Over the past year, retired Army Gen. Colin Powell ― like many other conservative elites ― has been reluctant to be much more than a fence-sitter in the 2016 presidential race. The Huffington Post’s Michelle Fields reported toward the end of July that as attention was being turned toward the political conventions, Powell was a portrait of reticence ― even as prods to play an influential role came from both directions. But this week, Powell has been dragged into the spotlight all the same, after ― what else? ― a cache of hacked emails were publicly leaked.
So, his days as a fence-sitter could be numbered. But while it may be enlightening to know which of the two major party’s candidates Powell prefers, we are waiting for an even more interesting revelation: Is Colin Powell still guided by the same principles that have governed his previous endorsements? It’s an open question.
The content of Powell’s leaked emails ― which have been confirmed as authentic ― can be easily caricatured. In many ways, Powell is an example of that Everyman voter that media outlets love to use as a broad characterization of the electorate, unenthusiastic about the major party candidates and unhappy with the need to choose. It’s like a photo-negative of where Powell was in 2008, when he could offer both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) equal heaps of praise, and yet come to a clear decision about whom he wanted to support.
Prior to this year’s conventions, Powell had criticized the cornerstone of Trump’s policy proposals ― the deportation of all undocumented immigrants ― telling the audience at the Washington Ideas Forum, “If I was around Mr. Trump, Donald, who I know rather well, I would say, ‘You know Don, let’s see what happens. Let’s tell all the immigrants working in Trump hotels to stay home tomorrow. See what happens.’”
But Powell’s leaked emails don’t suggest the general would like to be “around Donald Trump” to offer his point of view. In them, he describes Trump as “a national disgrace and an international pariah.” He’s also unsparing about Trump’s views on race, writing that “there is nothing he can say” to black voters that would bring them to his side. “He takes us for idiots,” Powell writes. “He can never overcome what he tried to do to Obama with his search for the birth certificate ... the whole birther movement was racist.”
Elsewhere, Powell notes that Trump “appeals to the worst angels of the GOP nature and poor white folks” and “has no sense of shame.”
But if Powell’s criticisms of Trump are broad and severe, what he has to say about Clinton ― while less scathing ― seems more personal. As The Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal notes, in one, Powell is aggrieved that Clinton’s large speakers fee diminished his own opportunities in the same arena:
“Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris,” Powell wrote in an email to private equity investor Jeffrey Leeds. “I told you about the gig I lost at a University because she so overcharged them they came under heat and couldn’t any fees for awhile. I should send her the bill.”
But more broadly, Powell is not pleased with the way he’s been tied to Clinton’s personal email account. Dogged by the story throughout the election cycle, Clinton has frequently opted to use Powell as her easy out ― characterizing her decision to use a private server as informed by advice from her State Department predecessor.
Clinton’s defenders point to an email she received from Powell, in which he discusses having set up the means to “communicate with a wide range of friends directly without it going through the State Department on their personal email accounts.” Powell has pushed back on this characterization throughout (and fact checkers have found the analogy wanting). That pushback continues in these leaked emails as well:
“Sad thing it [sic] that HRC could have killed this two years ago by merely telling everyone honestly what she had done and not tie me into it,” Powell said in one email. He wrote that he “told her staff three times not to try that gambit.”
There is a certain element of tone-deafness to the Clinton campaign’s attempts to deploy Powell as their bulwark against further criticism of the choices she made with regard to her emails. After all, Clinton spent a good portion of the post-convention period wooing just about every other Bush-era foreign policy figure, angling for their endorsement. Needlessly getting Powell’s back up over decisions that she alone made wasn’t exactly the best way to secure his support ― especially when you consider that Powell’s support may have been larger looming.
After all, Powell’s endorsement of Obama back in 2008 was freighted with significance, partly because the retired general remains a revered figure among media elites. When he decided to make his endorsement that year, he did so in a special segment of “Meet the Press,” in a conversation with Tom Brokaw that was more focused on pomp than probing. During that segment, Powell offered that the next president needed to “[convey] a new image of American leadership, a new image of America’s role in the world.” A more on-his-game Brokaw might have interjected at this point, pointing out that this “new image” was necessitated by the one left by President George W. Bush, whom Powell had served.
Of course, what this reveals is that Powell’s endorsement of Obama was at least partially undertaken as a way to rehabilitate Powell’s own image. But if you’re wondering how Powell might actually be leaning, between a former secretary of state who’s shown “hubris” and a reality television performer who is a “national disgrace,” we should consider another part of that “Meet the Press” segment, in which Powell reveals what inspired him to pick Obama over McCain:
POWELL: I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards―Purple Heart, Bronze Star―showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.
There are some obvious, more current echoes to the grotesque Islamophobia Powell saw back then, and the leaked emails indicate Powell has noticed them in Trump. “When Trump couldn’t keep [birtherism] up he said he also wanted to see if the certificate noted he was a Muslim ... As I have said before, ‘What if he was?’ Muslims are born as Americans everyday.”
So, one has to wonder if Powell has the desire to return to these past reflections, which he experienced when the standard-bearer of his party was not a flamboyant anti-Islamic bigot ― it was just a bewildering and troubling atmospheric condition in his party. Now that Powell can no longer separate the Republican presidential candidate from the creeping stench of Islamophobia, how can his zeal for “what we should not be doing in America” have faded?
As it happens, Powell has never been quick to offer endorsements. In the past two presidential election cycles, he’s held out until October before finally making his preferences known. So far, none of the attention paid to his leaked emails has prompted him to move up his timeline ― if anything, they’ve only fueled speculation that he may never move from the fence.
Nevertheless, the only person who can clear up whether Powell is going to follow his conscience down the same path that led him to make a break with his party in 2008 is Powell. And so, we wait.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.