PHILADELPHIA — Engulfed by a political firestorm over damning leaked emails, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Sunday she will step down as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, throwing her party's convention into unexpected turmoil 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: Democratic National Committee staffers favored eventual primary winner Hillary Clinton. Sunday morning, Sanders, who had backed off his efforts to oust Wasserman Schultz, revived his campaign.
"I think she should resign, period," he said on ABC News' This Week.
After learning of her imminent resignation, Sanders said in a statement Wasserman Schultz "made the right decision."
"While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people," he said. "The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race."
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 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.
Clinton quickly praised Wasserman Schultz for her five-year tenure leading the party.
"I am grateful to Debbie for getting the Democratic Party to this year's historic convention in Philadelphia, and I know that this week's events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership," Clinton said in a statement. "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 made a point to thank Wasserman Schultz on Saturday in Miami, at a rally where Clinton introduced running mate and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. But 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!"
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 Republican convention last week, where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was resoundingly jeered while on stage.
"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."
The first line of his email was, "Our long national nightmare is over." Morgan's feud with Wasserman Schultz began after she bad-mouthed his push for a Florida constitutional amendment to legalize medical pot.
Wasserman Schultz still plans to speak at a Florida delegation breakfast Monday morning, the state party said. The Republican Party of Florida qualified Wasserman Schultz's departure over the leaked emails as "proof of the continued political cronyism inside their party."
"Now, both Hillary Clinton and Wasserman Schultz have proven they are willing to bend the rules for their own political convenience."
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.
Wasserman Schultz organized the convention and picked Philadelphia as its host city. Though well-liked in her heavily Democratic South Florida district, she's long had detractors at the state and national level who consider her tin-eared and unlikable. She faces her first serious Democratic primary opponent this year in Nova Southeastern University Tim Canova, who won Sanders' endorsement.
As they arrived in Philadelphia, there was a sense of relief among 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.
Some Democrats remain big fans of the indefatigable Wasserman Schultz, who has traveled the country championing Democrats. "She's worked her heart out for the Democratic Party, and she spoke well for President Obama and Secretary Clinton," said retiree Ora McQueen, an Iowa delegate from Des Moines. "It's really too bad — we need her coalition building."
She saw Wasserman Schultz's ousting as a move "probably to appease" Sanders' supporters. But it seemed to do little to pacify them.
"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."
He said the Wikileaks revelations showed the DNC was biased, and "she should know better."
He 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 this report.