A civil war erupted within the Democratic Party on Friday after news that Bernie Sanders’ campaign took advantage of a technological glitch to access, search and save one of Hillary Clinton’s most valuable campaign assets — her voter files.
Tension rapidly escalated throughout the day as the Democratic National Committee cut off Sanders’ access to his own voter files, effectively crippling his field operation, and the senator retaliated by suing the party and accusing its leaders of plotting to hand the presidential nomination to the Democratic frontrunner.
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By early Saturday morning, however, after discussions with the DNC and a federal judge late Friday, the Sanders campaign said that the DNC had “capitulated” and agreed to restore access to the data.
“We are extremely pleased that the DNC has reversed its outrageous decision to take Sen. Sanders’ data. The information we provided tonight is essentially the same information we already sent them by email on Thursday,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager.
In a statement issued nearly at the same time, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said, “The Sanders campaign has now complied with the DNC’s request to provide the information that we have requested of them. Based on this information, we are restoring the Sanders campaign’s access to the voter file, but will continue to investigate to ensure that the data that was inappropriately accessed has been deleted and is no longer in possession of the Sanders campaign. The Sanders campaign has agreed to fully cooperate with the continuing DNC investigation of this breach.”
The decision came after hours of negotiations, and it means the campaign will be able to resume its field organization after spending much of Friday in limbo. However, a person familiar with the situation told POLITICO, the Sanders camp would not be dropping its lawsuit against the DNC because of the resolution.
As part of the agreement, the Sanders campaign agreed to an audit of its data, which will be carried out by corporate investigation firm Kroll, according to a Democrat familiar with the outcome. The Democrat also told POLITICO that the Sanders campaign had agreed to sign an affidavit attesting to the actions of its staffers during the data breach.
Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon said in a statement early Saturday, “We are pleased that the Sanders campaign has agreed to submit to an independent audit to determine the full extent of the intrusion its staff carried out earlier this week, and also to ensure that Sanders’ voter file no longer contains any of the proprietary data that was taken from us. We believe this audit should proceed immediately, and, pending its findings, we expect further disciplinary action to be taken as appropriate.”
The dispute escalated on Friday evening when Clinton’s campaign accused Sanders’ team of stealing millions of dollars worth of data, all to raise cash off a narrative that the establishment is against him.
“They stole data as a reason to raise money for their campaign,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters right after Sanders’ campaign sent supporters a fundraising email titled, “Urgent: DNC tipping the scales for Hillary Clinton.”
Mook characterized the data that was taken as the “fundamental keys of our campaign” and the “strategic road map.”
But to Sanders’ camp, that was beside the point. The saga, to Sanders’ aides, was proof of the Clinton favoritism it has long suspected at the DNC. Even as the Sanders’ campaign admitted its staffers had inappropriately reviewed and saved Clinton’s data, it emphatically accused the party of sabotage.
“The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign. This is unacceptable,” Weaver said in a Friday-afternoon news conference. “Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign — one of the strongest grassroots campaigns in modern history.”
The controversy centers around the Friday morning revelation that Sanders staffer Josh Uretsky — along with other, more junior aides — took advantage of a software error this week by political technology company NGP VAN that allowed them to access the voter file that contains vital information used by campaigns to identify and monitor voters and potential supporters.
The Sanders campaign fired Uretsky.
In its suit against the DNC, filed Friday evening, Sanders’ campaign argued the data breach was the fault of the party and its data vendor and that the freeze on Sanders’ files amounted to a breach of contract. “The DNC may not suspend the Campaign’s access to critical Voter Data out of haste or desperation to clean up after the DNC’s own mistakes,” the complaint said.
With just weeks before voting is set to begin in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton is leading Sanders by more than 20 points in national polls. But he’s within striking distance in Iowa and leading in New Hampshire, where he has tapped into the populist urgings of the party and has a strong grassroots fundraising base. The dispute broke open after Sanders had a strong day of scoring two major endorsements.
The DNC’s decision to block his access to the voter files, however, was a potentially campaign-threatening blow, as it cut off his political effort’s connection to critical targeting information. Without access to the voter file, on the ground organizing would become far more difficult for the insurgent candidate.
The controversy has blown open a long-simmering dispute between the DNC and Clinton’s rivals, who have long harbored resentments over the appearance that the organization was acting to boost the Democratic front-runner’s political fortunes.
Wasserman Schultz, speaking earlier on CNN, said its action to suspend Sanders’ access to the voter file was “certainly not unreasonable.” She said if the shoe was on the other foot, and the Clinton camp had accessed Sanders’ data, “I’m confident that this is the decision that they would expect from us.”
Wasserman Schultz added that she had called for an independent audit and that, “We have to make sure they can’t manipulate that information until we know exactly what happened, what they have and that we can verify to each campaign that we have handled this in a way that is compliant with the agreement that they each signed.”
Clinton’s campaign said it would not be satisfied until it is assured Sanders’ team no longer has any of the Brooklyn-based campaign’s data.
“This was a very egregious breach and our data was stolen, this was not an inadvertent glimpse into our data. It was not, as the Sanders campaign has described it, as a mistake,” said Mook, further accusing top Sanders staffers of speaking with “wiggle room” to avoid definitive statements about the affair.
“This is incredibly disappointing. This is someone who said he was going to run a different kind of campaign.”
Weaver, however, said the retribution was unfair. He described the campaign’s data as “stolen by the DNC” and said he saw a “pattern” of actions suggesting the committee has been helping Clinton.
Weaver said the campaign was in the process of talking to other aides who were involved and that further disciplinary action may be merited. “Clearly, while that information was made available to our campaign because of the incompetence of the vendor, it should not have been looked at. Period,” he said.
He also said the campaign was confident that months ago, “some of our data was lost to one of the other campaigns,” a potential accusation that the Clinton leadership categorically denied.
Sanders’ operation was quick to turn the fight into a political opportunity, using it as a chance to rile up his anti-estabishment supporters. The campaign handed out paper copies of statements from supportive liberal groups — MoveOn.org and Democracy For America — to reporters at Weaver’s afternoon press conference.
The statements questioned the DNC’s neutrality, calling on the committee to reverse its suspension.
But audit logs suggest a more complicated story than that simple DNC vs. Sanders storyline.
Records show that during a 40-minute span that began at 10:40 a.m. on Wednesday, four Sanders staffers sifted through the Clinton campaign’s data and conducted 25 specialized searches, according to a person familiar with the breach. The most valuable information obtained, the source said, were lists of individuals the Clinton campaign has identified as its most hardcore supporters across 10 states, as well as lists of those individuals whose support for Clinton is wavering, and could therefore be convinced to support Sanders instead.
The lists are obtained through the time-consuming process of phone banking and, based on those conversations, scoring voters based on how likely or unlikely they are to support Clinton. Sanders camp could benefit from the lists, for instance, by saving time on hitting up those voters who are clearly for Clinton and focusing on winning over those whose support is weaker.
According to a review of the audit logs, Sanders operatives conducted searches for Clinton supporters over 70 — a number that indicates those voters are hard core Clinton supporters unlikely to be swayed by any outreach by the Sanders campaign. And they searched for Clinton supporters under 30, a number that showed the support was not strong and those voters could be easily swayed. The audit logs also show Sanders’ deputy national data director Russell Drapkin granting access to their colleagues to view the proprietary information.
Team Clinton pointed to similar information in defending itself toward the end of the day, pivoting to an attack on Sanders’ “theft.”
“If you are so proud of your grassroots organization, you should not need to resort to stealing campaign data,” Fallon tweeted. “There is a word for this in Brooklyn: chutzpah.”
Fallon also added in a statement on Friday afternoon, “We were informed that our proprietary data was breached by Sanders campaign staff in 25 searches by four different accounts and that this data was saved into the Sanders’ campaign account. We are asking that the Sanders campaign and the DNC work expeditiously to ensure that our data is not in the Sanders campaign’s account and that the Sanders campaign only have access to their own data.”
Before long, high-ranking members of President Barack Obama’s political operation, including past campaign managers David Plouffe and Jim Messina, weighed in on the Clinton campaign’s behalf, using Twitter to liken Sanders’ activity to a heist of extremely valuable property.
Nonetheless, Sanders’ team — represented by attorneys Benjamin Lambiotte and Sean Griggin of Washington lawfirm Garvey Schubert Barer — was still weighing its legal options late into Friday night. Fallon, in a statement released late Friday, had urged the court to resolve the situation swiftly.
The court held several conference calls and made itself available throughout Friday evening.
“The parties resolved the issues without filing a TRO [temporary restraining order],” a court official told POLITICO.
The judge who ended up handling the matter was Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. She is the emergency judge on duty for this weekend, which under court rules begins at 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
Josh Gerstein, Kyle Cheney, Nick Gass and Eliza Collins contributed to this report.