Democrats’ plans for a harmonious national convention here this week were scrambled over the weekend as a cache of hacked emails threatened to disrupt hard-fought unity.
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced Sunday that she will resign when the convention ends Thursday, but said she will maintain her public role as chair of the four-day gathering that begins Monday.
However, the longtime congresswoman was jeered by many of her fellow Floridians during a state delegation breakfast Monday morning, raising the prospect that she may not make it through the end of the week as chairwoman.
Wasserman Schultz’ ouster came after revelations this weekend of email messages showing officials within the DNC, including from her own account, opposing Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and in some cases, discussing ways to damage him.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign at one point alleged that Russian hackers were behind the leak of tens of thousands of NDC messages — a claim that some cyber security experts agreed with — but campaign manager Robby Mook walked back that rhetoric on Monday.
“I think (Clinton), like all of us, we are reading the same reporting that you all are saying and we are reading what the experts are saying,” Mook told reporters.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced Monday it was launching a probe to determine the “nature and scope” of the hack.
“A compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously, and the FBI will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace,” the agency said in a statement.
During the campaign, Sanders repeatedly accused the DNC of working against him in order to support party favorite Hillary Clinton. He has called for Wasserman Schultz’ resignation for months, a demand he reiterated Sunday.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, Sanders’ highest-profile Georgia delegate, said Wasserman Schultz has to go now, not Thursday.
“If she stays in until the end of the week it’ll be a distraction and let me tell you, if she speaks to the convention, she will be a disrupting figure, a dis-unifying figure,” Fort said.
The email scandal comes after the Clinton and Sanders campaigns negotiated for weeks to find common ground on the party’s platform and appeared ready to present a unified front this week. That is now all in question.
The hacked emails included one from Brad Marshall, the party’s chief financial officer, questioning Sanders’ faith.
“He skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage,” Marshall wrote on May 5. “I think I read he is an atheist.”
Another email claimed Sanders’ “campaign was a mess,” and in a third Wasserman Schultz responded to Sanders’ criticism of the DNC by writing: “spoken like someone who has never been a member of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders, before running for president, was a political independent, but he had long caucused with Democrats in the Senate.
Mook insisted Monday morning that the convention would be a display of unity.
“This is going to be a big contrast to what we saw in Cleveland last week,” he said, adding that Sanders would reiterate his support of Clinton when he speaks later in the day.
“He is coming to double down on that to unify the party,” Mook said.
Mook would not say whether Clinton encouraged Wasserman Schultz to step down.
“This was the chairwoman’s decision,” he said.
Clinton, in a statement, said, “I want to thank my longtime friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz for her leadership of the Democratic National Committee the last five years. … I know this week’s events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership.”
Clinton said Wasserman Schultz will serve as an honor chair of her campaign and as a campaign surrogate.
Earlier Sunday, on Fox News, Clinton chief strategist Joel Benenson said Clinton won the nomination in “what we believe was a very fair and honest election.”
Benenson pushed back on the claim that the national party influenced the outcome in Clinton’s favor.
“The issue here is these primaries are largely fought out on the ground with voters,” he said. “The DNC’s impact on these things is minimal compared to the results. What the campaigns do … that determines who wins.”
A second Clinton aide, speaking on CNN, said they believe the Russian hackers sought to help the Trump campaign.
The drama unfolded as Georgia’s delegates were getting ready for the first day of the convention in Philadelphia. Clinton delegates said Wasserman Schultz’ decision was the right one and they hoped the situation will not spill over into the convention itself.
“We don’t need a distraction hanging over us,” Nikema Williams, a Clinton delegate and first vice chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia said.
Williams said she has “no concerns” about Wasserman Schultz’ presence at the convention.
“I know we as a party are strong and we saw what was on stage last week at the RNC and we’re going to come together,” she said.
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, one of Clinton’s top supporters in Georgia, said the Clinton and Sanders campaigns agreed to allow Wasserman Schultz to remain involved in the convention with the compromise that she would resign.
“It’s going to probably cause some disruption at the convention,” Smyre said, adding that it’s “been a tough Sunday.”
Her resignation, Smyre said, “will put the issue behind us and to me that’s the key element to this whole situation, not allowing this to interfere with the operation of the Democratic convention. We should not allow this situation to get away from us and cause us irreparable harm.”
Regardless, the controversy has riled Sanders supporters.
Julie Tyler and Lillian Wilkinson traveled to Philadelphia from Los Angeles to protest the convention. They were not satisfied with the official response to the leaked emails.
“I feel like I’ve never been more annoyed and angry at this election,” Tyler, clutching a Sanders sign, said outside of the historic St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in downtown Philadelphia.
Schultz’s decision to step down at the end of the convention didn’t come close to making amends.
“I’m glad to see that this is an acknowledgment,” Tyler said, grudgingly.
Tyler’s friend Amy Redman scoffed at the response. “Hillary should be stepping down, but she’s not.”
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Susan Potter and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.