The FRONTLINE Interviews: Trump’s Road to the White House

Robby Mook

Clinton campaign manager

As Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager, Robby Mook says he has "a deep sense of responsibility" for her loss to Donald Trump. In longtime Democratic strongholds such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that Trump won, Mook says "we should have doubled down harder."

But the Clinton campaign was also blindsided by circumstances beyond its control, says Mook. For example, the letter from FBI Director James Comey alerting lawmakers 11 days before the election that federal agents had found emails that were potentially relevant to the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server. The emails would prove inconsequential, but for many voters, Mook says, "that had a huge impact."

Then there was the Russian hacking of both the DNC and the private email account of campaign chairman John Podesta. Says Mook, "We felt like like we were screaming from the mountaintop, 'This is a really big national security matter,' and nobody seemed to want to report that."

In the following interview, Mook reflects on the effect of those incidents, missteps that contributed to Clinton's defeat, and how he broke the news to her that she would lose the election.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Gabrielle Schonder on Dec. 16, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Going back to the initial DNC hack, when are you first informed? Help us describe that moment when that information reaches you.

The DNC approached us after they'd learned about the hack, and they told a very limited group of people, because if the Russians and the people who actually hacked in knew that they knew about it, it could have broadened further. So it was a pretty small circle of people.

The plan was to pull up the drawbridges. I think it was late on a Friday, and the DNC staff were a little taken aback, I later learned, because they were all asked to come in late on a Friday and turn in all their equipment, and they couldn't be told what was happening.

As soon as that happened, they made it known that they'd been hacked. Frankly, in retrospect, we thought this was the next Watergate. We thought this was a big deal. ...

We thought it was shocking that hackers that were probably hired by a foreign government--we didn't realize at that time how directly involved Putin was, but that hackers directed by a foreign government had actually broken into the DNC. We thought this would be a bombshell story.

So they alerted the media. I think it got a little bit of mention. But I remember at the time we were stunned that nobody really seemed to care, and in retrospect, what's shocking as well is that, I think it was in July at our convention, was the first time I know I went on camera, I think anybody from the campaign had gone on camera and said, "The Russians are leaking this information for the purpose of hurting our campaign." People were surprised and thought it was some sort of cheap spin, and it took us a long time to get people actually bought in to that idea.

And in retrospect, it's still surprising to me. ...

When did you begin to think it was something that could harm the campaign?

We assumed when we found out about the hack that they would release materials to embarrass the DNC and Democrats, so we were anticipating that. What was particularly frustrating was that materials at the DNC were purged on a regular basis, so our understanding is they'd been in for over a year; we didn't know what they had. so we just had to wait. But of course we assumed that it would be damaging.

What were some of the conversations you were having while bracing for it? How do you begin to build a strategy?

... Part of what you have to be deliberate about on a campaign is what you can control and what you can't control. And when you don't have the information on what was taken and you know that there's trouble ahead, we just had to brace ourselves.

Look, that's part of why we tried to be so forceful early on, to explain that this was a foreign aggressor that was doing this; this was outside the normal dynamics of a campaign. This was a foreign power trying to embarrass or disrupt the political process.

Did you know that pretty early on? Who and when roughly did the FBI tell you that this was a state-sponsored act?

Well, the FBI didn't tell the campaign anything. The FBI had alerted us that they believed that people were trying to hack in to the campaign, which we already were aware of through our own IT staff. But the experts from the company that was brought in to secure the DNC system said that they were absolutely convinced that these were Russian state actors.

And going into the convention, the timing of this hack is specific to lead up to the DNC. What options did you guys feel like you had to get ahead of this? How did you triage the information in real time?

Well, again, it was apparent when they released documents related to the primary and the [Bernie] Sanders campaign before the convention, it was clear that whoever was managing the process of releasing this was politically savvy and knew what they were doing and that they were optimizing those releases for maximum damage.

Without the actual information itself, we did everything we could to try to help people understand the context for what was going on. Frankly, we were frustrated. I was frustrated that when I went on TV and said something that was completely true and corroborated by experts that that was spin.  I think what was frustrating as well was that a hack by a foreign government was falsely made equivalent to the information itself, so that there would be questions about what the DNC had been doing, and that reporting on that was the same as reporting that it came from Russia. Then many reporters got so sick of mentioning that it came from Russia that it almost became an inconvenience, and they didn't want to talk about that. Obviously now, people are talking about it a lot more.

At the time, it must have been incredibly frustrating. These are huge allegations. This is incredible interference that's just happening to your party.

Yeah. And we felt like we were screaming from mountaintop, "This is a really big national security matter," and nobody seemed to want to report that. Nobody seemed interested in that story. We also felt a little bit alone, because law enforcement or national security experts, it wasn't like they were calling us and informing us about what they knew. Nobody was giving us a full picture of what was going on. We had to rely on what the experts that we had hired to help secure our systems were telling us, both from the campaign and then also from the DNC, and then also what experts out in the media were saying.

I know I personally many times felt like I was in a situation that was extremely serious, had an enormous impact on the campaign, and there was no--you know, they don't teach you as a campaign manager not just cybersecurity, but international espionage. So I was, and all of us were, in the process of learning and understanding this as we went along.

So you're not fielding calls from any of the intelligence agencies or the FBI with details about the latest information that they knew?

The FBI showed up in our office one day and said, "We think people are trying to hack you." Well, we heard sort of a rumor from people that the FBI was coming to see us, and we didn't know; we didn't know anything. They didn't call us and say, "We'd like to sit down with you." We just heard rumors through Secret Service and other people that they'd be showing up at the office.

I thought it was a joke or something. I literally thought the person who called me was just pulling my leg. And then, they did. They showed up 10 minutes later. And we sent somebody down to talk to them, and they said they wanted to talk about our email servers. And we said, "Well, with regard to what?" And they sat down and they said, "We think that you're subject to phishing attacks," and that we should be careful.

I think we were grateful that we had some good IT staff that had set up two-way authentication and other systems that protected us and ultimately prevented them from getting into the campaign's servers. But yeah, I guess I was surprised that law enforcement doesn't come and give you the guidebook or something on how to deal with this. I mean, there's obviously best practices, and we had those in place, but yeah, they showed up unannounced one day.

It was clear that whoever was managing the process of releasing this was politically savvy and knew what they were doing. And that they were optimizing those releases for maximum damage.”

And then a month before the election, John Podesta's emails are hacked. This is a totally different activity. This is much more sinister. Tell me when you received the news that this had happened.

Well, we had been told some months earlier that his account may have been compromised, and then it became public that it definitely was. At that point, we had to get a team together, because we did have all of the emails, to start sorting through and trying to understand what was probably coming our way.

I actually am proud to say it didn't take down the campaign. I think from a message standpoint and in terms of completely inhibiting our ability to communicate our message, it absolutely had a bad impact. But something like this where personal internal emails are getting out, it could have just completely unraveled the organization, unraveled from a personnel standpoint, and that didn't happen. I think John's leadership is a testament to that. He was incredibly stoic about the whole thing.

As I said, we had a team going through his inbox. They were in a little room, and we'd bring them food occasionally to keep them fed. They were working around the clock to try to understand what was in there.

What was a struggle for us was, on the one hand, it was just coming every day, so you could interpret it as there's so much of it, none of it's sticking; it's not getting through. On the other hand, it was incredibly damaging, because every day there were bad stories coming out, and they could be perfectly timed, according to people who clearly knew what they were doing.

It was anxiety-provoking. You just don't know what's going to come out on any day and that you're going to have to deal with that.

And the culture of the staff. You have some staffers that are seeing obviously their own emails and language on banners of CNN every day. What does that feel like?

It was hard. Like I said, I'm proud that people went on and kept doing their jobs, and I think we set a really good culture within the campaign that we weren't going to let this distract us. We were going to manage it, and we were going to manage it in a really professional and methodical way, but I never once heard anybody complain about, "I can't believe somebody wrote that," or, "I can't believe they said that," or talking about behind people's back. It just never happened. But that was important. We had to keep the mission moving forward.

But, for example, I remember there was that Saturday Night Live sketch where they showed the staff partying after the Trump bus video came out, and we must have been so happy. I was in a room dealing with WikiLeaks emails when that happened. I think people forget that, that for Trump, there were some really embarrassing moments. But for us, every day, there was more and more coming out.

Just in the last few weeks, really, there's been the acknowledgement that there was a state-sponsored interference directed by Putin toward you guys from two separate hacking groups. Looking back now, do you look at the Department of Justice, do you look at the intelligence community and think, what were you guys thinking, not keeping us abreast of all these details, not giving us the guidebook, not engaging with us?

In the same way that WikiLeaks was a slow drip, drip, drip every day of news, I think the evolution of the entire situation was a drip, drip, drip. We knew there were phishing attempts. Then we were told there were definitely phishing attempts, and they were coming from Russia. Then we hear the Russians get into the DNC. Then we hear they get into John Podesta's email. I think if somebody had told me at the very beginning of this, "Vladimir Putin is directing a program to take down your campaign," yes, I absolutely would have expected people to do more. And I certainly hope that from this situation that law enforcement and the national security community will figure out a way to support people when something like this happens, because there is no support structure there.

I don't know what they did or what they didn't do to this day. I probably will never know. But I think my biggest takeaway from this is that it's real and it's serious. It's a theft. So if someone had said that Russian agents had broken the locks on the DNC and pulled out every file, people would be outraged. It would be wall-to-wall news. What happened here was that. They broke in digitally, they took information, and then they disseminated it out for malicious reasons. It is theft, and legally it's treated that way. So I think part of what we need to do as a country and a culture is recognize that for what it is.

I also was disappointed. You know, the Sony hack that happened, a lot was made that that was foreign-state actors, and I don't understand why, when it happened to a campaign, that it wasn't treated in a similar way. Again, I'll never understand why that was.

Let's go to the conventions for a second. The difference between the two conventions, yours and theirs, is exceptionally different. Yours is looking toward the future. It's glitzy; there's star power. The RNC's seemed to be looking a little bit toward our past as a country. It's also focused on security and jobs, and the mood overall is pretty dour. How did you view their convention?

I was surprised by how dark and gloomy it was. We were also very afraid that Donald Trump would have the production to end all productions; it was going to be the greatest show on earth. Both from a technical standpoint, but also to some degree from a message standpoint, ... it was almost ordinary. I know they had the steam machine with him coming out, but I don't think anybody was particularly impressed by that.

We were actually very scared going in to his convention that it was going to be glitzier, it was going to be more modern, it was going to be edgier than ours. I don't think that ended up being the case, though.

And what did you see when you watched?

I was surprised, because I thought fundamentally his message was going to be about change and about the future, and about how he could make the future better. They made a choice to make it about condemning the way things are now. You can say that was a smart choice. I think that on this campaign there were so many different events along the way, and each one of those in any other campaign would have been an absolute game changer. But by the time we got to October, I don't know how much the convention was really factoring in to people's thinking.

As you guys are coming out, though, you're surging at your own convention. How did you guys feel?

Well, one thing I should add. We designed the convention around certain tentpoles. We wanted to talk about who Hillary Clinton was, why she chose to run for president, the values that had driven her. We wanted to talk about the America that we thought Trump wanted to make, and then we wanted to talk about the America that she wanted to make.

We told that through a number of different voices. Obviously, we had prominent surrogates, like the first lady and President Clinton and President Obama and Vice President Biden. But we also had a number of everyday individuals. I think what was surprising was, we had a woman who--her husband had been killed in Iraq, I believe, and she used the death benefit money that she received to go to Trump University. It's a gut-wrenching story about how she saw Trump University as a way to turn her life around, create a better future for her kids, and it was a scam. We thought that was going to be the big story coming out of the convention, and it wasn't. It was Khizr Khan.

She had given a speech about his son, I think one or two months earlier, which hadn't really gotten much coverage. The story of his son is an incredible one, you know, an act of bravery. But the story coming out of the convention was Mr. Khan himself, and then Trump kept that going. It's ironic, because we were planning for that week to be about the economy. She and Sen. [Tim] Kaine and President Clinton and Mrs. Kaine went on a bus tour in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. She was talking about her jobs plan, talking about job creation, job training, and we couldn't get it through. Everything was about Mr. Khan, which at the time felt fine, because we felt like it was reinforcing everything about Donald Trump that people didn't like. And Donald Trump was creating that story himself.

In retrospect, I think it's a legitimate question: Would we have maybe preferred that time to be spent talking about her jobs plan and getting attention to that rather than getting attention for Donald Trump?

Shortly after the convention, Steve Bannon is hired by Trump. What did that signal to you in terms of certainly that the world that he comes out of, alternative media, but then also the conspiracy theories and this new question about nonfactual rumors and stories that he really embraces? This is now a formalized candidate who's now taken some of these issues out of this gray area and really embraced [them]. Were you worried at the time?

I remember feeling conflicted. On the one hand, this was now the third management regime for the campaign, so to some extent, we thought that Bannon might just be the third, and then maybe there is a fourth or a fifth. And it's easy to joke about Breitbart News. It's absurd; it's a bunch of lies. We made a decision when they were pushing a lot of stories about her health that were completely concocted--I mean, fake documents that they were posting online, completely fabricated information--we made a decision to engage. I remember the media was taken aback and said, "Why are you engaging on this?" We felt it was important that we had to draw lines and reset, I would argue, norms about what's true and what's not true. To that point, we were worried that this meant that fake news was going mainstream and that they were doubling down on that strategy, which they did. ...

We felt like we were screaming from mountaintop, ‘This is a really big national security matter,’ and nobody seemed to want to report that. Nobody seemed interested in that story.’”

On that point, she then has this gaffe of referencing Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables." That statement and the point she was making becomes totally lost in the backlash. Did you expect it when she said it? Did you know how this was going to come back at the campaign?

Well, we definitely expected that there would be some pushback on it, and she corrected her statement the next day. I think this is an example of the double standard that was applied during the campaign. Hillary Clinton makes one remark, the next morning caveats it and apologizes for anybody who might have been insulted, and the media continues -- you know, she makes one statement like that, and the media makes a false equivalency between insulting things that Trump has said that are deeply racist, sexist and insulting. And I just -- I maintain these things cannot be compared. I think that was frustrating. ...

On a daily basis he's sometimes making these comments, right? She makes this one. How do you view this?

She was just held to a different standard than Trump was, and that's reality. And when you're running a campaign, you have to operate in reality. I don't think it was fair, but that's the way the game is set up.

Let me ask you about the first debate. How did you prep? What were the worries going into it?

We did not know what to expect. Hillary is a meticulously prepared individual, and she prepared in a meticulous way for this debate. We always used to say, somewhat jokingly, but it was really true, we didn't know which Donald Trump was going to show up. We didn't know if he'd show up and do what he did on the stump. We didn't know if he'd show up and be all buttoned up and look more presidential. We assumed, and I think it was appropriate to plan for him showing up in a more traditional manner and ready to look presidential on that stage. We obviously prepared for different scenarios, but I think the most dangerous one would have been him showing up prepared.

He ended up showing up completely unprepared, and that definitely played to her advantage.

And then he takes the bait on Alicia Machado.

Yeah. We were surprised. We thought that he would have prepped with his team to try to keep his temper in check. Clearly that wasn't the case. We were surprised by how that continued to play out for well over a week afterward. One of the things that we learned probably with the Khizr Khan comments after the convention was that the campaign was going to be a series of moments, and we were always doing best when one of those moments was Donald Trump attacking somebody else. So absolutely, Alicia Machado was an example of that.

I think an example in the counterdirection--I'm sure you'll ask about this later, but the [FBI Director James] Comey letters, for example, that was a moment that hurt us. WikiLeaks was a series of moments that hurt us. In contrast to other campaigns, where it's really a contest of ideas, and each candidate is trying to advance a theory or a set of policies, this election was an arm-wrestling match within the media over who was going to be getting negative stories that day, and I don't think that served the voters very well. To some degree it kind of became a sport, and I don't know that that's good for elections, frankly.

Let's jump to the bus video. When that's released, you guys are not partying?

We were not partying. We were in a room dealing with a series of WikiLeaks emails that got dumped. I remember looking up at the television, seeing the video, seeing the chyron, and people looking at me in the meeting and saying, "This is really bad." I said: "Really? You think?" And they said, "Yeah." Then we just got right back to work.

I then saw the video after that and was obviously very taken aback, but I think a lot of people overestimated the impact that it was going to have. The news cycle was so rapid, the churn was so intense, and the attention span for any one thing was so short that maybe if it had happened two weeks out from Election Day, it might have had a greater impact. It certainly had an impact at the time. But again, the pendulum swung so much.

That's why the Comey letter was so potent for us at the end. ... It was a bad moment, and it pushed the pendulum the other way without enough time for it to swing back.

Let's talk about the Comey letter right now. That news comes in, and you're on the plane?

Yeah. Jen Palmieri, our communications director, and I had just finished briefing reporters at the back of the plane on our plan for the next seven to 10 days. We came back to our seats, and I believe an L.A. Times reporter came up to our traveling press secretary, Nick Merrill, and said, "Hey, have you heard anything about some reopening of the investigation by the FBI?" He came over to me, and I remember him leaning down next to me and saying, "Hey, have you heard anything about some reopening of the email investigation by the FBI?" And I said, "No, absolutely not."

The key problem was we didn't have Internet at that time on the plane. It would cut in and out. I guess the reporter had somehow gotten Internet for a few seconds, and the email had popped into his inbox. Nobody else knew anything. I said to him: "We're just going to have to wait till we get Internet. Maybe he got confused. Maybe the reporter had heard something and misunderstood, or this is a game of telephone."

Then we landed the plane, and we were able to get our phones working, and obviously we learned what had happened. I just remember this pit in my stomach and really worrying that this could change the game completely, in a potentially lethal way.

Jen and I went over and talked to Hillary about it. I remember seeing in that moment why she was so ready to be president, because she was very stoic about it when I would have expected her to be furious, frankly, and she said, "OK, what are we going to do?" And we said, "Let's get a statement out, and you should address the press directly." And we did.

That day was really all about getting through the situation. I felt better by the end that we'd done something about it. But that pit in my stomach, you know, I'll never forget that feeling, that we just got smacked by a two-by-four, and it came out of nowhere.

Around this time is where Kellyanne [Conway] and other Trump advisers say [they saw a crack in] the Rust Belt in terms of the data and numbers that they're looking at from political models. What's your view about the truth in that? Were you seeing [that crack] really in those last 10, 15 days? Were you seeing a crack that worried you in your own data?

Well, what we'd seen since the very beginning of the campaign was that there were really two types of states. There were states that were true battlegrounds, and they were just going to be tight no matter what; and then there were other states--and Wisconsin and Michigan were definitely in this category--that they could move a lot. In fact, we did a research project early in the general election where we would take Donald Trump's negative messaging on Hillary and just read it out to voters in those states, and that's when we'd really see a change. We were actually very worried about Wisconsin and Michigan the whole time.

Part of our strategy was not to signal to the Trump campaign about Michigan in particular, so we built a pretty big ground game. We had over 200 staff in Michigan, about 180 in Wisconsin, and conducted voter registration to try to make the electorate better for us. We were actually surprised that Trump wasn't making a harder play at Michigan in particular.

We were on national television starting in July. So we had television going in there. We definitely saw the numbers move after Comey. In fact, that was the first thing [I did], when I got back to the office, is talk to our analytics folks, and we upped the number of people we were sampling every night, and we saw a very precipitous drop. In fact, we were probably losing the race outright in our numbers for a day or two there.

It started to improve a little bit afterward. We definitely saw a fall in Michigan and Wisconsin. We didn't see us losing them, but we saw them tighten up quite a bit. And you know, that's the point at which we started to make changes.

Was there a discussion at that point about going into both states with her at the very end? He sort of bombarded some of these areas.

Yeah. Well, what Trump did in fact was to just tour every state. He went to New Mexico. He went to Minnesota. We focused her on the states that would get us to 270, Pennsylvania, Florida being the two biggest ones. We did have her to go to Michigan. We had the president go to Michigan as well. And we deployed President Clinton, Chelsea and other people to Wisconsin.

Part of the reality for these states, too, is they voted later in the process. For example, in a state like Nevada or Colorado, the majority of votes were in before Election Day, so actually, Michigan was a good place just to be anyway, because probably 80, more like 90 percent of the vote was going to happen on Election Day.

I just remember this pit in my stomach and really worrying that this could change the game completely, in a, you know, in a potentially lethal way.”

On Election Day, where are you?

I was at our headquarters for a little while, and then we had a political operation boiler room in midtown, so I spent some time there. When the results started coming in, I went to her hotel, and we started watching the results come in from there.

If you can walk me through your night as much as you can, I'd love to hear your play-by-play. You start in Brooklyn. You come over to midtown about what time?

I was at headquarters very early in the morning. I probably was at midtown midday. I went over to the election night event site and did a little TV time there. We were doing last-minute get-out-the-vote messaging to our supporters, urging them to turn out. I went over to her hotel probably an hour or two before the polls started closing.

Who was she with?

She was in the suite with President Clinton. Chelsea was there as well. They all showed up at different times. I think President Clinton was there earlier, and then Chelsea was probably the last one to get there. She had two versions of her speech and was working on both of those as the polls were closing.

As you were seeing exit polls, what are the conversations you're having?

Well, the second round of exit polls that came out reflected largely what our thinking was. Going into Election Day, we didn't expect to win in North Carolina. We thought we'd probably lose it by a little or it would be too close to call on election night. Florida, you know, we thought was a tossup. We thought Pennsylvania was going to be closer than we'd like.

But the exit polls had such a bad track record that I think we looked at them referentially, but we were really just waiting for those returns.

The Virginia returns looked fine, but they were a little bit closer than we would have liked. It was really when North Carolina and Florida came in that we were concerned. We just were not performing the way we needed to, particularly with white voters. And I remember thinking, well, maybe this is a Southeast problem, and if it is, we're going to be fine in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan. But we knew that if it wasn't just a Southeastern problem, we had larger issues coming.

Was Florida really the moment which you felt like the [race] can go a certain way?

Yeah. Again, what we kept holding out on was maybe this is just a Southeastern issue, because sometimes those states do behave a little bit differently. But certainly, Florida and North Carolina, when we started seeing those numbers come in, in a number of different areas, we saw that there were some pretty consistent patterns that were very troubling.

This is always the problem when returns come in. In some places we saw, they matched our model or even exceeded, so that looked really good, particularly earlier in the night. But then when, as the whole state started coming in, that's when we knew we were just not performing at the level we needed to, and in many cases expected to.

Then let's talk about the Midwest. You're starting to see those returns come in. Help me understand what you're seeing.

Right. Based on the Southeast, we knew that we potentially had problems. I recall Michigan and Pennsylvania started to come in, and we could just see it; they just were not where they needed to be. Obviously, what you do at that point is you go into a mode of trying to identify a path to victory and figure out how you can get there. I was going in to brief her at regular intervals, and the first time I remember saying, "Florida and North Carolina are not going the way we need them to. I think we're probably going to lose those, and we need to see if the Northeast is performing with the same patterns. It may not be," and then going in and saying, "We're seeing similar patterns."

I think there were two briefings. One was, "I don't like how this looks, but let me get back to you," and then there was one that was, "This really is not looking the way it needs to; I don't see at this point a win," and then a third and some subsequent conversations about, "We just don't see how you get to 270 electoral votes, and we see him getting those."

How are you processing that?

Hmm. It's a good question. At the time, I wasn't processing it at an emotional level. I was just trying to understand what was happening and make sure that we were reflecting to her what was going on. There's all sorts of things that certainly once we knew we had lost that we needed to do. And as a campaign manager, you just go into action and keep righting the ship. We knew we had to set up an event for the next day. We knew we needed to get a message out to our staff. We knew that we needed to prepare to shut down the campaign and take care of them literally the next day and do all the other, you know, the media and everything else that we needed to do.

I think I was focused on that. Obviously, when you lose, there's a deep sense of remorse and, for a campaign manager, a deep sense of responsibility. So what's the right way to take responsibility? Make sure that the staff get on their feet and feel good about the work they did. I also remember, at the point that I had a few moments to reflect, just knowing how much work so many people had put into this, and a sadness that that work didn't get rewarded.

I think it's important to keep in mind, too--I talked earlier about this--there was such a tight media cycle, and the winds could shift so quickly. The reality that we had two weeks out was a really good reality. Then we had the Comey letter. We had some pretty bad WikiLeaks stuff that came out. There was clearly some stuff that was timed late to really destabilize. On a campaign, time is your most precious resource, and things you put in motion, it's hard to change in the last minute.

A lot of people fixate on her schedule, but there's a lot of other things we could and should and would have done if we'd known that that volatility we were worried about could come in to play. That's what's always toughest, you know, as a campaign manager, is there's just a lot of things you would have put in motion two months out, let alone two days out, if you'd only known.

In presidential campaigns, it was unusual that whatever dynamic was in place two weeks out, let alone maybe even four weeks out, that that would change so fundamentally. That was unusual.

So that made the planning very difficult. And when, as a campaign manager, you're making resource allocation decisions, right, that's your job. And when you make a resource decision when you're nine points up and then a week later you can be two points up, that's really frustrating. It's a very volatile environment.

Some people forget that we lost Michigan on Election Day. I don't think the data was telling us how close it was, but we weren't losing Michigan a month out, you know what I mean? That just made planning very hard.

Did you tell her she was not going to win? Were you the one that broke the news?

Yeah, John Podesta and I were going in together. Sometimes it was just me; sometimes it was John. But I remember it was John, me, Hillary, President Clinton, Chelsea might have been there, the first time that we really said, "We just don't see how there's a path."

At one point there was that tied scenario, because Nebraska's second congressional district was looking favorable, and we didn't know about the Midwestern states yet. We were seeing potentially how we could get to a tie,and that was distressing for a number of reasons.

But yeah, you know, it was a small group of us in the room.

And then when the call is placed to Trump, can you describe a little getting Kellyanne on the phone? Were you there for that?

Well, Kellyanne and I had emailed earlier in the day with a plan that essentially whoever the AP called the race for, that that person would wait 15 minutes to get a phone call from the other. Events move very quickly, because when Pennsylvania was called, that's when it was just a certainty we had--if we didn't have Florida, we didn't have North Carolina, we had to have Pennsylvania. Sowe knew that it was basically impossible at that point.

The time, as I recall, between when that happened and when the AP called the race was very rapid, but it had also gotten very late in the night, so we made a decision before Pennsylvania had been called to have John go out and tell people we were going to continue to monitor the results and that people should go home, because it had gotten so late in the night.

In the intervening time that he was doing that, Pennsylvania was called, and I believe some of the networks and perhaps even the AP had called the race. And at that point, she made the decision to call Donald Trump.

What did she say?

She said, "Congratulations." It was a very gracious call. ...

I was really impressed by how calm, cool, collected she was the whole night. It had to have been a devastating experience. I know it certainly was for me. But how steady she was throughout the thing--and honestly, it reinforced to me how capable she would have been as a president, you know, for someone who has to deal with really tough, surprising, devastating news, but maintain a calm demeanor and clear thinking. That's who I saw that night.

The next day she gives her speech. How do you guys go about working on that?

We had two versions of the speech that day. She revised that speech through the night with the speechwriter and then was working on it. I remember that morning, she was still making changes as we were getting ready to leave and go to the event. It was important to her to both thank our supporters and remind them of how proud she was of their work, but also to talk about what she said in the speech, which is that we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the president-elect, and also to touch on what this whole process is about, and what the peaceful transfer of power is, and how important it was to keep that process sacred and intact.

You guys had won enough votes to make her the next president. It's just the votes were in the wrong place.


Looking back, do you think that reflected any kind of error in strategy? Is it just chalked up to luck and to turnout that day? New insight into how the country is divided?

Yeah. Well, what we knew was that Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota actually as well, and certainly the second congressional district in Maine, among others, were very volatile, and that when the campaign went into a rough patch, that our numbers dropped there. We tried to resource them in a subterranean way with ground game, big ground staffs in each one of the voter registration programs.

In retrospect, we should have run a more robust campaign. And I more than anybody take responsibility for that, absolutely.

There's some question about whether being there more and campaigning more would have made the difference, because what triggered the collapse in those states were things like WikiLeaks and the Comey letters and so on. But the margin was so small, anything,  all these small things could have made a difference.

So would I have registered more voters? Would I have put more ground staff in? Would we have sent more mail pieces and done more television? Absolutely. Particularly in retrospect, we should have done that. We should have put down a bigger insurance policy in those states. Pennsylvania, we went all in. She was there the last two nights.

That leads to a bigger question about what is the Democratic coalition moving forward in this country? How much of what happened on election night was about a change imperative? How much of what happened on election night was about the Comey letters or about the emails leaked by the Russians? How much of this was some sort of permanent realignment in partisanship?

These are really hard questions to answer. I don't think that everything we learned through President Obama's campaigns or in the '90s through President Clinton's campaigns is all out the window. I don't think that's the case. I think the electorate is more fluid than that. And the facts here are in fact very complicated.

We did see the polls drop a lot after the Comey letter, so of course that had something to do with it. But we also saw from the very beginning of the campaign that there was a big divide between college-educated and non-college-educated voters. We saw that Trump was performing better with certain segments of white voters all along.

The fact of the matter is--and the credit really goes to Hillary on this--she tried very hard to communicate. People talk about the economic message. She tried so hard to communicate about the economy. We had what we thought was a devastating ad about Donald Trump. It was completely unedited and unfiltered. It was just him on the David Letterman show with David Letterman showing all the "Made in China" labels on his products. It was devastating. It was all about outsourcing, all about jobs.

The fact of the matter was, it was so hard for that to cut through with the media cycle so tight, with the memory so short, with scandals or pseudo-scandals left and right. Part of the work we're doing right now is to figure out what did happen here.

I do think that now that the winds of change have blown in one direction, I think it is incumbent on Democrats to make a case in the future about how we will do a better job creating jobs, how we will do a better job getting wages rising. I also think it's incumbent on our party not to lose some of our core values about fairness and equality and opportunity.

Our country is better today because we fought for those things. It's going to be better tomorrow because we fight for them. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer moving forward.

Those voters that pushed him over the wall, did you feel like you had them at a certain point and you lost them? Did you feel like you never had them?

Yeah. We definitely, from the data we had, had a winning coalition in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin before the Comey letter. We did see that erode significantly. But we still thought we had enough to pull it out on Election Day.

I do think that there were some flaws in the data, and that's something that we need to fix moving forward, and that's something that as a campaign, we have to take responsibility for figuring that out. That's going to be a challenge for campaigns moving forward.

But you can see in the public polls that certainly we were a lot higher and that the race tightened at the end. Again, I think that the fundamental change that I would have made, and I absolutely take responsibility for this choice, we should have doubled down harder in those states, knowing that they were volatile, knowing that something could change them. Even if we don't see anything in the horizon for the last two weeks of the campaign, we could have and we should have doubled down more clearly, because with the margin so small, anything could have made a difference.

Was this a year when a change candidate just had a huge advantage in certain parts of the country, including the areas you're talking about?

Well, Donald Trump did have advantages going in to this that I think sometimes got clouded by what a unique and erratic and controversial candidate he was, and that was that it's very unusual and incredibly hard for a party to maintain the White House for three terms. That we saw very clearly in our research early on in the campaign, that there was an overwhelming desire for change.

It's ironic, because President Obama was actually very popular with the electorate, relatively speaking. It's hard to [maintain] high approval ratings nowadays, and he was always well over 50 percent. But at the same time, people wanted that fundamental change.

What we saw and what we placed our chips on was that, at the same time that they wanted that change, they thought Donald Trump and the kind of change he represented was just too big a risk for the country to take, from a national security standpoint, from a temperament standpoint. What we saw with the kinds of voters in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that we needed to win was they were afraid of the kind of role model that the president could be.

Sometimes people confuse attacking his controversial statements as identity politics or something like that. It actually wasn't about that. It was that parents wanted their children to have a president on TV who would model decency, politeness and so on. We found that to be enormously compelling, and we found that that could override this enormous desire and imperative for change.

Clearly, at the end of the day, it didn't. And I don't know if that's because that desire for change was just more potent than we could see or if the Comey letter and the Russians did so much damage on our side that it tipped the scales the other way. It was probably a little bit of all of these things.

A couple of these groups, 53 percent of white women, Latinos that did end up going for a guy who had specifically said racist, sexist comments about them, how would you qualify that decision to not let the offense and not the temperament stand in the way of some of these voters?

Well, I think we won't know the truth until the actual voter data comes back. For example, with Hispanics, I think the exit polls--and I know a number of people have made this case--are pretty skewed. Regardless, she did better than President Obama among Hispanics.

This is where we as campaign have responsibility for the choices we made, and we should have done more. I don't want to sound like we're not taking responsibility for what happened, but when the director of the FBI sends a letter 10 days out saying, "I have some emails; I don't know what they are, but I'm going to look into them," and then sends another letter on a Sunday, saying, "Ooops, I guess there was nothing there," that had a huge impact for some people. I mean, the FBI is revered as a law enforcement institution, so the idea that a candidate would have that coming out, that had to change some minds.

Again, I'm always nervous to say that because I don't want to sound like we're not taking responsibility for our loss. It's on us. But I think for some people, Donald Trump's behavior had become so routine. And then what the Russians did and what Comey did was such a jolt to the system that I do think it was able to override some of that.

Looking back at this incredibly unconventional candidate, this unconventional campaign, when you think about that announcement that he makes at Trump Tower? Were you watching it in real time?

When he first announced, you mean?

When he first announced. Looking back at that now, what did you think at the time?

I remember watching the announcement and laughing at the entertainment value, the way a lot of people did. I then remember watching a speech he made in South Carolina, and he was so bombastic, so insulting. This was the rally where he talked about John McCain, I believe. And seeing his poll numbers, it was a little scary that this was OK to act like this.

In large part, that's what our campaign was about, is that the president of the United States commands our armed forces, they're the leader of the free world, and that they [need to] have to have a certain sort of temperament and steadiness in decision making. In retrospect, it seems the electorate wanted something new and unconventional, and wanted to disrupt the system.

But it's interesting to think now about watching him early in the campaign and the way I reacted to his behavior then and laughing at it, and thinking it was laughable, and now thinking it's in some way normal. It gives you pause.

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