CAMBRIDGE — Top aides to Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump’s campaign team Thursday of encouraging racism in their extraordinary drive to the White House, provoking a shouting match between the election rivals.
“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,” said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, responded: “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?”
“You did, Kellyanne, you did,” responded Palmieri.
The presidential campaign manager conference, held at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government every four years since 1972, is usually a place for insider war stories, shared and documented for history.
However, three weeks after this year’s divisive election, in a conference room with a half-dozen aides from both sides facing each other, the conversation quickly took a remarkably combative turn, highlighting just how deep the enmity between the Trump and Clinton camps remains.
“Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white working-class voters?” Conway asked the Clinton team, then sarcastically offering a message: “How about, it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn’t have an economic message?”
Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, responded: “There were dog whistles sent out to people. . . . Look at your rallies. He delivered it.”
Conway accused the Democrats of refusing to accept their loss.
“Guys, I can tell you are angry, but wow,” she said. “Hashtag he’s your president. How’s that? Will you ever accept the election results? Will you tell your protesters that he’s their president, too?”
The session, led by three national political reporters, lasted 2½ hours. The accusations of racism concerned the role that Breitbart News and its former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, played in the campaign. Bannon left the conservative news website to join the Trump campaign in August and will serve as an adviser to Trump in the White House.
He once boasted that under his leadership the Breitbart website served as “the platform of the ‘alt-right,’ ” a white nationalist movement that gained prominence leading up to the election and afterward.
Bannon was invited to the Harvard conference but canceled his appearance for unknown reasons. A large protest against his appearance had been planned outside of the conference.
At a forum that was less heated than the earlier encounter, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and Conway offered starkly different explanations for the election’s outcome.
Mook said that outside interference — including meddling by Russian entities — tilted the results Trump’s way, while Conway portrayed broader strategic decisions as behind the GOP win.
Conway, who took increasing control of the Trump
campaign over the summer, said that she prevailed upon Trump to play “the happy warrior” and encouraged him to draw energy from his public rallies. That, she said, contrasted with the public image of Clinton.
“I said to Mr. Trump, ‘You know, you’re running against one of the most joyless presidential candidates in history,’ ” Conway said.
Listen to audio of the event:
Conway told the audience her campaign mission as Trump’s manager was to focus on a dozen or so swing states where, despite political analysts’ admonitions of demographic disadvantages, she thought Republicans could still win.
“The race was about 12 or 14 states,” Conway said.
Mook repeatedly insisted that the hacking and releasing of e-mails sent and received by Democrats close to Clinton, including campaign chairman John Podesta, played a central role in Clinton’s defeat. He called for a federal investigation into the prospect that foreign election tampering had played a role.
“Congress has got to investigate what happened with Russia here,” said Mook.
Later in the event, which was videotaped for airing on CNN on Sunday, Mook reiterated: “It is outrageous that a foreign aggressor got involved in our election.”
Mook raised fundamental questions about the way information is trafficked in the public sphere, saying, “It’s very scary to me that false information is not just put out there by mistake, it’s being peddled deliberately for the purpose of deceiving people.”
He also called FBI Director James Comey’s decision to release two letters, one raising questions about Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state and the second absolving her two days before the election, “unprecedented” and a “total breach of protocol.”
Conway, on the other hand, said Trump had won because of his ability to read and appeal to blue-collar dissatisfaction.
“He was able to tap into the angst — not the anger, the angst — and the frustration of job-holders,” Conway told moderator Jake Tapper.
And, she said, despite widespread criticisms of Trump as unqualified to be commander in chief, Clinton’s perceived weaknesses played into Trump’s strengths.
“Veracity, trustworthiness, not being an insider — those were also presidential qualifications,” she said.
Conway rejected an audience member’s assertion that Bannon is an anti-Semite.
“He’s not anti-Semitic,” Conway said. “He’s been unfairly maligned.”
Mook acknowledged Clinton’s assertion that half of Trump’s supporters were “deplorables” could have repelled potential supporters.
“I think it definitely could have alienated some voters,” he said.
Trump’s victories in Midwestern states — which Democrats had confidently seen as a “blue wall” that would help Clinton — were a turning point, as Mook acknowledged. “We were hoping for stronger performance in some sectors,” he said.
But, he placed the election’s hinge point squarely on forces beyond the campaign’s control.
“We do think that was because of the Comey letter,” he said, explaining why voters the campaign had counted did not turn out for Clinton, calling the coverage of Clinton’s e-mails “the most overhyped, overreported, overlitigated story in the history of American politics.”
Mook brushed off discussion that Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, had been angered that the campaign had, according to some analysts, turned its back on white working-class voters. Mook called the former president “an integral part of our campaign team.”
During a stage-production break in the exchange, Conway suggested that Tapper’s tie may have been a Trump-brand product, leading to one of the evening’s most lighthearted exchanges.
“I actually have one that I wore the first interview I did with him, just to point out that it was made in China,” Tapper joked.
Conway shot back: “That job’s coming back now.”
Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports. James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com.