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'We got more votes, but weren't able to win': John Podesta talks 2016 election, conspiracy theories

John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman, has gotten his fair share of scrutiny from the right-wing media like the Daily Caller regarding a variety of conspiracy theories. 

So when junior Nicole Kiprilov asked him how he was dealing with accusations of being involved with the now-debunked “Pizzagate” scandal, that he owned 75,000 “undisclosed” shares of stock from a company with Russian Kremlin ties and Uranium One being a client of the Podesta Group—among other allegations—he didn’t hold back.

“This is how the alt-right does fake news," Podesta said. "It’s personally painful because a lot of this is really total bullsh*t. My family and I have been put through this Pizzagate bullsh*t now for a year—which has totally been debunked, by the way."

During the talk titled "One Year Later: America's Role One Year After the Election that Shook the World" in Penn Pavilion Wednesday night, Podesta went on to push back on the student's other points, and noted that such allegations are not rare on the internet. He also discussed the Trump presidency and the 2016 election at the event, which was part of the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family Lecture series.

“My relationship with the company that you talked about, that was based in Boston, an American innovative company—I totally disclosed [my relationship with it]. Fox [News] has had to correct that twice," he added in response to Kiprilov's question. "I could go down the rest of your list. I have no relationship to the Podesta Group and haven’t for 15 years. You can stick with it. The one thing I will tell you is you have a lot of company on Twitter and on the internet, so have at it.”

The allegations regarding the 75,000 shares and regarding his involvement with Uranium One through the Podesta Group—a lobbying firm he ran with his brother until he departed the firm in the 1990's—have received public scrutiny.

Kiprilov said she didn’t believe in Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory claiming that Clinton and her top aides were running a child-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor. But she said she asked the question because she was curious as to how he deals with such claims.

“Pizzagate was a conspiracy theory, but the other allegations, I don’t know,” Kiprilov said. “If he had been a bit calmer and more mature in answering the questions, I would have been satisfied. I was disappointed that he got so angered and triggered by my question.”

A self-identified Republican who says she is not part of the alt-right, Kiprilov said she felt that Podesta misunderstood the nature of her question. 

"I did not imply that I believed any of this," she said. "I think he immediately assumed I did, so he lumped me with the alt-right crowd, which was very unfortunate that he jumped to that conclusion.”

The junior said she spoke with him after the event to clarify that she was not part of the alt-right and to try to get what she deemed a satisfactory answer from him. She said that he then noted he tries to ignore conspiracy theories to protect his family, but tries to address some of the ones that are not rooted in hate. 

Before opening the floor to the question-and-answer time in which Kiprilov asked the question, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and counselor to President Barack Obama spoke on a wide range of subjects, from his thoughts on the Trump administration to the Clinton campaign strategy. 

He said his biggest regret from the Clinton campaign was not publishing Clinton’s emails the day the New York Times reported that she was using a private email server. He said that he did not do it later because he handed them over to the State Department.

“People could have seen what was there and wouldn’t have been into all of this 13 months of trying to scrape through what all of this was about,” Podesta said. “What they would have seen is a hard-working, smart, diligent and dedicated person—someone who got a lot done as Secretary of State.” 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation ruled in 2016 that it wouldn’t charge Clinton for putting classified information on a private email server while serving as President Obama’s Secretary of State. Podesta said that former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation less than two weeks before the election had an effect on the results of the contest.

“That definitely tightened the race in the last week,” he said. “But you’ve got to be built to be able to win. We got more votes, but weren’t able to win.”

Although Podesta said that he didn’t think the Russian efforts to fiddle with voting on election day succeeded, he thought their meddling with influence through bots, Facebook ads and fake news did. 

“I do think that had an effect," he said. "It eats away at you underneath. You don’t fully sense it because it’s not bubbling up to the mainstream.”

In a recently-released book, Donna Brazile, interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, alleges that Sen. Bernie Sanders never had a fair chance against Clinton in the primary because Clinton was able to control the financing, strategy, and money raised in a joint fundraising committee. Podesta said the joint-fundraising agreement in question was to be used only for the general election, not for the primaries. 

“We raised money for the DNC purposefully, lawfully and consistently with what previous Democratic nominees had done to be used in the general election. Donna now looks back on that and says that indicated that fix was in,” Podesta said. "The truth is Senator Sanders was able to compete vigorously in a calendar that had been preset before either one of them was in the race, and he lost."

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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