At just 30 years old, Rob Russo has been one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides for a decade, organizing and drafting her political and personal correspondence. After the election, his job changed as thousands of strangers started writing to Clinton. Now he’s living through the end of an era, one letter at a time.
Backstage on Election Night, sometime around 11:30 p.m., Rob Russo collapsed.
It happened before the results were final, but after it had already become obvious that his boss, Hillary Clinton, would not be the next president. He was with three friends from the campaign, waiting for senior aides to arrive in the staff hold room at the Jacob Javits Center. In the crowd, excitement turned to anxiety, then to shock, then to tears. “The air just got sucked out of the whole place,” Russo says. “It was silent. Nobody was saying anything to anyone.”
When he got up, “it sort of became a dream. I felt detached from it, from everything.”
What happened next is still a dim blur. He remembers leaving around 4 a.m because he took a cab, “which I never do.” He remembers dressing in black the next morning — a dark gray “H” t-shirt, a black cardigan, his only pair of black pants — because he has worn black clothes almost every day since. And he remembers the somnambulant trek back to headquarters in Brooklyn, because the whole staff was there wandering around the office — suddenly without direction for the first time in years.
Russo started packing up his desk. “I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. “It was very unclear to us all what we should be doing.”
This was a new sensation for the 30-year-old Director of Correspondence and Briefings. Russo has spent more than a decade managing Clinton’s “paper process,” a job he approaches with extreme diligence and care and order. He compiles her briefing books, handles her mail, and drafts letters to every corner of the vast and layered network known as Clintonworld: thank yous, condolences, graduations and weddings. Maybe you’ve seen some of the them, the letters from Clinton that pop up on staffers’ Instagram feeds or in news stories about the friends and voters who have received them. Clinton is the sender, but each note is also the product of a long-worked-out system that this aide steers.
Russo, slim with a small swept-back pompadour and a neatly trimmed beard, has made a decade-long study of Clinton’s paper process — a.k.a. “her paper,” a.k.a. “the flow of paper” — passing every draft to his boss in shared “To Sign/To Read” folders, then internalizing each one of her edits until writing in “her voice” became something close to “second nature.”
He could show you, for instance, any one of the 110,000 letters he has drafted since 2008, because he keeps them scanned and alphabetized in a folder on his computer. He could tell you that Clinton’s personal stationery was once cream-colored, with her name at the top in blue, but that now the paper is white with a blue border. He could tell you that for most of her life, she signed her name without looping the “y” in “Hillary,” but that after her first presidential campaign eight years ago, a small almond-shaped sliver suddenly appeared at the base of the “y.” (He would also note, however, that in letters from the ’70s and ’80s, “every once and awhile she does loop the ‘y.’”) And he could tell you that, for about nine years, every letter has been written in Poor Richard, a squat typeface with tiny curled serifs, originally used in Poor Richard’s Almanac, because at some point in 2008, a letter from a friend arrived and Clinton exclaimed, “I love that font,” sending her executive assistant on a hunt to identify it.
Over the years, Russo has developed his own Clinton-themed style and usage guide, governed by a few simple rules for both the letters (“consistent use of the Oxford comma”) and the briefing book (bio photos should be an inch-and-a-half wide, two inches tall, closely cropped to the face, high resolution, but not too big of a file). At the State Department, he learned that letters should be more formal. No contractions, for instance. (“It was ‘I am delighted,’” not “‘I’m delighted.’”) And fewer flourishes, which he realized early on when a draft came back with the word “fabulous” crossed out. (“Let’s try to tone down some of the adjectives,” Clinton suggested to him.) He has followed her from the State Department to her personal office in Manhattan to the campaign in Brooklyn, tasked along the way with drafting letters to diplomats and voters from ropelines in Iowa. On the campaign, he managed a staff of 10 people, sorting every email submitted to the website and overseeing every briefing book, for not only Clinton, but 10 of her top surrogates. He had anxiety dreams about categorizing emails. He lost 15 pounds from the stress.
By Election Day, there was one thing left to do: send the final three-ring binder and set of tabs, prepared to his precise specifications, over to Clinton’s suite at the Peninsula Hotel, where aides would fill it with transition materials — her first briefing book as president-elect.
Interviews with Russo over the last three years — before, during, and after the campaign — depict a career spent producing the materials that, as he describes it, “neatly catalogue the experience” of Hillary Clinton’s life. So he was not prepared, a few days after the blow of Nov. 8, for the letters that started showing up in P.O. Box 5256, the one listed on Clinton’s website. They came by the hundreds, most from people his boss had never met — all about the loss.
Russo put off the writing as long as he could. “Because I didn’t — I didn’t know where to begin,” he says. “I didn’t know what to say.”