—CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Top officials from the Trump and Clinton campaigns clashed angrily Thursday over questions of mandates and alleged associations with white supremacists -- leaving a conference designed to draw lessons from the election turning at times into a shouting match over campaign tactics.
The gathering of top campaign aides to all the major presidential candidates, held at Harvard University Wednesday and Thursday, revealed raw emotions and outright anger between staffers who tangled largely from afar over a grueling campaign.
During the far-ranging series of conversations, a Clinton aide called FBI Director James Comey's letters regarding the email investigation a "game-changer" and a former Trump aide said he thought the race was over after Trump criticized the war hero credentials of Sen. John McCain.
Clinton aides lit into their Trump counterparts for running a campaign that a top Clinton spokesperson said provided a “platform for white supremacists,” citing bringing former Breitbart chief, Steve Bannon, on the team.
“I would rather lose than win the way you guys did,” said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
Bannon has denied being a white nationalist and members of the Trump team have defended him. Trump has disavowed support from white supremacists and said he is the "least racist" person.
“No you wouldn’t, respectfully,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway countered. She said the Clinton side was ignoring the flaws of their candidate and her campaign operation.
“How about, it’s Hillary Clinton – she doesn’t connect with people,” Conway said.
When Trump aides touted campaign tactics that included an aggressive candidate travel schedule -– helping power a sweep of battleground states, and a clear Electoral College victory –- Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook fired a salvo back.
“I would just say, Hillary did win the popular vote,” Mook said. At latest count, Clinton led by nearly 2.5 million votes, according to the Associated Press.
That provoked sighs and anger from the six Trump aides seated across from the six Clinton aides in a crowded conference room at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
“Oh, God, you guys,” said David Bossie, a Trump deputy campaign manager.
“Hey guys, we won -– there’s no need to respond,” Conway said. “He was the better candidate -– he won.”
Countered Clinton pollster Joel Benenson: “Two-and-a-half million Americans thought she was the better candidate.”
The conference revealed no consensus about how precisely Trump won -– not even from the current and former Trump aides in the room. Clinton campaign leaders rejected the notion that Trump was chosen because of his potential to lead on the economy, and they cited the desire for change as the biggest long-term obstacle they had to confront.
Mook cited the letters sent by Comey regarding Clinton’s emails as a “game-changer.”
“If you ask me the single biggest headwind in the race, it was the two letters from James Comey,” Mook said.
“If the election had been three days later, we would have won,” Palmieri added.
Palmieri said she wishes she had pushed for a fourth debate, since the Clinton campaign felt those exchanges highlighted Clinton’s superior grasp of policy. Intriguingly, Conway and Bossie said Trump would probably have agreed to another such matchup.
The Clinton campaign also expressed frustration with Trump’s mastery of the media, and felt the coverage on Clinton was tougher than it should have been because of the assumption that she would win the presidency.
“He got all the coverage, and you guys [in the press] only covered her when she talked about him,” Palmieri said.
But they could not agree on a specific change in the campaign that might have changed the outcome. Mandy Grunwald, a senior Clinton adviser who also worked for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said it’s fair to speculate on whether Warren or Bernie Sanders being on the ticket with Clinton would have made a difference – along with any other potential explanation, since the race wound up being so close.
“My general view about the general is everybody’s right” in their diagnoses of why Clinton lost, Grunwald said. “Everybody who’s got a theory of what we should have done, knock yourselves out.”
Aides to Trump’s vanquished primary opponents were similarly unable to point to strategies that might have stopped Trump, once he gained momentum after the first debate last summer.
“That’s the theme of the whole primary: Nothing mattered,” said David Kochel, a former top aide to Jeb Bush.
Trump aides didn’t pretend to always get their boss, either. Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, revealed that after Trump famously insulted Sen. John McCain, he advised Trump that he should apologize.
When he didn’t, and instead doubled down on the remarks by slamming McCain’s record on protecting veterans, Lewandowski said he was certain a campaign tailspin was imminent.
“I told my wife, I think the campaign’s over, I’m coming home,” Lewandowski said.
He said he also advised Trump not to attack the judge of Mexican heritage who was presiding in a lawsuit against his Trump University venture – another piece of advice the candidate ignored.
The campaign learned to trust Trump’s instincts, where the spirit of his message was more important than the literal substance. He cited the proposed Muslim ban, which Lewandowski said took days’ worth of deliberations and careful staging for it to be announced on a decommissioned aircraft carrier in South Carolina.
“The media wants to focus on what the statement said,” Lewandowski said to scattered laughter from attendees, “but the visuals and the timing did not happen by happenstance.”
He added: “This is the problem with the media: You guys took everything Donald Trump did so literally. And the problem with that is the American people didn’t.”
Tony Fabrizio, a Trump pollster, was more blunt: “Everybody in this room needs to pull their heads out of their a----.”