Four weeks after the election, tensions between top operatives at the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns erupted during a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics discussion that was intended to record history by drawing out the internal deliberations of both campaigns.
Facing off at long tables on opposite sides of the room during a two-hour panel, raw emotions on both sides exploded as operatives debated how Trump had won the divisive campaign.
There were periods of calm, substantive discussion about data, metrics and target states, but many moments where tempers flared, with acrimony mirroring the 2016 race. Advisers on the opposing sides shouted over each other. Accusations of lying flew between them. There was lots of eye-rolling on both sides. Operatives snapped at one another for interrupting, as an air of mutual contempt settled within the room. Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway called members of Clinton’s team “bitter.”
“Hey guys, we won,” Conway said at one point, challenging Clinton’s team to “accept the results of the election.” “He was the better candidate. That’s why we won.”
But the Clinton team did not back down. Chief Strategist Joel Benenson charged that the Trump campaign was successful, in part, by sending a series of “dog whistles” and messages with racial overtones that appealed to white voters who believed the government favored minorities.
Benenson pressed the Trump team to explain exactly who their supporters want “to take America back from.” He disputed the Trump team’s argument that his economic message led him to victory. Clinton won a majority of voters who were concerned about the economy, he said, while Trump won more voters who believe minorities are favored in this country.
Clinton Senior Adviser Karen Finney added that Trump had tapped into “underlying cultural anxiety about change that we were not willing to do.”
In a key moment that flipped the initial tone from fairly civil to acrimonious, Clinton advisers Jennifer Palmeiri and Finney charged the Trump campaign with providing a platform for white supremacist views by hiring Breitbart Chief Executive Steve Bannon. The Trump team had elevated the so-called alt-right movement into the mainstream, they said, with Palmieri adding that Clinton’s speech denouncing the extremist movement was the proudest moment of the campaign.
“Are you going look me in the face and say I provided a platform for white supremacists?” Kellyanne Conway asked incredulously. Both Palmieri and Finney nodded and said “Yes.”
“I would rather lose than win the way you did,” Palmieri said.
“You guys are pathetic,” Trump adviser David Bossie replied, accusing them a smear campaign against Bannon.
Bossie argued that Clinton lost not because of headwinds, but because of distrust due to a long series of “self-inflicted wounds” dating back to the 1990s from the Whitewater scandal to the missing files at the Rose Law Firm.
Bossie and Conway charged that the Clinton campaign was in denial about why their candidate had lost — in part their refusal to acknowledge that she was a “bad candidate.”
Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald said the Trump campaign had operated in the world of “dark arts.” As an example, she flashed the final issue of the National Enquirer, essentially describing Clinton as a corrupt criminal who should be thrown in jail.
“I don’t think you guys give yourself enough credit for the negative campaign you ran,” Grunwald said. “I think it was an incredibly effective negative campaign, and you guys don’t get credit for it.”
To the irritation of Trump officials, the Clinton team argued that the results have not given Trump a mandate to govern. At one point when Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio was saying that the Clinton campaign had failed to understand the fact that 70% of voters believed the country was on the wrong track, her Campaign Manager Robby Mook interrupted: “We won the popular vote.”
Over the course of the two-day conference, the Clinton team attributed their general election loss to a myriad of factors. They said they faced huge headwinds within the electorate because of the strong desire for change: “We underestimated the force of that wind of change,” Mook said.
But they focused repeatedly on what they viewed as the destructive impact of FBI Director James Comey’s press conference and his two letters about the investigation into Clinton’s emails on her private server. That hurt Clinton particularly among suburban women and younger voters in the final days, they said.
Clinton advisers also blamed unfair media coverage — noting that it was a struggle every day to get Clinton’s message to break through in a media environment dominated by Trump.
Several Clinton advisers also argued that there was unfair “double standard” for Clinton within the press that was driven partly by her gender. Mook noted that the press often focused on how she delivered her message in a way that they would not have scrutinized a male candidate.
“She’s been an uncomfortable presence for a long time” by breaking gender barriers, Palmieri said.
When the Clinton team was asked whether they would have done anything differently, Palmieri said one mistake was not arguing for a fourth debate shortly before the election. When Clinton wasn’t on stage with Trump, it was difficult for her message to break through, she said — setting up a dynamic of “Hillary versus Hillary.”
“What hurt us was (the Trump campaign) coming after her or the press picking at us,” Palmieri said.
Clinton’s advisers said they were harmed by Russians meddling in the election and the “drip, drip, drip” of news about Hillary Clinton’s emails, followed by the hacking of John Podesta’s emails that revealed internal campaign deliberations. They also acknowledged that they did not perform as well as they needed to among younger voters; one key reason for that, they said, was Comey’s interference in the election.
“Undecided voters didn’t break our way,” Mook said of Election Night. “That Comey letter had a huge effect,” he said, calling it “probably a game-changer.”
Both Mook and Benenson said while the race was incredibly fluid in the final weeks, they were closely watching both Trump and Clinton defectors — voters who were considering third party candidates.
In the final weeks before Election Day, they were coming home — first to Trump and then to Clinton. But the first Comey letter 11 days before the election stalled that movement back to Clinton, Benenson said.
“Those last 11 days we couldn’t get them back,” he said.