Jennifer Palmieri served as communications director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, a position she also held in the Obama White House from 2013-2015.
With Clinton, it was Palmieri's job to help devise messaging for the campaign, an effort that presented unique challenges, she says, given the unprecedented nature of Donald Trump's candidacy.
"It was hard to deal with this candidate," says Palmieri, "because he is so unlike any other nominee that a party has had, and so unconventional that if you tried to characterize what he said, you sounded hyperbolic."
In the following interview, Palmieri reflects on Clinton's failed bid for the White House, the role she says FBI Director James Comey played in that loss, and why she found Trump's "gradual embrace of the alt right" to be "terrifying."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Gabrielle Schonder on Nov. 18, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
I was actually in Brooklyn that day, because I was often on the road, but I was in Brooklyn that day, so I do remember actually watching him descend on the escalator, and I knew that he was somebody that would garner a lot of attention. I knew that he was likely to have appeal because he was brash, and in a field of 17, I think it was, 16 or 17 Republican candidates, that he could stand out.
But then it was just a question of, would he find it boring? Because running for president is really boring. It's hard; it's grueling; it's a lot of small meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's raising money. Most of it's really a grind. And it takes a lot of discipline, and I thought he might tire of it, actually.
But [I] took it seriously in terms of somebody who could have a lot of appeal and stand out in a big Republican field.
That's where he first said that Mexicans were rapists and criminals, "and some, I suppose, are good people," as I recall he said. We thought that it was a spectacle, and it didn't seem to me that it had been particularly thought out or orchestrated. I actually think that a lot of their campaign wasn't as strategic as the press thought it was, or that in retrospect we think it is. I think he might have just been the right kind of personality for the moment in the Republican field.
I knew that people had been paid to be there. I think we made something of that the next day. So again, it wasn't clear to me if he was going to last, not because he would say something that would boot himself out or disqualify himself in the Republican field, but I actually--I really did think he would get bored.
I thought, Republicans are reaping what they sowed; that they had for a long time, since probably Reagan, there were a lot of dog whistles in the party that were, in my view, geared to appeal to some people in the country that still hold racist attitudes; that they've ridden that tiger for a while, and now it could consume them, because, you know, we watched the Republican primary very closely, obviously, and then when Trump got more serious, we watched closely how the Republican candidates dealt with him. We felt they weren't ever able to take him on on issues, because even though he always had the most extreme view, his view was sort of the logical extension of where Republicans were.
A lot of Republicans wouldn't come out and say, "We're going to deport everyone," but they would say, "These people are here illegally," so they couldn't really take him on on issues. There were two big elements in the Republican Party at that time. On the policy, they were all advocating for tax cuts for wealthy people, not for the working-class vote that they were trying to get. And they were riding this tiger of a lot of dog whistles on race.
And you know, if you're sort of bankrupt of ideas for people who are actually going to help you, does Donald Trump get to hijack your party? Yeah, he does.
I know that she was the first person to call him out on saying Mexicans are rapists and criminals, and didn't use his name because we thought that at that point, from our perspective, if we lifted any one Republican candidate up, we were probably doing them a favor, right? Because if Hillary Clinton's attacking you, that would help them in the Republican field.
So we didn't say his name, but we called out the language. That was something that she thought was important to do, ... because you couldn't let that go unmarked. I think that that was where we started with the strategy that we ultimately landed on when he was the general election nominee, which was not to characterize what he did or said, but just repeat his words back. If you said, "He's a sexist," then he would go run around saying, "Hillary Clinton says I'm a sexist." Then you're into a different kind of fight.
But you just repeat back: "He says that women are pigs; women are pigs. He says that 'It's very hard to be a 10 if you're flat-chested.'" If you just repeat back what he says, words that are sexist, that that was ultimately more effective.
It was hard to deal with this candidate, because he is so unlike any other nominee that a party has had, and so unconventional, that if you tried to characterize what he said, you sounded hyperbolic. Also, you ran the risk of if you were describing in terms that sounded hyperbolic early on, who this candidate was, where do you go from there? If you start there in 2015 saying he's racist and sexist, and he continues on to become the general election candidate, people can become inured to that, and that was a big concern that we had.
We always thought that repeating his words back--it's also sort of chilling, because some of them are very disturbing--was ultimately more effective than trying to characterize what he said.
I don't remember specifically. But there was a group of myself, our campaign manager Robby Mook, John Podesta, Jake Sullivan, our consultants, everybody agreed that this was something that we needed to take on.
No. I mean, this is literally what he said on his announcement day. We had no idea who was going to emerge as the Republican nominee, but we did think that at a minimum, what he was saying was disturbing. ... Our point was, he uses these disturbing terms, but his policy is the same policy that the other Republican candidates hold. They just aren't as frank about it.
So we thought that if you call out his words and you link that to their policy, it reveals to people in starker terms what the impact of that policy would be, a, and/or if you call out what he said, then the other candidates are in a position of either backing him up or walking away from him. Craving that sort of dissonance in the Republican field was to our advantage, too.
“It wasn’t clear to me if he was going to last. Not because he would say something that would boot himself out or disqualify himself in the Republican field, but I actually, I really did think he would get bored.”
We were very concerned about it, because his ability to dominate the news cycle was--we knew that was a problem. That's a huge problem for the Republican candidates, and we saw that coming as a big problem for us. And it was a problem until Election Day.
You know, people mistake a tactic for a message. Anybody can use Twitter and not be very effective at it. What was effective was how incendiary what he said was, how unconventional a candidate he was. Jeb Bush could have taken to Twitter and used the media, tried to use the media in different ways, and I don't think it would have made much of a difference because he wasn't saying very provocative things. Trump was.
I think 2016 is the year that underlying tensions and conflict just rose to the surface in almost every sphere. In politics you had, just in terms of tactics, you had somebody like Trump emerge who was unwilling to play the normal game with the press and created his own universe. He lived in a self-contained universe where he could control the dialogue and what his supporters heard about him. And because he didn't care what the rest of the press said, he was sort of inured to criticism.
... I saw his media strategy as very savvy. I also knew it was not a game that Hillary Clinton could play, because Hillary Clinton was never going to be as controversial as him, and to try to play his game would have been a mistake.
No, because I knew immediately that she's just not as provocative, she's not going to say offensive things. Again, we were watching the Republican candidates, and we saw what they tried to do was ignore Trump. Then once he became a problem, they tried to play his game, and you can't play Trump's game.
You saw Rubio try and sort of flame out. You saw Jeb in even his way try and flame out. We watched them closely and thought, our space, because we're Democrats and we don't hold the same views, is to is to call him out using his own language, a, but then also to draw this back to policy, because we thought even if Trump isn't the nominee, he was still a helpful device, because what he was saying, while it sounded extreme, was the logical extension of what most of the Republican candidates were actually for. And that was helpful to us. ...
We thought that he was running as a Republican, and the Republicans had to own that.
I remember when he attacked [Sen. John] McCain and then didn't apologize, didn't suffer any consequence from that. That was the first time I thought he could be the nominee, because he's not going to go away, he's not going to be scared off, and he's playing what I thought was a dangerous game and continued to play a dangerous game. He's playing a very different game.
That was early on. That was in the summer of 2015. ... It was in February where we thought, you know, we're thinking more definitively on how you would take this guy on for a general election.
Well, first we tried to understand him better. We talked to a lot of people who know him. This is a value of being in New York City, because there were a lot of people who knew him there. It was like a Batman movie version of a campaign, right? We're all in Gotham; the fate of the world hung in the balance; there were overly stylized villains. We talked to a lot of people who knew him, and it was really helpful. People who said that what motivates him [in] their view was, it's not even the money; it's not the beautiful wives. It's these things are all just ways of aggrandizing himself, right? The building, that that is what motivated him. It's just an insatiable need to aggrandize himself and his name.
He had been a relatively successful businessman, although we think not as successful as he likes people to think. That wasn't enough. Now he needed a bigger platform.
Didn't prepare. We were told he doesn't ever ... prepare, doesn't have the discipline to read more than one page, is very easily distracted, very reactive, and takes bait if he's attacked on things that he cares about.
What we sought to do at that point was understand what policies he had that voters would oppose, and how you defined the person that he was, his own record, and how he has run his business and treated people in that.
Then we had another strategy of either issues that we would hit or attacks on him that we thought no voter would ever care about, but might get under his skin.
He's very reactive. If you watch the debates, he would normally react to the last thing that Hillary would say or the last thing the moderator would say. There were certain things he didn't like to be attacked on. People, wealthy people saying he wasn't that wealthy really bothered him. And he was relatively easily baited and more so, I guess, than baited is distracted.
We saw that with Elizabeth Warren. Trump was doing a speech where he was, I guess it was in the summer, early summer, and he was really attacking Hillary, and then Elizabeth Warren started tweeting in the middle of the speech, and he just got diverted and went on a three-day attack on Elizabeth Warren. I'm thinking, what are you doing? It's fine with us, but why would you waste three days attacking Elizabeth Warren?
You saw the same thing with the Khans and that death spiral that he went into; Judge [Gonzalo] Curiel; Alicia Machado. He got better, but he could be easily distracted.
We had a number of concerns. One was, how do you convey how disturbing he is without sounding hyperbolic? Two was, how can you sustain that? Because we did decide early in June of 2016 to say that he was unfit to be commander in chief. That is something that no candidate I can recall has ever done about their opponent, actually say they're not fit to be commander in chief.
We decided to do that in June. And that is something that Hillary weighed in on directly, because we were, as a team, struggling, [because if] you say that in June, where do you go? Where do you go from there? ... In a normal presidential campaign, that's not something you would ever say about your opponent. But we thought he was so singularly unqualified and it would be so singularly dangerous for him to be commander in chief, she needed to convey that.
“Even though he always had the most extreme view, his view was sort of the logical extension of where Republicans were.”
I believe that he was a vessel for people in this country that rightly feel they have been left behind, who feel that they have had decades without wages growing, where the haves and the have-nots continue to grow. I think a lot of people in this country have lost faith that there can really be anything done about that. We've come back from the recession, but working-class people aren't feeling it. I think his supporters were looking for an outlet that expressed that frustration in a candidate. I think if you listen to why people supported him, they just don't have faith that anything can change. ... An outsider like him might be the only one that had a chance. And some of them don't think that even he can help them, but some people think he'll blow up the system and maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but that's just how frustrated and discouraged that they were.
I don't think this was an election where someone had a better specific plan for jobs. I think this is an election where Donald Trump was a very good vessel for frustration and hopelessness that a lot of people felt. ...
Yes. I think his nominating speech versus Hillary's was--these are two really different visions of America. What we believed by the spring was, this is not a normal kind of election where you're going to argue about tax cuts. This was an existential election about the kind of country we are going to be.
... We saw where Trump voters were, and we saw the voters open to us are the people who want results, want to get things done, but also appreciate that this is a time of change for America, and it's a time to take stock and reaffirm the values that we hold as Americans.
That meant embracing the diversity. That meant embracing these changes that were happening and seeing that you can harness these, acknowledge this change, but how can you harness the forces to reaffirm what we believe as Americans, and succeed from there.
That is what we wanted our convention to convey. ... Obviously, no one did that better than Mr. [Khzir] Khan in his speech. That was an expectedly moving moment, but that was a very important moment. Then with Hillary's speech, obviously we had the virtue of having Trump go first, so we could see this very dark vision that he had of America, which we saw as America's best days were behind them. The thing that really struck us from his speech and the thing that really struck Hillary from his speech was "I alone can fix it." So un-American, and also messianic. ...
It was crazy. Like, why is he going into this death spiral? It had happened before with Judge Curiel. We knew basically to get out of the way and let him spiral. We had some concern for the Khans themselves. We didn't want them to become, obviously--you know, they're a very patriotic family that has suffered this big loss. They were apolitical. They were not political people, and [we] didn't want them to get caught in a political food fight. I think they came out of it OK.
But, you know, this is what we were told he would do, that if somebody attacked him in a way that he found [something] offensive about it, he was going to react this way.
I found it terrifying, although ultimately, Steve Bannon threw everything he had at us, and we looked into his heart of darkness, and he didn't scare us, and he didn't throw Hillary Clinton off her game.
But it was very chilling to me, because it showed that Donald Trump had seen a--that it was the darkest things that he had said that had most driven his candidacy, and he was doubling down on them. As a tactic, that's a smart tactic to take, right? He saw what was working, wasn't going to make any attempt to moderate himself or appeal to a broader group. He was just going to double down on trying to destroy Hillary Clinton.
The people that he hired were people who had been trying to destroy her for 20 years, literally. It was my worst nightmare. I couldn't imagine prior to the cycle running against a Republican nominee that actually empowered, put in charge the people that were running alt right, the people that had run Citizens United, that had created organizations that were designed to destroy Hillary Clinton. That's who they put in charge.
It was scary for me as communications director, all of the personal attacks that they were going to throw at her.
Just the constant onslaught of dealing with it and how the press were going to handle it and if that was just going to dominate the coverage. And if it would, ultimately, voters would just become exhausted by it, which I think in the end with WikiLeaks, we did experience that. ...
Umm, as soon as we pointed it out to her, she understood it was a problem. Here's something Hillary Clinton doesn't do: screw up. She was the first person to tell you, she's not the greatest campaigner,; she doesn't campaign in poetry. She doesn't screw up like that.
She immediately saw it as a problem and agreed that we needed to clarify it. ... It's particularly dangerous when you talk about somebody's supporters. You just should never do it, so we saw pretty immediately that it was a problem.
"Don't get in the way," mostly. This is uncharted territory. We spent a lot of time in this election in uncharted territory. This is uncharted territory. And we had the debate right after it happened, so we knew that we had a good venue for Hillary Clinton to confront him about it, and we should hold our fire until she had that moment, which we expected to be a very dramatic moment, because they were going to be on stage together.
I thought it would be a huge story. I thought it would be distracting for him, and that was going to be a big problem for him. We had some anecdotal evidence and even did ads with Republicans who were turned off by that and came to Hillary because of that. I didn't necessarily see it as a as a definitive moment. I thought a lot of people who would be disturbed by that were probably already for her.
But I would say our most fundamental problem in communicating in the general election is Donald Trump ... was able to create his own universe, his own universe of where he made the rules. He was able to drive the coverage, and because he's somebody who's inured to criticism isn't going to be really thrown off his game.
In our world, the press weren't particularly interested in anything Hillary Clinton had to say unless it was in reaction to Trump. What we finally landed on for how you deal with that is you've got to make sure that when she is showing how she contrasts with Trump, that there's something positive about her that's in there. ...
On the campaign plane.
Yeah, we had very bad Wi-Fi on our plane, and I was back talking to the press, and they said, "Someone from NBC showed me that there was the headline about the FBI and email investigation," but none of us could actually load the story. That took about an hour.
I kept thinking this can't be, this has to be a mistake, it's got to be referring to something else. Then ... we were able to read and understand the full story, which blew my mind, having been--you know, I worked for the Clinton White House; I worked in the Obama White House. I'm pretty familiar with how Justice handles these matters, particularly when those matters are close to the election, and I knew that this just violated everything, the practice of how Justice would normally handle a situation like that, particularly 11 days out from an election.
It was astounding. I thought it was apparent that it could overwhelm us in terms of coverage. I wasn't so concerned that it was going to introduce new facts for voters, and, you know, that people had already made judgment about email, but it could just consume our coverage. And that is in fact what it did, or at least for a number of days, pretty critical days.
When I went to [tell] her, I said, "I've got some news." She said, "OK, what's your news?" I said, "It's bad news." She said, "OK, what's the bad news?" So I told her, and I explained how we thought we should handle it, and she said, "OK." And I said, "I think you probably need to talk to the press about it, but ... we should get some more facts figured out before we do that." She said, "OK." She had a little smile on her face, and I said, "What's that for?" She just kind of smiled, and I said, "You knew we weren't done." And she said, "I knew we weren't going three weeks without something else hitting us." She just knew that there was another major twist in this storyline, not necessarily Comey, because this was so out of the ordinary, but she just knew that there would be something else, and she's like: "I knew there would be something else. Here it is. Let's deal with it." And onward.
And the last three weeks, she had the best attitude of the whole campaign. I would say of all of us, the person who was probably least surprised that we lost is Hillary Clinton. I think she was always the person who always, you know, having been herself for her whole life, she was the last to believe that she was actually going to win and so was probably the least surprised by it, and also the least surprised when we had developments like Comey.
“I kept thinking this can’t be, this has to be a mistake.”
Our thought was we needed to--again, we didn't think that it was necessarily going to change minds, but it was going to be a huge distraction, and people were going to hear about it, and we wanted people to hear about it to also hear that this is very unusual; this is unprecedented; this is not something an FBI director would normally do, and this is not something that the Justice Department would normally allow, and it was extraordinary, so that people had some context for how to think about it when they did hear it.
That's what we set out to do. I think we were successful in doing that. We only had her address it a couple of times, just because, again, you wanted voters to understand: "Here's how we're thinking about this; here's how we think that you should think about. If you want to look at my staff's emails, great, go ahead and do that." But we understood that we wanted voters to know we weren't going to be distracted by it.
... I think we handled it as well as we could have. Certainly it broke through with the public that this was something odd, but it's still true that we lost five days of coverage to it.
... It started off fine, and then once Florida was off, you then had that overwhelming sense of dread that I had experienced in other primary nights where just, it's just slightly off across the board. It got very scary very fast. ... You know, you lost Florida and then Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin were all still in play, but not behaving the way we expected them to behave.
No. I don't know what time Florida was--9:00, 10:00 that we started to see that Florida was a problem. From whatever that time was, 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 in the morning, we knew Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania were probably just not going to get resolved that night. ... We knew that wasn't a situation that we wanted to put the candidate out, and decided around 12:30 or so that Podesta should go and tell people at the Javits Center that they were going to see her. It's going to be a long night; it was close; a lot of it's [left] to count, and we'd come back at it in the morning. Then once they called Pennsylvania, we didn't have a path, so that's when she decided that she should call Trump to concede.
Not really. We stopped.
I wasn't there for that. I was at the Javits Center.
Sad, you know. People were really surprised. It's not what any of us expected. I've lost races before, but not one where you felt that the country had this much at stake. I'd never been through an election where we thought this country had this much at stake. Trying to wrap your head around that fact that Donald Trump is actually going to be president of the United States, it was a really difficult thing to accept.
This was a really, really hard race. It's the hardest thing I think anybody who was involved in it has ever done. And to comprehend that it would end this way was not something I think anyone could process that night.
I saw every day of the campaign something that was a sign that this could happen. This is a part of the reason why the campaign was so hard. You saw this disaffection across America, across all demographics. I had said many times during the campaign, either we're going to win, or there is a wave that none of us--and when I said us, I meant the campaign and the press--could see that would overwhelm us; and if she loses, it was going to be because it was never going to happen. In retrospect, we would look back on this year and we'd look back on all of the roiling tensions that came to the surface in America in 2016 and understand that it was never going to happen.
In the end, we got a very unsatisfying split decision. We won the popular vote, which makes me feel so much better about America, that a majority of Americans said, "I'm embracing her vision of America and not the dark vision that Donald Trump represents," but not enough, or not enough in the right places. ...
No, because like I said, she was the least surprised person in the entire campaign. I think I knew her when I started this campaign, but I got to know her better during this campaign, and she does not get the credit for having as astute a political mind as she does. But her astute political mind is through the prism of having been Hillary Clinton and understanding how voters and the press react to her and opponents react to her.
... There's a whole other story to be looked at here, as the first woman nominee, and how her opponent reacted to her or how she was covered, that I suspect the next woman candidate won't have to go through.
It wasn't apparent that night that it happened, and it's going to take a long time to sort through all that data. But it appears that we only did a point better with white women than President Obama did. I think he got 43 or 44 percent of the vote. We had expected more. We'd wanted more, obviously. People believe that women voters are inclined to vote for women candidates. There's very little evidence that's true. It's not as if we thought women were going to vote for Hillary Clinton because she's a woman. As a matter of fact, they really reject that. Women are offended by that notion.
It's not as if we thought that they were there for her because she was a woman. It can be just as hard to convince a woman to vote for a woman as it is to convince a man to vote for a woman. But we did think that Trump would be more unacceptable to a lot of women than he ended up being. Across the board we didn't perform the way that we had expected, and that was part of it.
I wish that we could have won those guys back, but I think if you look at fundamentally what this race was really about, the voters that ended up going to Donald Trump are--and rightly so--extraordinarily frustrated, disillusioned. It's been 30 years; their wages aren't going up. People recovered from the recession, not them. They're tired of hearing about training programs; they want jobs. It was a primal, existential scream. ...
What scares me the most about what I've heard some of his supporters say is they don't think things can change, and they're not even sure that he can change, and they don't care. They just want to try something different. Or some people will even say, "I just want to blow up the whole system."
The fact that in America that's how a pretty good part of the population feel is scary. ... But I don't look back and think that if she'd run more ads on the economy, which by the way we ran lot of ads on, that was going to have moved a lot of people that were determined to be for him.
“It was hard to deal with this candidate, because he is so unlike any other nominee that a party has had, and so unconventional, that if you tried to characterize what he said, you sounded hyperbolic.”
So we lost Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania by a total of 105,000 votes, OK? Jill Stein got 130,000 votes in those three states. This could have very easily gone the other way. So we look with obviously a lot of regret, particularly that we failed in those three states, particularly since Michigan ended up being so close. But we spent a lot of time in rural Pennsylvania. We spent a lot of money in Pennsylvania. I personally spent lot of time in Pennsylvania; I saw a lot of the Trump supporters, and these were people that didn't see a lot of hope and didn't want to hear it.
Hillary went to Appalachia, and we spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania and time in rural Pennsylvania. What the truth is, if she were elected president, she would have zeroed in on that region and done a lot to help it and not cared at all if everyone in that region continued to not vote for her. She saw a huge problem there. It frustrated her. It frustrated her that there were so many people on the sidelines, that there wasn't a strategy for how we're going to bring this region back. She tried to be heard, and it just wasn't possible. They just weren't going to listen. And maybe people who have been trying to talk to them should have been trying to talk to them all along. They weren't hearing her. They just were not.
I think they're really surprised they won. I don't think they thought they were going to win, so I don't know that I buy lookbacks that suggest that they had a different view of the race than it appeared at the time. But I guess they can speak to that.
I think he was able to dominate the news coverage because he had very controversial things to say, and that's what the press chose to focus on. I think that the press came in to this race believing that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president of the United States. They believed that she was a person that they thought would probably be a good president but was flawed, and they were going to cover her in a way that would force her to become a better person. They covered Donald Trump like he was somebody who was going to be entertaining and drive ratings, and they did that until July, and they realized in July this guy could actually become president. Then they tried to treat him more seriously, and they did treat him more seriously.
But at that point, the damage was done. And the fact that she lost the presidency probably because the FBI director sent a letter about an email investigation that, while she's admitted was a mistake, comes anywhere close to anything Donald Trump could have said on a given day is absurd. But that is what happened here.