmidt or Salter—is Mark W a little pretentious in this way

On 10/25/08 6:58 PM, “Randy Scheunemann” wrote:

My very educated guess is mark wallace defnding his wife

Knows king well, gives her deniability, spent several weeks through debate with her, not there now

Real piece of [EXPLETIVE]

       

—– Original Message —–

From: William Kristol

To: Randy Scheunemann

Sent: Sat Oct 25 18:31:32 2008

Subject: Re: who is this?

       

Wallace?

It’s worth noting that Kristol didn’t report anything from this exchange, that the major issue of the exchange was the identification of Mark – and not Nicolle – Wallace as someone spreading damaging information, and that there is nothing about Nicolle or the clothing controversy. Far from IDing Scheunemann as a leaker, this email exchange simply has Scheunemann characterizing the Wallaces as petty and engaged in high school cliquish-type behavior.

Indeed, it seems odd that an unreported exchange between Scheunemann and a noted McCain booster such as Bill Kristol would be the source of such consternation relative to the anonymous leaks coming from the campaign to unfriendly media. Note the leaks at issue were to CNN’s Dana Bash calling Palin a “diva” and to Politico’s Mike Allen calling her a “whack job” – both of which were anonymously attributed to a “McCain adviser” and a “a top McCain adviser.”

Further bolstering the claim that Schmidt is not above anonymously leaking damaging information about the campaign, another email exchange forwarded to NRO indicates Schmidt did just that in alleging that Scheunemann was fired from the campaign. Even though Scheunemann was never kicked off the campaign, here’s how The New York Times reported his alleged firing:

As a result, two senior members of the McCain campaign said on Wednesday that Mr. Scheunemann had been fired from the campaign in its final days. But Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager, and Mr. Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, said Wednesday that Mr. Scheunemann had in fact not been dismissed. Mr. Scheunemann, who picked up the phone in his office at McCain campaign headquarters on Wednesday afternoon, responded that “anybody who says I was fired is either lying or delusional or a whack job.”

Mr. Scheunemann was referring to widely disseminated criticism by Mr. McCain’s advisers in the final days of the campaign that Ms. Palin, as first reported in Politico, was a “whack job.”

Whatever the permutations, the advisers said they strongly believed that Mr. Scheunemann was disclosing, as one put it, “a constant stream of poison” to William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a columnist for The New York Times. 

Note the anonymous “two senior members of the McCain campaign” making the accusation. Also forwarded to NRO, here’s the exchange between Elisabeth Bumiller, the author of the New York Times article, and McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. Again, read from the bottom up:

—– Original Message —–

From: Rick Davis

To: Elisabeth Bumiller

Sent: Wed Nov 05 14:09:25 2008

Subject: Re: need to talk for reconstruct, randy

You can write what you want. I couldn’t care less what your blind  sources says. For once you should take the word – on the record – from the only one who really knows. Your call.

—– Original Message —–

From: Elisabeth Bumiller

To: Rick Davis

Sent: Wed Nov 05 13:29:55 2008

Subject: Re: need to talk for reconstruct, randy

Can I talk to you directly? I was told on background by very senior campaign staff that he was.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

________________________________

From: “Rick Davis”

Date: Wed, 5 Nov 2008 13:22:23 -0500

To: Elisabeth Bumiller

Subject: Re: need to talk for reconstruct, randy

For the record, Randy was not fired.

—– Original Message —–

From: Elisabeth Bumiller

To: Rick Davis

Sent: Wed Nov 05 13:03:51 2008

Subject: need to talk for reconstruct, randy

scheunemann just told me he WASN’T fired. have talked to schmidt and

nicolle, looking for salter. thanks very much. sorry about the loss.

202-236-XXXX

It would appear that Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace were the source for Bumiller peddling a false story about Scheunemann being fired.

Further, the number of people that could be described as “senior members” of the McCain campaign is small and by process of elimination it seems to point the finger at Schmidt and Wallace. “In the strict sense, [the senior members] would probably be four or five people: Wallace, Davis, Schmidt, [Mark] Salter, [Charlie] Black,” observes one campaign staffer. Later, advisers Salter and Davis went on record to the media saying that Scheunemann was not fired. And it seems unlikely that, in his capacity with the campaign, Black had the kind of relationship with the press that would facilitate the leaking.

Reached by phone, a McCain campaign staffer intimately familiar with the situation said he didn’t want to speculate on what he might have motivated Schmidt and possibly others to denigrate Palin to the media, but notes, “What people were talking about was how deeply flawed Palin was, rather than how deeply flawed the handling of Palin was, which was [the leakers’] strategic goal.”

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