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WikiLeaks emails show Clinton campaign’s wrangling over DOMA comments

Clinton insisted that DOMA was a "defensive action" to protect against a constitutional ban on gay marriage

Hillary Clinton, Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Hillary Clinton, Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Leaks of hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta reveal the internal wrangling that operatives in the Clinton camp went through in order to spin, in as favorable a light as possible, comments regarding the rationale for why her husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law during his presidency. The contention, made by Clinton during an October 2015 interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, was that DOMA was a way of appeasing members of Congress so they would not push for a national constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. 

In that interview, Clinton told Maddow: “On Defense of Marriage [Act], I think what my husband believed — and there was certainly evidence to support it — is that there was enough political momentum to amend the Constitution of the United States of America, and that there had to be some way to stop that. … And so, in a lot of ways, DOMA was a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further. It was a defensive action.”

But Clinton’s comments inspired a backlash from LGBT rights advocates, including prominent Clinton supporters like Hillary Rosen and Elizabeth Birch, the former president of the Human Rights Campaign. Rosen tweeted: “Bernie Sanders is right. Note to my friends Bill and Hillary: Please stop saying DOMA was to prevent something worse. It wasn’t, I was there.”

Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, flagged the issue as one that the campaign would have to address, as the candidate would likely be asked about her earlier statements. The campaign subsequently went about trying to explain the comments without looking like Clinton was calculating — a common charge made by political opponents — or embarrassing or undermining her husband, according to Politico.

In the resulting email chain, Clinton policy adviser Jake Sullivan recalled that there wasn’t much support for the Clintons’ interpretation of history when Bill Clinton’s support of DOMA was raised during his wife’s 2008 presidential bid. Advisers drafted a response in which Clinton would say, “I’m not my husband. I understand why he believed that was the right thing to do at the time, but obviously I wish it had gone differently.”

In another statement, Clinton would acknowledge she’d gotten the timeline wrong, as it wasn’t until 2003 that Republicans in Congress began actively pushing for a constitutional amendment permanently banning same-sex marriage. But other advisers suggested that admitting she was wrong about the justification for passing DOMA was an approach that Clinton was unlikely to embrace.

“I’m just saying that she’s not going to want to say she was wrong about that, given she and her husband believe it [the justification] and have repeated it many times,” speechwriting director Dan Schwerin said in an email. “Better to reiterate evolution, opposition to DOMA when court considered it, and forward looking stance.”

In a subsequent candidate forum moderated by Maddow, Clinton was asked about her comments regarding the justification for DOMA. She insisted that people had raised concerns about a possible constitutional amendment in private conversations, but then pivoted to say the important fact was “DOMA is gone.” She also pointed to the push for various states to adopt constitutional bans on same-sex marriage as evidence of how Republicans would have reacted.

“If I’m wrong about the debate, I obviously take responsibility for that,” Clinton said. “But I think the important thing is that we are now beyond that. My husband has certainly said, and I agree with what he said, that now, thankfully, we have moved to a stage where marriage equality is the law of the land.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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