Engulfed by a political firestorm over damning leaked emails, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Sunday she will step down from her high-profile role as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, throwing her party’s convention into unexpected disarray just as it’s set to start.
Her resignation — a stunning development that capped a whirlwind 48 hours for party leaders — will be effective at the end of the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday and ends Thursday in Philadelphia.
“As Party Chair, this week I will open and close the Convention and I will address our delegates about the stakes involved in this election not only for Democrats, but for all Americans,” Wasserman Schultz said in a lengthy statement. “We have planned a great and unified Convention this week and I hope and expect that the DNC team that has worked so hard to get us to this point will have the strong support of all Democrats in making sure this is the best convention we have ever had.”
A cache of more than 19,000 party emails published Friday by the website WikiLeaks showed the suspicions of primary candidate Bernie Sanders were at least partly true: Party staffers favored eventual primary winner Hillary Clinton. Sunday morning, Sanders, who had backed off his push to oust Wasserman Schultz, revived the effort.
“I think she should resign, period,” he said on ABC News’ “This Week.” After learning of her imminent resignation, Sanders said in a statement that Wasserman Schultz “made the right decision.”
The emails, allegedly hacked by Russians, gave new fuel to Sanders loyalists who for months have considered Wasserman Schultz prejudiced. Late Saturday, CNN reported Wasserman Schultz had been stripped of her speaking role at the convention as Democratic leaders fretted about potential hecklers. By Sunday, she was no longer the convention’s “temporary” chair, and the “permanent” role had been awarded to U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio.
Sunday afternoon, Clinton praised Wasserman Schultz for her five-year tenure leading the party.
“I look forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid — because as President, I will need fighters like Debbie in Congress who are ready on day one to get to work for the American people,” Clinton said in a statement.
Clinton had given the indefatigable Wasserman Schultz a shout-out Saturday in Miami, at a rally where Clinton introduced running mate and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. But the politically radioactive Wasserman Schultz didn’t actually appear on stage with the Democratic ticket. And Clinton’s mention of Wasserman Schultz prompted a protester to yell, “DNC leaks!” and get kicked out of Florida International University’s arena.
President Barack Obama, whom Wasserman Schultz helped re-elect as party chairwoman in 2012, also offered her his thanks Sunday.
“For the last eight years, Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has had my back,” he said. “Her fundraising and organizing skills were matched only by her passion, her commitment and her warmth. And no one works harder for her constituents in Congress than Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Michelle and I are grateful for her efforts, we know she will continue to serve our country as a member of Congress from Florida and she will always be our dear friend.”
Just last week, Wasserman Schultz had mocked her Republican counterpart, Reince Priebus, over the GOP’s deeply fractured convention.
“I’m in Cleveland if you need another chair to help keep your convention in order,” she said on Twitter.
Republican nominee Donald Trump tweeted himself Sunday, boasting about Priebus (and misspelling Wasserman Schultz’s last name).
“Today proves that I have always known, that @Reince Priebus is the tough one and the smart one, not Debbie Wasserman Shultz (@DWStweets.),” he wrote. “I always said that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was overrated. The Dems Convention is cracking up and Bernie is exhausted, no energy left!”
Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, said Clinton “should follow Wasserman Schultz’s lead and drop out over her failure to safeguard top secret, classified information both on her unauthorized home server and while traveling abroad.”
Wasserman Schultz said she still plans to open and close the convention, which means she’ll probably still be exposed to angry boos on national television — an embarrassment the party wants to avoid so it can contrast itself with the GOP convention, where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was resoundingly jeered.
“The fact that she still wants to open and close the convention is [evidence] of her narcissism and tone-deaf political compass,” Orlando attorney and major Democratic donor John Morgan — a top Wasserman Schultz foe in Florida — said in an email to the Miami Herald. “If she tries to speak the boos will rival those of Trump himself if he tried to speak.”
Morgan’s feud with Wasserman Schultz began after she bad-mouthed his push for a Florida constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana.
Wasserman Schultz also intends to speak at a Florida delegation breakfast Monday morning, the Florida Democratic Party said. The Republican Party of Florida qualified Wasserman Schultz’s departure over the leaked emails as “proof of the continued political cronyism” inside the Democratic Party.
Several news outlets reported DNC Vice Chairwoman Donna Brazile will take the party reins through the November election. Brazile, a CNN contributor, is already on the speaking program for the convention.
Democratic strategist Steve Schale of Tallahassee said Wasserman Schultz made the correct choice, even if it might have been difficult.
“I’ve been proud to call Debbie a friend for a long time, and while quitting isn’t in her DNA, the DNC has become a distraction at time when we need to unify to elect Secretary Clinton,” he said. “I know this wasn’t an easy decision, but it is absolutely the right one.”
Though well-liked in her heavily Democratic South Florida district, Wasserman Schultz has long had detractors at the national level who consider her tin-eared and unlikable. She faces her first serious primary opponent this year in Nova Southeastern University professor Tim Canova, who won Sanders’ endorsement. He said he was inundated Sunday with national media requests following Wasserman Schultz’s bombshell resignation.
“I hope it means she’ll be able to spend some time in the district and defend her record and debate me,” he said. “If she’s touring around the country being a surrogate for the Clinton campaign, my guess is she’ll do more harm than good.”
As they arrived in Philadelphia, there was a sense of relief among some Democratic delegates that they could begin to put the Wasserman Schultz controversy behind them.
“We really appreciate all the public service she’s contributed to her constituents as well as the country,” said Maureen McKenna, president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida. But she said Democrats are focused on getting Clinton and Kaine elected.
“We’ve made a big effort to make sure this convention runs smoothly, and if this helps I support her decision,” said McKenna, who is from Sebring.
But Wasserman Schultz’s departure seemed to do little to pacify some Sanders backers.
“It definitely helps, but she needs to resign completely, give up her seat,” said Daniel Clark, 25, a Sanders delegate from Mount Pleasant, Iowa. “Maybe back six months ago when Bernie asked her to resign, but now it seems like, ‘Oh the convention is starting, so I just won’t show up and will go away.’ It seems like the cheap way out.”
Clark said he’s not supporting Clinton and isn’t sure whether he will in November.
“Six months ago this might have helped with unity,” he said of Wasserman Schultz’s departure. “Not now.”
McClatchy correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.