It’s the story that won’t die. More than a week after the biggest kerfuffle on the Democratic primary side yet, a certain member of Sanders’ top advisers simply won’t let go and continues to press the DNC/VAN data breach. Perhaps he just thinks it’s good business, since the campaign raised $1 million the day they sent out their email accusing the DNC of shutting off their access solely because of bias. But the most recent accusations are entering conspiracy theory territory, and perhaps should be explored a littler more closely.
In a Christmas Day article in Yahoo News, a “top Sanders campaign adviser,” speaking without using his name (I’m guessing it’s either Jeff Weaver or Tad Devine), raised the idea that the DNC and NGP VAN were just as culpable for the actions of the Sanders data director, Josh Uretsky, as the Sanders campaign was. Of course, on its face, that sounds pretty far-fetched. So let’s delve into the specific accusations.
The top Sanders adviser told Yahoo News one of the remaining concerns is that Uretsky was recommended to the campaign by people with ties to the DNC and NGP VAN.
“It’s not as if we conjured this guy Josh from thin air. This is an individual … who was recommended to us by the DNC and NGP VAN,” the adviser said.
Okay, first of all, it is not odd at all that people who work in politics have some sort of ties to the DNC or NGP VAN. I mean, it’s the Democratic Party! Of course someone’s going to know someone who works at the DNC. And if you work in data in progressive politics, it would be stranger for you to not know or have worked with someone who’s with NGP VAN. Nearly every major Democratic campaign uses the VAN, and every person who’s worked on the data side of one of those would have connections with staff at NGP VAN. So this first accusation seems to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of how Democratic staffing works.
Then the unnamed Sanders adviser brings up specific people:
According to the adviser, one of the references that Uretsky gave when he applied to work with the campaign was the DNC’s National Data Director Andrew Brown, who works closely with the shared voter file program.
“Andrew Brown spoke to us and gave him a positive review, as did this guy Bryan Whitaker,” the adviser said.
The adviser identified Whitaker as the COO of NGP VAN. Whitaker is no longer with the company. His LinkedIn page lists Whitaker as having left the firm for a job at another political data company in August of this year.
I personally know and have worked with both Brown and Whitaker (albeit many years ago). They’re both professionals at the top of their field. They’re well-respected, extremely experienced and both just good, fun guys to be around. To imply that they would refer Uretsky for nefarious means is laughable at best. And it’s particularly shameful of this Sanders adviser to attack their reputation anonymously (and for the Yahoo News reporter to let him).
The Sanders adviser described the fact Uretsky was recommended to the campaign by people with links to the DNC as astonishing in light of what happened. Specifically, the adviser pointed out that the campaign was slammed by Clinton’s team for the breach and punished by the DNC.
The adviser suggested the DNC and NGP VAN are “ignoring their own responsibility,” arguing that Uretsky’s references from people linked to the party and the company show both the DNC and NGP VAN “bear responsibility” for the incident.
“I don’t know how you can more centrally connect this thing than those two entities,” the adviser explained. “Here we are being attacked by both of those entities when, in fact, they recommended this guy to the campaign.”
So what exactly is the Sanders adviser trying to imply here? Is he simply saying the DNC is wrong to criticize them because Uretsky knew some people over there (which, again, is not uncommon)? So whatever your staffer does that’s improper isn’t the fault of your campaign, but of the people who provided references?
Or is he hinting at a broader conspiracy, as many of Sanders supporters have suggested online? That this whole incident was a plot by NGP VAN and the DNC to hurt Sanders and that Uretsky was in on it? That VAN intentionally dropped the firewall as a sort of “honeypot” thing to catch Sanders?
If so, that’s the most convoluted plot of all time. Why put a mole in the Sanders campaign for a scheme that would get him fired? Why not have him just pass along data he has easy access to? Or undermine their operation by doing a crappy job with their lists and data modeling? (Again, none of this would actually happen because people aren’t this evil or underhanded in real life.)
And why would anyone sign up for that? How would that conversation even go down? Like this?
Whitaker: “Okay Josh, the secret Clinton cabal has an important mission for you to carry out. Are you ready?”
Uretsky: “Anything for the cause. What should I do?”
Whitaker: “We want you to work undercover for the Sanders campaign as their data director. Act like everything’s normal for months and take no improper actions. Then, in December, we’ll direct the VAN to momentarily drop its firewall, during which time you’ll access lots of Clinton campaign data and leave a clear trail as you do it.”
Uretsky: “But wait, if I’m undercover for Clinton, why would I need to break into her data?”
Whitaker: “Because we’re actually going to use this incident to expose you, our mole in the enemy’s operation, and get you fired in order to briefly embarrass the Sanders campaign and get their VAN access turned off for like a day or two.”
Uretsky: “If I’m their national data director secretly working for Clinton, couldn’t I just screw up their VAN operations myself?”
Whitaker: “Look, Josh, you’re thinking too hard about this. Don’t question the plan.”
Uretsky: “And wouldn’t this irreparably destroy my professional reputation for all time?”
Whitaker: “Don’t worry, the Clinton Illuminati will provide for you.”
Uretsky: “Alright, I’m down.”
Seriously, isn’t the most likeliest explanation for Uretsky is that he saw that the firewall was down, could all of a sudden see Clinton’s modeling data options and couldn’t resist the urge to look? If you were presented an opportunity to see all your opponent’s secrets and numbers, wouldn’t you be tempted? Obviously you shouldn’t do it, and Uretsky was rightly fired for a bad lapse in judgement that then exploded way bigger than perhaps it should have.
And that’s where the Sanders campaign appears to have a legitimate gripe here. It’s quite possible this entire affair could have been conducted behind closed doors and not been made into a media spectacle. The DNC shares culpability in that in how they handled this.
In particular, the Sanders adviser accuses the DNC or NGP VAN of giving the audit logs to the Clinton campaign well before they were provided to the Sanders side.
The adviser said the Sanders campaign was “trying to scramble around and find out what happened” in the immediate period after the breach was revealed. According to the adviser, it was hard to determine the extent of the incident because campaign staffers were locked out of the DNC software and not given the logs. Meanwhile, with the logs in hand, the Clinton campaign was able to make detailed public allegations about improper activity by members of Sanders’ team.
That would be extremely frustrating, and part of why this became a huge story instead of a couple phone calls and meetings behind the scenes. On that front, the Sanders campaign has reason to feel wronged. So why they’re bringing in so many other unbelievable accusations into this is confusing. Or why they’re continuing to fight the DNC on this battleground in the first place.
(Side note: many Sanders supporters online have suggested the audit logs – which Starting Line published – were fake. Starting Line, along with many other news outlets, independently verified through sources that the logs were accurate and you’ll notice that at no point in this interview does the Sanders adviser challenge their authenticity. Indeed, he reemphasizes that the staffer was in the wrong and was fired.)
It should also be noted that Wasserman Schultz has said in interviews that the Sanders campaign was given the logs and that Weaver is essentially lying about it. Many Sanders supporters are unlikely to trust what Wasserman Schultz says, but to neutral observers it’s getting hard to believe what the Sanders folks say when they also roll out such outlandish theories.
Hopefully for Sanders sake, his advisers will let this go. There’s much larger issues at stake in this presidential primary and Sanders’ top staff are doing him no favors in dragging this out all the more.
by Pat Rynard