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

Roger Stone

Trump political adviser

Roger Stone is one of Donald Trump's closest political confidantes, a longtime Republican operative and a self-described political hit man. In the 1980s, Stone helped the New York businessman test the political waters by organizing campaign-like events for him in New Hampshire. He was an early adviser to Trump's presidential campaign, but the two parted ways in the summer of 2015 due to disagreements over strategy. After the split, Stone went on to work for a super PAC started in support of Trump.

In this interview, Stone offers an insider's view of Trump's campaign strategy, examining how it led to a "hostile takeover" of the GOP, and positioned him to capitalize on the anger and disenchantment within the Republican electorate.

"The Trump campaign was always a grassroots guerrilla operation," says Stone. "The fundamental difference was, the intensity of Trump voters far outpaced the intensity of Clinton voters ... They were anxious to vote for Trump. So the Trump campaign made up in intensity what they lacked in structure."

After this interview was conducted, The New York Times reported that Stone was one of three Trump associates under investigation by American law enforcement and intelligence agencies for "possible links" to the Russian government. Stone told the Times that the allegations were "nonsense" and "totally false."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 1, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Roger, let's start with the escalator scene. Take us to that moment, the escalator moment, coming down, that announcement. What was taking place? What's important to understand now about that moment?

Well, one of the great advantages of Trump's candidacy was that his opponents, first in the Republican Party and then later in the general election, didn't take him seriously, underestimated both his communication skills and the assets he brought to the race. A presidential candidate who begins with universal name identification--every person in the country knew who Donald Trump was before he ran for president. He had spent years burnishing a public persona as a straight talker and kind of a brash, self-made billionaire. For many people I think he exemplified success, the American success story as in, "Wow, if I were rich, that's how I'd want to live: the mansions, the planes, the helicopters, the beauty pageants and so on."

He was a larger-than-life figure. I think some of those in the Republican race thought that this was a publicity stunt, that he was just doing it to further the brand and because he liked publicity; he liked to read his name. I think they underestimated his real desire. I think that he seriously contemplated running for president in 2012. It was a very serious look at it. We spent a substantial amount of money examining the primary deadlines to get on the ballot and so on. In the end he didn't make that race. ...

I had seen in 2000, when he explored the Reform Party presidential nomination, a time that in retrospect was really premature. But I saw the sizzle. I saw the celebrity status that he brought to the race and how people who were Democrats, who were not conservatives, people just wanted to meet Donald Trump. They wanted to see Donald Trump. He always had this ability to command everyone's attention. Now it is just a question of what he said when he had their attention, and I think he delivered in his announcement speech at Trump Tower on the day of his announcement, brash, over-the-top, unstructured.

Nobody wrote that for Donald Trump. He basically put together his announcement speech himself. He may have had some suggested talking points, which he did or did not use. The thing I don't think people understand about Trump is that he is largely--he's unscripted; he's uncoached. He's not reading a speech or talking points written by some 25-year-old speechwriter. He speaks from the heart. It doesn't always come out right. Sometimes it's not polished. But for his voters, I don't think it matters. In fact, I think it may be a plus that he is so authentic.

Rally after rally he would talk about the forgotten voters.

Yes.

Who were these forgotten voters that he was talking to, and why was his message so readily taken in by them?

I think in 2016 you had a situation in which the alienation of voters reached an all-time high. In the nine presidential campaigns I've been involved in, in almost 40 years in American politics, I've never seen the voters in this bad a mood. They were sour, very suspicious of political institutions, whether it's Congress, whether it's the two parties. For the first time I think [there was] a sense by many voters that the mainstream media was kind of in on it. In other words, they were only reinforcing the excuses of the political establishment who in election after election promise you things are going to get better, but then they never do. Remember Trump's famous line: "Politicians, they're all talk and no action." This is something that tested extremely well.

You kind of had the perfect storm here in the sense that you had voter alienation at record levels; distrust of the two-party duopoly; [and distrust of] the Clintons and the Bushes, who very cozily had been running things, trading the major office back and forth. But the policies essentially remained the same: endless war, erosion of our civil liberties, massive borrowing and spending and debt, bailouts for the crooks on Wall Street, and a foreign policy that to most Americans just seems to be incoherent. They watch television, and they can't figure out why are we thwarting our friends and helping our enemies.

So I think you had a perfect storm. Donald Trump stepped into a perfect situation in which he had universal name ID. He had therefore a bully pulpit, a reputation for independence, and, let's face it, he was larger than the Republican Party. In fact, his nomination was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party. In this case, the Republican Party is just a vehicle to get his name on the ballot. But his reach was always greater than the Republican Party's reach.

It's kind of ironic in retrospect that those establishment Republicans who were saying, "He's going to take down the House and the Senate and all the state legislature," in fact, the Republicans have had the greatest victory they've had, even greater than that, coattail-wise, than Ronald Regan. So those fears were unfounded. In fact, the Trump brand was always better than the Republican brand.

Talk about the campaign in the beginning, when Corey [Lewandowski] was running it. Some people have defined it as walking into Trump Tower, and there are no computers; there are no people scurrying around. It was Corey and Hope [Hicks] and not a lot more. What was it like in the beginning?

At least in the nomination phase, Donald Trump was his own strategist. ... He decided on what was solely a communications-based strategy, so he eschewed all of the traditional things that we think of in terms of a presidential campaign--sophisticated polling, sophisticated analytics, direct mail, robo calls, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of paid cable and network television advertising. These are kind of the standard tools, and even I thought they would be necessary to successfully nominate and elect somebody for president.

Trump made a bet that he could outcommunicate the paid negative ads, which God knows were dumped on him at a velocity that was unheard of previous to this campaign, through free media communications, which is why he booked as many interviews in a given day as humanly possible. There was a time, you may remember, when you couldn't turn on the television or the cable without wall-to-wall Donald Trump. He was everywhere. And he put an enormous amount of both physical energy into it. But it was also very cunning because he made the bet he could outcommunicate everybody, and of course he did. He dominated the contest and is always fond of saying, "I spent the least money, but I got the most votes."

And the role at that point of Corey, for instance?

Advance man. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. In other words, Trump was the strategist; Trump decided what Trump would say. Corey really handled logistics. Trump was his own strategist. A, he doesn't really believe in political consultants, but he was his own political consultant. To the extent that there was polling, he was relying on the public polling, which he had a voracious appetite for. But there was no polling behind the central themes of his campaign. They all came from his gut. These were things that he thought people cared about based on his conversations with people.

I'll give you a perfect example. His pledge to overhaul health care for veterans, that didn't come from some poll or some newspaper story he read. It came from the fact that wherever he traveled, anywhere in the country, people sought him out and said: "Oh, Mr. Trump, my uncle died waiting for veterans' care. My mother died waiting for veterans' care. My grandfather has a horrific problem with health care, and he's a veteran." Kind of like Ronald Reagan and the Panama Canal, he got it from his audiences, and then he regurgitated it. It became one of his major themes, and again, genuine, something he learned at the grassroots, not that popped out of a poll or a newspaper story in The New York Times.

The role of family, specifically Ivanka [Trump] and Jared Kushner: What role did they play?

Well, I think both Ivanka and Jared play key roles in the successful election of Donald to the presidency. ... Ivanka played, I think, multiple roles. First of all, she was, first and foremost, probably the single most effective surrogate for her father because she was able to sand down his rough edges and put him in the best possible light as someone who knew him best and could vouch for him, particularly on the question of the advancement of women inside the Trump organization. I think she was very valuable in that role. She gave a terrific convention speech. Even going back to when she opened the New Hampshire headquarters, she had a celebrity status of her own. As many people wanted to meet her as wanted to meet the candidate.

... And then Don Jr. and Eric, they came into their own as surrogate speakers. It's a multiplier effect. You had Trumps everywhere on radio, on the circuit, doing these surrogate appearances. I think they were very effective.

I cannot speak as much to the role of Jared because he was not as involved at a time that I was involved. He clearly came into his own more in the general election where they had to deal with a number of vexing problems. First you had the assumption in the mainstream media that this race was over. They tried to make that pronouncement three or four times, and it just didn't stick. Trump kept bouncing back in the polls. Once you pronounced him dead he was back in contention a week later. That happened at least three times.

... I think the social media campaign, the alternative media campaign was built out of necessity. Then it only gets improved and exemplified with Steve Bannon joins the campaign, because Bannon has a superior knowledge of alternative media, combined with the fact that he is kind of a swashbuckler and a revolutionary, a guy who can think outside the box. He's kind of the perfect guy at the perfect time. And if you look at the Trump messaging in the last three weeks, it's almost letter-perfect. It's the forgotten American appealing to the silent majority. It's us versus them.

Then, lastly, Trump is liberated when Paul Ryan bails out on him. Who wants to carry the baggage of the House Republicans or the congressional Republicans? They are almost as badly viewed as the congressional Democrats. Trump, again, gets a recharge of his bona fides as an independent, not bipartisan affiliation but just in terms of the way he does things, somebody not beholden to any special interest, not owned by any branch of government or any sector of the economy, not K Street, not Wall Street, his own man--not even necessarily in lockstep with the congressional Republicans. In the end, I thought it was a plus.

In the nine presidential campaigns I’ve been involved in, in almost 40 years in American politics, I’ve never seen the voters in this bad a mood.”

So when he makes that announcement that the shackles are off after Ryan sort of pulled away from him, how important was that to the people that were eventually going to vote for him? How important is it to understand the fact that this guy is really, probably the first independent president of the United States we've ever seen?

I don't think it was a negative that Paul Ryan tried to step away from him. I think at a minimum took it what would have been a negative, under normal, political calculations, and turned it into a positive, turned it into an underlining of his independence from the entire political system. People are sick of Washington. They're sick of both parties. They're sick of the status quo. Trump was a challenge to all that. So having his problems with Ryan, most of my conventional Republican friends were hand wringing over it; I didn't think it did him any harm at all.

What does it say about the future, about him working with the Republican establishment?

First of all, every Republican president has remade the party in their own image--Lincoln, McKinley,  Eisenhower, Nixon,  Reagan, certainly Teddy Roosevelt. I think Trump will do the same thing. He is, after all, a master negotiator and deal maker. ...

I think he runs on two tracks. He can always move the Congress by going directly to the electorate. Remember, the first goal of every congressman, Republican and Democrat, is getting re-elected, and to get re-elected you need to be in favor of policies that are popular. So if Trump lays out a reform and can sell it to the American people, the same guys who in August were saying, "Oh, my God, this guy's a disaster," were the same people trying to get on the platform with him the final week of the campaign when even they could feel the surge.

I think you have a similar situation. Congressmen, senators will be running out front to endorse the Trump program if they think it is popular with the voters.

Let's go to the chronology. [Paul] Manafort, when he comes in, what's the role? There's been a lot said about the fact that to some extent, he was sent by the establishment to control Donald. There is another side, which is that in that point in the campaign, the conventions were coming up; Mr. Trump needed someone who took control of the campaign in a different way, that made sure that the math worked and everything else. Your view?

Well, let's remember. Manafort comes at a time when Donald has lost the Wisconsin primary, lost North Dakota, gotten cheated out of delegates in Louisiana, and loses Colorado. He is on a downward spiral at that point. It's time for an adult. It's time for somebody to build an actual campaign structure, because you're heading to a convention in which there is most assuredly going to be an attempt in either the rules or credential committee to deprive Trump of this nomination despite the fact that he has run the table.

Now, we don't yet know when Manafort arrives where this is headed, but he very quickly takes control of the final primaries because they involve delegates. That's under his charter. He delivers, I think, a backbreaking victory in Indiana. That's really the end of Ted Cruz. Cruz can talk at that point about going to California, but it's not happening. I think he takes control of the primary process in order to collect the necessary delegates to put Trump over the top. Then he has to build a convention operation to make sure it isn't stolen from Trump in rules and credentials. And indeed, Paul Manafort crushes the Ted Cruz rebellion in the [RNC] Rules Committee not once but twice.

He also for the first time builds the campaign a real structure, brings in press people, brings in research people, organizes the surrogates, puts together a research operation. Also begins the communications with the Republican National Committee so their assets, like research, can be brought into the campaign. I think lastly he guides Trump to the selection of the right running mate, Mike Pence. The finalists were Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and Mike Pence. Not to take anything away from Gingrich or Christie, but Mike Pence was and is the right guy, and he worked perfectly with Trump. He of course reassures some in the base, Christian conservative Republican but completely loyal to Trump. And he turns out to be exactly the right choice.

Campaign manager? What's the role he's playing then?

At that juncture, Manafort, well, he's the campaign chairman, but he's the de facto manager. He's bringing order out of chaos. I mean, up to [that] point, Trump's campaign is a joyful, grassroots, guerrilla operation, and they are winning. They are winning because of Trump. It's Trump as the messenger. I could make a case that Trump won the nomination, at least the early primaries, despite his campaign. He was so much better than his campaign.

Later on, his campaign gets professionalized. Manafort takes control of the convention, which is essentially a television show that requires production and direction and management. He takes control of that, and the Republicans have a very successful convention, which showcases Trump; showcases Mike Pence; showcases Gen. [Mike] Flynn; showcases Rudy Giuliani, who probably gives the most effective speech of the convention and perhaps the entire campaign; showcases Ivanka and Donny Jr. and Eric; showcases a Trumpian Republican Party.

But anybody who's produced a television show knows that those things don't happen overnight. They require planning and thought and some experience. I think Manafort brings all of that to the table.

Were you there at the convention?

Of course.

Talk a little bit about it and personalize it as being there and seeing what you saw. There are a lot of views of the conventions. A common view out there in the media and the establishment is that the Republican Convention was very dour, and the message given by Trump was that everything is a mess and only he can solve the problems. Then you look at the Democratic Convention that follows soon after, very upbeat, lots of stars. Things are working well in America, and we are going to make it better. We are going to follow through on what Obama did.

The pundits out there were saying, the Democrats have a much better, more professional, better message; the Republicans kind of blew it. Two views in America again. There [are] the forgotten voters, the people that eventually will elect him, [who] were possibly seeing this in a different way?

Well, let's take a couple of things. First of all, as one of those who recruited and recommended Paul Manafort as the perfect, experienced not only convention manager but big-picture pol, the idea that he was sent by the establishment is absurd. His loyalty is to Donald Trump. He is trying to do the best possible job he can for his candidate. The Republican Convention mood more perfectly fit the electorate. For the Democrats to tell people everything is great, America is doing fabulous when they just didn't think that, when the voters were more dissatisfied than ever, it was incongruous. It didn't make much sense.

I guess between the time I left the convention hall to the time I got to the bar at my hotel, where I desperately needed a couple of martinis, I had at least five reporters approach me and say, "Didn't you think Trump's speech was too dark?" ...

I told them all ... no, I think the country is in deep trouble; we're in very dire times, and to pussy-foot around that and claim things are great is mistake. We need a strong man. We need somebody who is a true leader, who is not beholden to any of those responsible for our current problems, so someone who is unconnected to the bad decisions of the last 30 years. Trump, again, the right man at the right place at the right time with the right message.

I think in retrospect the Republican National Convention more perfectly fit the voters' mood than the Democrats'.

... When Manafort leaves and Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon come on, are you advising Trump about this? Why do they come on, and how do they change the direction of the campaign?

Well, I'm a big fan of both Kellyanne and Steve Bannon, but I don't think there were any major changes. It was a continuation of what was already working. A number of the programs and plans that Manafort has put in place are carried out--the trip to Mexico, for example. But at the same time, I don't think that there is any message difference between Kellyanne and Steve and Paul Manafort. Manafort was in favor of both of them taking on more responsibility. ...

Let’s face it, he was larger than the Republican Party. In fact, his nomination was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”

Talk a little bit more Steve Bannon, what he brought to bear, his connections and the way he was defined by Hillary, his connections to alt-right media, why that was important--

First of all, I think the Clintons' overestimate the power of the old media; they underestimate the power of the new media. They are running in ideological terms, figuring if you can just brand somebody as an extremist that you can win this race. I think it's an outdated way of thinking. Bannon is bomb thrower. Bannon is a revolutionary. Bannon thinks outside the box, but he has an acute understanding of the new media. Sorry, CNN, more people watching Infowars.com than watching you. And he knows this. He understands through being the publisher of Breitbart, he understands the potential from the alternative media.

Now the campaign is continually dogged by a small and vocal number of white supremacists, Klansmen, neo-Nazis. This isn't a very large group of people but they are very vocal. And they attach themselves to Trump. Trump doesn't attach himself to them. As Ronald Regan used to say, when somebody supports you, that means they take on your views. It doesn't mean you support their view. But Hillary and the mainstream media decide to develop this as a theme. And it catches, I think, a little bit of traction, but by and large doesn't really go anywhere. ...

When you hear on 9/9, when Clinton gives that--it's reported about the "basket of deplorables" that she speaks, what are your thoughts?

Well, since I was named as one of the deplorables, I think it's elitism. It's an enormous mistake. Now, she is not just denigrating Trump; she is denigrating his supporters, including some subgroup of undecideds who may be thinking about voting for him. And she retreats immediately, realizing that it is elitism, that it is over-the-top. I think it is one of her major mistakes.

The campaign's attitude about it? It must have been pretty happy.

Ebullience, very happy when they get attacked because you're denigrating our voters. You're attacking voters. In the end, the shifting of resources in the final week to Wisconsin, to Michigan and to Pennsylvania make an enormous difference. This is a move that Bannon is an advocate for. It is a move that I am an advocate for. It is a move that campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio is an advocate for. You have to expand the map. If we had carried every state Mitt Romney carried, we lose. So you had to make an incursion into the other team's so-called safe states.

If you look at it, you see that Hillary hasn't visited those states since much earlier in the campaign if at all. You also recognize that in western Pennsylvania, Trump runs ahead of where George Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney ran. Now, Republicans, generally speaking, Pennsylvania is the fools' gold of Republican presidential politics. All three of those gentlemen make a giant effort, spend millions of dollars and a lot of time. Trump takes the exact same shellacking in eastern Pennsylvania as your traditional Republican, but because he runs slightly ahead of where Republicans usually run in western Pennsylvania, he wins the state. This is his unique appeal, I think, to white, blue-collar Democrats, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders, where the trade issue and the economy issue and, frankly, the problems with Obamacare are really pivotal.

How smart was that? I mean, there are a lot of different views about whether they really understood what they were doing. Bannon supposedly at one point was supposed to say, "We're going to win this thing with very small majorities in some of these major states," the 'blue wall,' basically, that was supposed to protect Hillary. Was it sort of a Hail Mary pass?

No, not at all. I think it was the clear path to victory. You had a situation at the end where the public and private polling clearly showed Trump gaining at a pretty fast clip. Initially, Hillary was neither gaining nor losing. She was essentially sitting still. She was frozen. Trump is gaining. ...

So I think the decision to go into Wisconsin and Michigan, both physically Trump goes to both places, and shifting all resources, television resource, Internet resources, social media resources, surrogate resources to those three states, ends up making the difference. Without that shift of resources and emphasis and without Donald himself visiting the states, he would have fallen short.

But the importance of the last 10 days, how considerable? How planned? Some people say money was saved up. It was a very sophisticated way to look at the campaign. Those last 10 days, how important?

Vital. Trump won this in the last 10 days. First of all, with a herculean personal effort. I mean, look, I worked for Nixon; I worked for Reagan; I worked for Bob Dole. I never saw them do five stops a day. See, the old media dictated that you did one big event a day and it got on the evening news, on broadcast television, and that was effective.

In 1960, Nixon tried to do five stops a day. Only one of them got on television, and he fought himself into nervous exhaustion. By 1968 Bob Haldeman has perfected the idea of one big media event a day, which commands the evening news in a 24-hour news cycle. Steve Bannon has figured out that the news cycle is 24 hours but there is not just one big event, the evening news. So five stops a day, five different but related messages get you wall-to-wall coverage.

The media, really, because of the Internet, it never stops. There are new stories being posted around the clock. The final effort where Trump is putting in an enormous, physical effort and also where his messaging is really sharply shaped I think make the difference.

Are you talking to them at this point? Are you talking to Bannon?

Yes.

Take us into those kinds of conversations. What was being said? What was the mood.

Well, there were ups and downs as there are in any campaign. We were constantly fighting a mainstream media narrative that sought to write our candidate off when the data we were looking at didn't reflect that at all. There was never a juncture in which Trump was behind in the swing states by such a margin that he couldn't possibly make the ground in the time left. It was always theoretically possible.

Then you needed a few breaks. The FBI announcement was such a break, certainly not controlled by the Trump campaign, but it really did throw all the cards up in the air at a pivotal time.

It's interesting to me that Mrs. Clinton thinks in retrospect, based on her own comments, that she also thinks that that was a substantial event that may have cost her the race.

And Trump's attitude--did you ever advise Trump on, "This is the way to go"? Did you ever have any conversations like that?

... I think there was a quiet optimism, kind of resilience at the end. I have to admit that the whole, constantly being told you are going to lose at all corners, it does wear on you. But then, when you are looking at the data and it doesn't show you that, it shows you in the hunt, still in the race in a competitive position--and then it wasn't hard to see his late gain. He was gaining steadily at about a point, a point and a half a day at the close.

 But the polls, the other polls, not the polls you guys were looking at, were saying the percentages in all the major states were against you.

 Right. And you could try to explain to them that their model was wrong, and they had too many Democrats in their sample, and they were wrong about who was going to vote. But you could only prove that on Election Day. So sure, we argued that, that this is wrong, because you don't understand who's going to turn out for this election. We thought that we had a better understanding of that, and of course we did.

We’re in very dire times, and to pussy-foot around that and claim things are great is mistake. We need a strong man.”

 ... Election Day. Talk a little bit about that, what the mood of the campaign was.

 I think that the more sophisticated and experienced people in the Trump campaign realized that victory was in his grasp, that it was possible. If you were looking at the data, it was pretty likely that the lines were crossing on Monday night, almost the exact time. Nixon was always a great believer in peaking your campaign at exactly the right time. He actually did so in 1960, because he had hoarded his television money to the end, and he got Dwight Eisenhower off his duff to do three major speeches in L.A., Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which is why he actually won the 1960 race. I think it was stolen from him.

In a like situation, Trump peaks at exactly the right time. The lines cross on Monday. I think there were some in the campaign who were downhearted because of the constant mainstream media effort to write our candidate off as having already lost. But Bannon, Kellyanne, I believe Jared, a handful of people who had perhaps greater sophistication and greater access to data understood that this was well within the realm of possibility, and there was a high probability that Trump had peaked at exactly the right time.

 Did you talk to any of the people in the campaign that night?

 I did.

 And can you talk about it?

There was some guarded optimism. But everybody was focused on three places: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Everything else was essentially, with the exception of Nevada, where, candidly, the Trump campaign ran the worst campaign in American political history, because Nevada should have been winnable, but we could not match Harry Reid's machine and the unions and their efforts in Clark County, and we didn't make much of an effort to try.

But, with the exception of Nevada, everything else on the map is pretty predictable. New Hampshire was very close, but we squeezed out a victory, which I expected in the end. Therefore, all eyes were on three places where, frankly, by shifting both resources and the candidate's appearances, they had made a serious bet, and the bet paid off.

... What was the most shocking thing about this election that you come away with?

He really performed extraordinarily well among Democrats, even better than I thought. I always thought the potential was there. But I guess the greatest thing would be, Hillary Clinton had every advantage going in--more money, a supportive general media, vast experience at running presidential campaigns, a mammoth-size staff, better organized in the states. The Clinton campaign was always a well-oiled machine.

The Trump campaign was always a grassroots guerrilla operation. The fundamental difference was, the intensity of Trump voters far outpaced the intensity of Clinton voters. Democrats had a tougher job because they were trying to pull out voters, some of whom were ambivalent about Hillary, some of whom thought she was too tied to the past, she was too much of a retread. The Trump people had a less of a challenge because, as was proved in the primaries, Trump voters were going to turn out whether you called them or not. They wanted to vote for Trump; they were anxious to vote for Trump. The Trump campaign made up in intensity what they lacked in structure.

And the reaction of those people to the win?

To which people?

The Trump supporters, to the actual win and sort of what the expectations are at this point?

Well, again, euphoria. I mean, some in the campaign were pinching themselves, some accurately say, "This is what I thought would happen." Look, we could have fallen just short. The question was, when would the line be crossed? You knew that Trump had the momentum going into the final weekend. You know he had the momentum on Monday. You're still coming from behind in all these places.

I think what a lot of people don't understand, particularly in the last part of an election, is that the poll numbers are not static; they're already obsolete by the time you've taken the poll. They've changed, because people are now moving quickly in those final days. Therefore, if a poll in Pennsylvania on Saturday showed you down two, and the previous poll showed you down five, you don't have to be a genius to see by Tuesday you're going to be up two, one, whatever. It's directional. The direction is more important than the final numbers. And also, she's not breaking 50 percent in many of these places, so that's also an indicator that the race is still open.

In your conversations with soon-to-be President Trump, after the election, in the speech that he gave that night, did you see a different Donald Trump?

Well, I think he himself was overwhelmed by the moment, as anybody would be. And I think, as any candidate should be, he was prepared for defeat but hoping for victory. He's getting conflicting reports from around the country, where some established Republicans are still insisting he's going to lose and others in his own camp see the glimmer of hope for an upset victory. This was the greatest upset since 1948. You almost want to see Trump holding a newspaper that says, "Clinton Wins," you know, like Harry Truman. It's a historic moment.

And that speech he gives that night, or morning after? Did you see a changed Trump in that?

Well, I think he's starting to realize the awesome responsibility that he's taken on, that he's no longer candidate Trump, he's now President-elect Trump. It's a massive responsibility. It's a daunting set of challenges. But he's still tickled. He's still incredibly happy.

 Donald Trump is sitting next to President Obama in the Oval Office. You see that image, you see the video, the irony of it. What were your thoughts?

 Well, it was very satisfying, but it's also the right thing for the country. You know, I'm a critic of Barack Obama, but he's been incredibly gracious, and I think he's been incredibly unifying. He said things that are good for the country. But just what [was] really my election night concern, frankly, was that, unlike every other losing presidential candidate in recent history, Hillary Clinton didn't go to the microphone and concede, which would have been the right thing to do.

Then, for some period of time, all [John] Podesta would say was that she would meet with the press the following morning. It was at that juncture that we wondered whether there was some kind of a recount strategy in their mind. But then, when she ultimately called Donald to concede, that was throwing in the towel. She should have gone in front of the press. I'm not really sure why she didn't.

... I think you said that there was never going to be a pivot in Donald Trump. It was the thing that was always being talked about, among Republicans as well as Democrats. At some point, he was going to pivot. Is there a pivot that he will now make, now that he's president, that he will be more establishment, that he'll work with the establishment within the Congress, to get things done, that he will cooperate with the Democrats or whatever? Or will he be the rebel, the outsider that will bring in the voice of the people?

 The answer is both. The answer is both. He will both be trying to make a deal, because he's a deal maker who's interested in getting things done. At the same time, he's never going to give up the bully pulpit as a fulcrum to get what he wants. He's not going to stop the late-night tweets, so stop trying to talk him out of it. They're actually quite effective, and they're all him. It gives him an opportunity--as he likes to say, it's like owning a newspaper without the debt. You can reach millions of people.

Trump is going to be Trump. This idea that you can make him into something else, that's not what the people voted for. They voted for Trump as he is. That's the way they want him to be. And nobody is going to remake him. He will either succeed or fail being Donald Trump.

 And your thoughts on whether he will succeed?

 I think he will succeed, because he has enormous courage. He's very brave; he's very bold. He is able to latch on to a new idea. But more importantly, he's not connected to any of the bad decisions of the past. He's not bought in and partially responsible, in any way, for where we are today, so we're making a clean break. I think he's got the potential to be one of our greatest presidents.

 Was there ever a moment that you thought maybe around the tape, when the bus tape came out, and the Access Hollywood, and the way it was being received, was there any moment you thought, you know, this ain't gonna work?

 Well, the thing is, if you're a political professional, you don't guess about the impact of the events. You wait and look at the polling. So when the interview was aired, I didn't think it was a plus, but I wasn't prepared to commit suicide until I saw the result after a couple days. I also know that when there is some major news event like that, you can't [gauge] public opinion in the eye of the storm. You have to let things settle down and see what the net effect is, and the net effect was not much.

 ... Go back even further. During the primaries, and you saw him knocking off establishment Republican after establishment Republican after establishment Republican, what were you thinking?

 Wow, these messages really work. Remember, there's no polling at that point. You know, he is going on his gut during the nomination period, and he's knocking them out of the park. So his issue[s], trade, NATO, immigration, our overall fiscal condition, ISIS, you know, all of the issues that he is deciding to highlight are having resonance. That's when I began to realize that all things were possible.

 ... Last question. Do you think that Donald Trump, in the beginning, really thought he actually might do this?

 Yes, absolutely. Within weeks of Mitt Romney losing but before the end of 2012, he goes to the U.S. Copyright Office, and he trademarks the expression "Make America Great Again." I spoke to him on New Year's Day 2013; he told me he was going to run, and I realized he was totally serious. He told me that he had trademarked the phrase. In fact, I think he was regretting not running in 2012, although in retrospect, he did not yet have the perfect storm. The perfect storm was yet to come. That was 2016.

 And the power of that phrase?

 Well, the phrase is borrowed from Ronald Reagan, from his 1980 campaign. But I think it perfectly encapsulates what Trump is about. It evokes a nostalgia of a better time, when America was first in everything, and when we won wars, and when we had manufacturing jobs, and when we won the Olympics, and we won everything. As Trump said so many times, we don't win anymore. So I think it was actually the perfect slogan.

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