The Clinton campaign privately fumed that one of its surrogates told supporters that Hillary Clinton planned to betray labor groups by adopting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal after the election, according to emails published by WikiLeaks.
Labor Outreach Director Nikki Budzinski told senior campaign advisers on November 3, 2015 that labor leaders were complaining to her about Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D., Texas). The congresswoman, an early Clinton supporter, privately told supporters that Clinton had no intention of opposing the TPP free trade deal once she was president, according to a memo circulated by Budzinski after a meeting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Johnson told attendees at a meeting in her district that Clinton's newly minted opposition to the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration was a form of political opportunism to win over skeptical union members and get "labor off her back" during her close primary race against socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.).
Budzinski said that she received four phone calls from union leaders about Johnson's comments during the meeting.
"She claimed in the meeting that she speaks with HRC 2-3 times a week and that she was told by the Secretary that the only reason she opposes TPP is to get ‘labor off her back' and that once she is elected President she will reverse position," Budzinski wrote.
Budzinski attempted to control the damage Johnson had done with labor leaders. She had a surrogate reach out to Johnson's chief of staff to "clarify the inaccuracy of what she said and push back on her comments."
A Johnson spokesman declined to comment on the memo or the district meeting.
Clinton had a hard time winning over labor leaders during the Democratic primary.
Her praise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the "gold standard" of trade agreements haunted her during her campaign against Sanders, an ardent opponent of free trade. Republican nominee Donald Trump has also vowed to oppose the TPP and criticized Clinton over her previous support of free trade agreements and her husband's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Clinton advisers assumed that the former secretary of state would support Obama's trade deal in emails from March 2015.
"This draft assumes that she's ultimately going to support both TPA and TPP. It focuses on what needs to happen to produce a positive result with TPP, and casts support for [Trade Promotion Authority] as one of those steps," speechwriter Dan Schwerin wrote.
By October 6, 2015 the campaign realized that Clinton would have to reverse course in order to satisfy key labor leaders, including Trumka, who considered the TPP the "litmus test" for his union's endorsement.
"I'm very glad HRC has gotten to the oppose position, this will be very helpful with mobilization on the ground and support within labor during and after this primary," Budzinski said on October 6 when she was informed that Clinton would publicly oppose TPP.
Budzinski warned her superiors that Clinton should take steps to downplay the appearance that her position was rooted in opportunism. She told advisers that they should delay the announcement until the draft agreement was published, which would allow the campaign to avoid accusations of flip-flopping.
"If she weighs in now, without viewing the document, some in labor might wonder why she didn't just say she opposed earlier? (Sander's [sic] polling, blah, blah,)," Budzinski said. "It might make her position appear more political then what they'll accuse her of anyways."
Campaign chairman John Podesta turned down the idea, saying that flip-flopping would be less damaging than allowing her previous support for the trade deal to stand unchallenged.
"We can't survive hemming and hawing for 3 weeks," Podesta said. Campaign manager Robby Mook seconded Podesta, saying "agree we can't wait … agree with getting tumpka [sic] to praise her for opposing though!"
The flip-flop garnered negative headlines about her "free trade fake-out." Budzinski said that Johnson's comments in Dallas had further damaged Clinton's standing among skeptical union leaders and members.
"This was not helpful with labor," Budzinski said in the November memo.
U.S. intelligence agencies have accused the Russian government of carrying out the hack of Podesta's email account and leaking emails to WikiLeaks in an attempt to influence the presidential election.