Despite recent public statements from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that indicate the two are moving on from the vitriolic election, their top campaign staffers have yet to bury the hatchet.
Three weeks after a remarkably nasty election, emotions remained raw as the Trump and Clinton camps got together for the first time at Harvard Kennedy School for a conference this week. Hosted by the Institute of Politics, the quadrennial “debriefing” featured Clinton and Trump’s campaign managers and top representatives from nearly all the other Democratic and Republican primary candidates speaking candidly about what went wrong and right with their 2016 runs.
Assessing the general election, the Clinton team expressed deep disappointment and bewilderment at the final result. The ongoing national tally has now put Clinton ahead of Trump by more than 2.5 million votes, but Trump won the deciding Electoral College, 306-232.
Trump staffers touted their unexpected win, but did so with surprising bitterness toward the Clinton team’s complaints about FBI Director James Comey’s letters on her emails, the Russian email hacking of the Democrats, Republicans who opposed Trump in the primaries, and the political media, which former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, among others, insisted made up stories about his candidate while giving more favorable coverage to Clinton.
Perhaps not surprisingly in a race featuring the first female nominee for president, what role gender played — if any — in the final outcome was hotly disputed.
Many on Clinton’s side said that while gender wasn’t the sole reason that she lost, there was no question that she was perceived and treated differently than Trump and other male candidates by parts of the public and the media because she is a woman.
As a political trailblazer, Clinton had no peers to whom she could compare herself, which created some resistance and hurt her relatability, said Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary for America. “And as a Baby Boomer, she was a generationally challenging figure, certainly, as the first first lady who had a career,” said Palmieri. “She didn’t stay home and bake cookies. She broke a lot of rules.
“Women candidates, I think, are given some of the benefits of the doubt … until they violate certain norms of how women are expected to behave, and then they just become very challenging, and I think that’s a big part of what happened to Hillary,” she said, addressing why so many voters have said they didn’t like or trust Clinton, dating back to the early 1990s.
“She’s been an uncomfortable presence for a long time. She’s not without fault, and she’s pretty stubborn. Part of her success, though, is the ability to just get up every day and do what she’s got to do … and just keep going.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said the news coverage of Clinton focused primarily on her email server practices rather than her policy positions and often graded her on tone and demeanor, while Trump was critiqued, albeit often unfavorably, on his policy choices, like the Muslim ban.
“When Donald Trump talked about a Muslim ban, that was a policy position. I sure as heck wish people would’ve covered Hillary Clinton’s desire to tax the wealthiest Americans more,” Mook said.
“Head to head, the media was, by and large, not covering what Hillary Clinton was choosing to say,” Mook said. “They were treating her as the likely winner, and they were constantly trying to unearth secrets and reveal and expose, so that the voters who were likely to pick her could be ‘positive’ in their choice in choosing her as our next president. And then you put on top of that Comey, and you put on top of that WikiLeaks.”
Yet Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway contended that gender had nothing to do with Clinton’s loss.
“We saw early on that of course this country would vote for a woman president, but the question is, ‘Is this really about a female president or that female president?’ And there are lots of voters who were reluctant to vote for Hillary Clinton because they knew her, because she represented what they didn’t want this time, which was insider privilege, elitism, wealth …,” Conway said. “On gender, it wasn’t a hypothetical, it was Hillary. So it’s not just a woman, it’s one that people had lived with for quite a while.”
Compared to an exciting, “scrappy” Trump, Conway said, Clinton was “joyless” and didn’t project the kind of advantages that other female candidates might, like being “fresh and new,” in part because so few run for public office.
Roundtable Discussion - The General Election
“Nobody saw her that way. Female candidates are seen as good negotiators, consensus builders, generally interested in reaching across the aisle and trying to solve problems. A lot of people did not see her that way. And they also see women by and large as incorruptible or ethical. There’s a reason you’ve never heard the term ‘the old girls’ network.’ There isn’t one. She didn’t have that advantage either,” said Conway.
Conway added that although historic, Clinton’s candidacy failed to ignite the country. “I saw no parade of America’s women saying, ‘We must have the first female president, we must have the first female president,’” she said.
Mandy Grunwald, Hillary for America’s senior media adviser and a longtime Clinton ally, countered that while it’s still unclear “all the different ways” that gender affected voters, certainly there were “a lot of gender undertones to what we dealt with.”
“I don’t say that’s the reason we lost. I’m just saying it factored into how people looked at the candidate. The ‘Bernie Bros’ and the vehemence and the anger and the hideousness, frankly, of what was said online and to our people, I’ve never really seen anything like it. And those are our Democrats! You couldn’t read the hatred and the vitriol without being kind of shocked,” she said.
While agreeing with Conway that Clinton was not seen as honest, compassionate, or a change agent as other women candidates might have been, she also crashed through barriers by virtue of her unique personal strengths and career in public service, Grunwald said.
Some women, unlike Clinton, might not be perceived as “‘strong and ready to be commander in chief.’ And you may think the country is ready for any old woman, just a different one,” Grunwald said to Conway. “There are very few people who will ever meet that test. I hope I’m wrong. I hope we are ready for one next time. But we all take it for granted that this woman was so easily accepted as, ‘Of course, she can run the country.’”
CAMPAIGN OFFICIALS ON BOTH SIDES BLAME THE MEDIA
Naturally, with many of the nation’s leading political journalists at the conference, discussion about the media’s role in the 2016 election was hot and heavy.
Operatives who worked for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and virtually every other primary candidate felt they were unfairly treated by television, print, and digital outlets during the campaign. Republican representatives groused that Trump received the majority of early primary coverage, while Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley staffers said they were ignored or derided by the press early on in favor of non-stop chatter and speculation about Clinton’s email practices.
At a panel on media coverage Wednesday night, CNN president Jeff Zucker ’86 drew angry shouts from several Republican candidates’ staffers and media colleagues for defending the network’s exhaustive early coverage of Trump and for hiring Corey Lewandowski shortly after he was let go from the Trump campaign.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, who hosted the conference’s marquee event Thursday night with campaign managers Kellyanne Conway and Robby Mook, defended the Lewandowski hire, noting the difficulty that CNN had finding pro-Trump voices.
“I felt like people were upset because they didn’t like Corey Lewandowski, and they didn’t like Donald Trump, and that that was much of the concern about the hiring of Corey Lewandowski — not so much ‘Well, he worked on the campaign…,’” he told reporters beforehand. “I understand the criticism in terms of ‘What value does he have journalistically?’ and, you know, I don’t disagree. But by the same token, I think the larger principle was ‘Something’s going on in this country; we need to understand it.’”
Like many political reporters, Tapper was a target of anti-Semitic harassment online. He suspects it began after he asked Trump in February if he would explicitly condemn and denounce support from white supremacists, and Trump hesitated.
Anti-Semitism is something Tapper had experienced only once before, when covering the Israel-Gaza War. “That was shocking, and this was also shocking,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s probably not that different from what women and people of color online experience all the time. I just didn’t know there was that much anti-Semitism. It takes a toll on you personally, but not professionally.”
Like many reporters, he said that covering Trump was the toughest task of this election because he “said so many things that were not true and also behaved in ways that really tested the bounds of what is considered acceptable political discourse. So to cover that in a way that’s fair and accurate [was] a considerable challenge and remains one.”
Tapper added that he doesn’t know what kind of relationship President Trump will have with journalists.
“Is he going to have press conferences? Are his people going to share information? Is he going to continue to attack individual reporters by name when they factually report information, like Jeff Zeleny … did the other day” when he reported that there was no evidence of millions of fraudulent votes, as Trump claimed. “And the president-elect, soon to be the most powerful man on the planet, starts attacking him by name? That’s a problem.”
Tapper had his own run-in with Trump last spring when he questioned Trump’s now-infamous claim that a federal judge overseeing a Trump University fraud lawsuit wouldn’t be impartial because of the judge’s Mexican heritage.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get to interview him again,” he said of Trump. “I suspect it will be the last time ever, but I don’t know.
“My hope is that, as an American, I hope he is successful, and I hope he unites the country, and I hope he brings jobs to the country, and I hope he respects the role that people in the press have. But we’ll see on all of those counts, I guess.”