CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—The Trump era is upon us, and senior aides and key operatives of the long, brutal 2016 presidential campaigns gathered this week at Harvard University for a two-day conference of talking, eating, and drinking away their feelings.
On Thursday afternoon, senior members of the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns met again face-to-face to look back on the race. That’s when matters descended into the kind of chaos fit for the kind of reality TV the Republican president-elect once starred in—this time between Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
As is now a tradition every four years, the Harvard Kennedy School invites the influential players of a presidential election to speak and debate on panels, and mingle with eager, inquisitive grad students and professionally nettlesome reporters.
This year, most of the participants in Harvard’s “Campaign for President: The Managers Look at 2016,” which took place on Wednesday and Thursday, were left to grapple with how each and every one of their failures was a brick laid on the path to a Donald J. Trump White House. Managers and veterans of the White House runs of Trump, Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee had traveled to Cambridge for what amounted to the political equivalent of the worst, most starkly painful and tense class reunion imaginable.
And the bitterness and resentments still simmering in these professional political operatives was on full display on Thursday during an afternoon roundtable discussion in the fifth-floor conference room at the university’s Taubman Building.
The intention of the panel, moderated by journalists including BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller and MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell, was to gather six senior members of Team Hillary and six from the Trump camp, have them sit directly across the room facing one another, and have a calm, collected conversation about the behind-the-scenes moments of the 2016 race.
Instead, the moderators had trouble even keeping the panelists focused on the questions at hand, because the two sides would not stop sniping at and taunting their political rivals during the event.
“I would rather lose than win the way you guys did!” Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for Hillary for America, shot at the Trump team seated a few feet away.
“How exactly did we win, Jenn? How exactly?” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway fired back, noting that “I have a smile on my face at all times.”
Palmieri proceeded to bash the Trump campaign and its chief executive (and Breitbart News honcho) Stephen K. Bannon as a vehicle and emboldening power for America’s “white supremacists and white nationalists.”
“Are you gonna look me in the face and say I ran a campaign that was a platform for white supremacists?” Conway angrily responded.
Palmieri told her, plainly, yes.
“Are you kidding me?” Conway asked incredulously.
“You guys are punching down, this is unbelievable,” David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, exclaimed.
Hillary for America spokeswoman Karen Finney backed up her former colleague, stating that “part of what Donald Trump did in this campaign was to mainstream the alt-right.”
Conway subsequently told the rival team, “You guys are bitter. We are being very gracious. You’re bitter.”
“You’re not being nice,” Conway told Clinton campaign chief strategist Joel Benenson, after his own censure of the alt-right.
Much of the audience was unimpressed with what was seen as childish behavior fueled by still fresh memories and wounds from a vicious campaign.
Others were more amused.
“This is gonna be good stuff for the history books!” one audience member said.
“It’s like a goddamn foodfight,” another observed with a smirk.
“Hashtag-he’s-your-president, how about that?” Conway told the frustrated and defeated Clinton crew. “We won.”
The Daily Beast later caught up with Benenson, who said he had been at one of these Harvard presidential conferences before, to ask if past years were anything like what had just happened. His terse reply was “no.”
And it wasn’t a mystery why. Presidential campaigns are often populated with top staff who respect the other side’s team—perhaps even have friends in the rival camp. This time, the two sides could barely contain their disdain for each other. And the Democratic faction wasn’t too subtle about its deep fears of a Trump administration.
“Oh, you know, it’s been a fog,” Finney told The Daily Beast when asked how she’s been since Trump’s surprise election-night victory.
“As a father of three sons, it’s hard not to take a Donald Trump win this hard,” said a Democratic strategist at the conference who asked not to be named.
The brutality of the 2016 race spoke for itself: the House still lost to the GOP. The Senate, the same. The state legislatures. The governorships. The Supreme Court. Yet another Dem won the popular vote but blew the election. The fact that Scott Walker’s right-to-work probably helped hand the White House to Republicans. The reality that a noted birther who wants to deport millions of immigrants and ban Muslims is the next president, with his sights set squarely on trashing the progressive legacy of the first black president.
It was as if the entire election was written to make liberals want to set their heads on fire.
“[Trump rallies] were like rock concerts,” Corey Lewandowski—the former Trump campaign manager who bruised a female political reporter, lied about it, got fired, then landed a cushy CNN gig—said at a Wednesday afternoon campaign-managers event, dinging Team Hillary’s more “conventional” operation. During the Wednesday roundtable, whenever Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook spoke, Lewandowski could be seen fiddling with his smartphone while everyone else paid attention.
“[The Trump campaign] was something that the people were energized about,” Lewandowski said. “We had groupies!”
“Holy shit!” he continued.
As the event went on, and as Lewandowski bragged more and more about the Trump win, Mook’s glaring at the former Team Trump head became more and more visible to observers in the room.
“He looked like he wanted to strangle him,” an audience member seated nearby recalled.
On both days of the Harvard summit, Mook—the young “Clinton quarterback” and “drum-circle weirdo” who was heralded as the data, organizing, and ground-game wizard who would deliver America its first female commander in chief—offered up a few explanations for why Clinton lost to Trump’s openly bigoted, often disorganized, and undisciplined campaign.
“You’re making me remember such a wonderful moment in my life,” Mook sarcastically said, when asked on Thursday’s panel to reflect on the very moment he knew it was over on election night.
He blamed media coverage of his candidate. “The Media” didn’t cover Trump’s business ties and potential conflicts with enough ferocity during the campaign, he alleged. He repeatedly blamed FBI director James Comey’s letters for the loss. The campaign couldn’t get enough young people to come out to pull the lever for Clinton. “We weren’t measuring the white vote correctly,” he added.
On Wednesday, he bemoaned what he dubbed the uncharted territory of a “post-fact” election.
“[We] were punished for telling the truth, and being true to nuance,” Mook said. “And there are problems that the next president is going to have to address that are complex.”
“In a race where people wanted fundamental change, Donald Trump sure was a fundamental change,” he continued on Thursday. “It was a strength being an outsider.”
And after Thursday’s “goddamn foodfight,” Conway and Mook were quickly shuffled off to a Harvard theater to participate in a joint Q&A hosted by CNN host Jake Tapper. The two of them repeated much of what they had said earlier in the day, this time without the noise of competing cross-room shouting.
When it was all over and the lights came on in the forum, the members of Team Hillary left the campus, as part of a demoralized and crippled Democratic Party that has much rebuilding to do in the wake of devastating losses. The Team Trump alumni left Harvard University this week the same way they had entered it: sprinting a victory lap.