The tensions between the Trump and Clinton campaigns were still raw at an extended discussion on strategy and tactic in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The campaign staffers were participating in the Harvard Institute of Politics forum on the election, a post-mortem that has become a tradition every four years.
At one point, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, called Clinton’s staffers “bitter” over their election loss, while one of Clinton’s advisers, Jennifer Palmieri, claimed that Trump helped elevate white nationalist views by bringing on Steve Bannon, a former top executive at Breitbart.com who will be Trump’s chief strategist.
Palmieri at one point called on a speech that Clinton gave in late August, denouncing the so-called “alt-right” movement.
“I would rather lose than win the way that you guys did,” Palmieri said.
Conway then shot back, “Are you going to look at me in the face and say I provided a platform for white supremacists?”
Palmieri answered yes.
Conway responded, “How about it is Hillary Clinton? She doesn’t connect with people. How about you have no economic message?”
Palmieri said that Trump spoke to people in the country “to an underlying cultural anxiety about change in a way we were just not willing to do.”
Another adviser, media strategist Mandy Grunwald, said that the closeness of the race — if fewer than 100,000 votes had shifted in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Clinton would be president-elect — makes it difficult to pinpoint one make-it or break-it fault. “When you lose on 100,000 votes out of 130 million, everyone else was right. Everyone has a theory that would have gotten us to the 100,000 votes,” she said.
Trump’s team, meanwhile, defended their candidate and their campaign. David Bossie, the deputy campaign manager, said that Trump had a “unique ability to go past the media and speak directly to the American people.” He also defended Bannon, calling him a “brilliant strategist” and a “really terrific guy.”
The Clinton team argued that they faced the challenge from the start of running in a year when voters wanted change — as they tend to do after one party holds the White House for eight years.
But they also said that there were circumstances beyond their control that made it difficult to overcome, even getting their message out with the media so focused on Trump. But Conway said that it was Clinton who often framed the debate as a referendum on Trump’s own fitness for office.
Campaign manager Robby Mook said that the letter that FBI director James Comey sent to Congress, just 11 days before the election, had a “huge effect.” In it, Comey said that agents were looking into a new batch of emails to see if they were relevant to an investigation of her use of a private server while she was secretary of state.
That stalled momentum in the waning days of the election, as undecided voters were weighing who to support, said campaign pollster Joel Benenson.
As the session was ending, Grunwald told the Trump team, “I don’t think you give yourselves enough credit for the negative campaign you ran.” She called it a “very impressive gassing” of Clinton. As Conway took issue with the way that Grunwald’s praise was phrased, Grunwald said, “Take the compliment, Kellyanne.”
Audio of the forum is here.