The self-help guru, who is running for president again, was emotionally and verbally abusive to staff, according to interviews with former employees.
In an email to news outlet POLITICO, Williamson said such accusations of her behavior were “slanderous” and “categorically untrue.”
“Former staffers trying to score points with the political establishment by smearing me might be good for their careers, but the intention is to deflect attention from the important issues facing the American people,” she said. “This Presidential Campaign expects concerted efforts to dismiss and denigrate us. But the amplification of outright lies should not occur.”
In the same email, Williamson denied ever throwing a phone at staffers. But she did acknowledge that she went to urgent care after getting upset and hitting her hand on a car door, but said a “car door is not a person. I would never be physically hurtful to a person.” She also acknowledged that there was an occasion when she raised her voice in a hotel room and someone came to see what was happening. “I find it hard to believe that people in politics have never raised their voice before,” she said.
Former staffers interviewed noted that tough boss criticisms tend to unfairly be lobbed at female leaders. But they also stressed that Williamson’s behavior was beyond the boundaries of acceptable regardless of her gender. Although Williamson has little shot at defeating President Joe Biden in the 2024 Democratic presidential primary, they said they were motivated to come forward now to warn people who were considering working on her campaign about her treatment of staff.
Those former aides said Williamson’s behavior was hard to predict. She berated staffers for seemingly inconsequential things, like if they booked a hotel room that had a walk-in shower and not a bathtub, they said. She would tell her staff to cancel an event, only to change her mind a day later and accuse them of trying to undermine her campaign. She obsessed over the physical appearance of others and ridiculed staffers for being overweight, according to four former aides. Williamson said she never “mocked anyone for their weight.”
“She would get caught in these vicious emotional loops where she would yell and scream hysterically,” said a second former staffer. “This was day after day after day. It wasn’t that she was having a bad day or moment. It was just boom, boom, boom — and often for no legitimate reason.”
In her year-long candidacy, Williamson burned through two campaign managers, multiple state directors, field organizers and volunteers. Some were let go, but others said they quit because of the campaign’s culture.
In a resignation email sent to Williamson on Aug. 14, 2019, Robert Becker, the campaign’s then-Iowa state director, wrote that Williamson’s treatment of staff was “belittling, abusive, dehumanizing and unacceptable,” according to a copy of the email exchange with Williamson obtained by POLITICO. Becker, who was a controversial hire due to a prior allegation that he forcibly kissed a subordinate while working on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, added: “I cannot in good faith subject any future campaign hires to this kind of vitriol. For 30 years I have had zero-tolerance for bullying in the workplace, and that has to include the principle.”
Williamson emailed back: “I did go out on a limb for you, but more importantly I had no idea that you would’ve seen me that way… Hopefully I will learn from what you have said, and hopefully you will not say such things to others.”
Williamson feared that her staff would go behind her back and talk to reporters about her behavior, according to six former staffers, who said she required campaign employees to sign nondisclosure agreements and made clear that they would be strictly enforced. At one point in 2019, she suggested monitoring staffers’ phones, according to one of them, but never followed through with the idea. Williamson denied that she ever suggested doing such a thing.
“The message was: ‘dont fuck with me because I will make your life a living hell.’ So no one fucked with her,” said a third former aide.
Campaigns often use NDAs to protect proprietary information from spilling out into the public. But former aides say Williamson’s use of NDAs went beyond just her full-time campaign staff. Those aides said that Williamson’s personal assistant traveled with NDAs readily available and would ask taxi drivers and other service industry workers to sign them if Williamson lost her temper in front of them. Williamson denied this charge too. However, two former staffers said they witnessed this happen on separate occasions after Williamson started berating staff in cabs to and from fundraising and media events in New York.
“There was a period after the campaign ended where there was intense trauma bonding,” said a fourth former campaign aide. “It was like, ‘What the fuck did we just go through?’”
Campaign staff had conversations among themselves about how to approach Williamson about seeking help for her behavior. But most said they thought it would be an uphill battle given Williamson’s track record of skepticism surrounding mental health and antidepressants. Many said they felt like there was no way to talk to Williamson about such sensitive topics without opening themselves up to her verbal attacks.
“Her perspective on the pharmaceutical industry, those points of views informed her personal actions and not getting medication and help that she needed,” said the second former aide.
While Williamson’s behavior during the 2020 campaign has not previously been reported, it mirrors reporting from 30 years ago when Williamson’s popularity as a spiritual guru was taking off among major Hollywood celebrities following the publication of her first book, “A Return to Love.”
A 1992 People Magazine story profiling Williamson said she had a “temper and unchecked ego, as well as a cruelly abrasive management style” and quoted a former associate who called Williamson “a tyrant.” A Los Angeles Times story published that same year reported that people who had worked with Williamson described her as having “an explosive temper that erupts indiscriminately.”
Still, her behavior came as a shock to most of her 2020 campaign staff, the majority of whom had backgrounds working in politics and only knew of Williamson through her best-selling books and public speaking events encouraging people to harness the power of love and learn to forgive.
Some people said they joined the campaign simply because they needed a job and Williamson was offering them one. Others said they thought that there was room in the race for a dark horse candidate to push people, including Biden, on topics such as reparations. And some said that Williamson’s books on compassion and forgiveness had helped them through their own struggles of divorce, addiction and loss of family members.
Instead, they walked away feeling emotionally tormented.
“It’s cliché, but all I can say is: don’t meet your heroes,” said a fifth former staffer.