The wounds from one of the fiercest election campaigns in American history were still raw Thursday as the campaign teams for President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton clashed while offering their behind-the-scenes perspectives at a Harvard University forum.
At one point, Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri told Trump’s team, “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”
“The platform that they gave to white supremacists, to white nationalists, is a very, very important moment in our history,” Palmieri said.
“Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?” shot back Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager.
“You did, Kellyanne. You did,” an emotional Palmieri responded.
The exchange was one of several tense moments during the traditionally cordial post-election review hosted at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Conway bristled during a question-and-answer period when someone attending the forum noted the Southern Poverty Law Center had collected reports of nearly 1,000 hate-related incidents from almost every state since the election. She said Trump has called for an end to such incidents, and she labeled the center an “anti-Trump group.”
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook placed the blame for his candidate’s defeat on FBI Director James Comey, who sent letters to Congress in the waning days of the campaign related to his agency’s examination of Clinton’s email accounts. Without those letters, Mook said, Clinton would have won.
He called the focus on Clinton’s emails during the campaign one of the “most over-reported, overhyped, over-litigated stories in the history of American politics.”
Mook also blamed another set of emails for Clinton’s loss, namely the slow release of apparently hacked Democratic messages in the final weeks of the race.
The U.S. government has said Russia was responsible for hacking at least some of the emails released by WikiLeaks, including those from the private account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“We cannot have foreign aggressors intervening in our elections,” Mook said.
Asked about the reports of Russian-backed hacking, which Russia has dismissed, Conway said, “We just don’t know it to be true.”
When the discussion turned to campaign tactics, Conway said one key move that helped Trump was the decision to stop looking at national polls and instead focus on state polls, particularly in swing states.
“When I came onboard [as campaign manager in August], we never did another national poll,” she said.
Conway added that a mistake made by the Clinton campaign was assuming the 2016 electorate would resemble the 2012 electorate, which gave Democratic President Barack Obama a second term, when it was closer to the 2014 midterm electorate, which handed big gains to Republicans in Congress.
She also credited Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic primary challenger, for helping “soften up” Clinton and paving the way for Trump’s victory. She said political observers who predicted the race would go to Clinton “ignored the phenomenon known as Bernie Sanders.”
Another key to Trump’s win, Conway said, was Clinton herself.
“I said to Mr. Trump, ‘You’re running against one of the most joyless presidential candidates in history,'” Conway said. “‘Why don’t we find a way to be the happy warrior?'”
Mook conceded that the Clinton campaign failed to perform as well as it should have among groups that were key to Obama’s two victories, including suburban woman and young voters, some of whom he said were drawn to third-party candidates.
Conway essentially agreed, saying Clinton was unable to hold together the Obama coalition. She said the question wasn’t whether voters were ready to elect a woman to the White House but whether they were ready to elect this particular woman.
Another Clinton failing was in presuming that people who voted Democratic before would do so again, Conway said.
But Mook said the Clinton campaign never took a win as a forgone conclusion.
“There were a lot of headwinds in this race,” he said. “We were trying to make history.”