After most campaigns the combatants share cocktails and swap war stories — but the bitter 2016 battle for the White House is turning into a forever war with Hillary Clinton’s tormented team vowing a four-year insurgency against Donald Trump.
There are no consolation prizes from a loss as humbling and catastrophic as the heavily-favored Clinton suffered on Nov. 8. But for her aides, there is a measure of liberation, freedom from the constraints of having to defend their flawed, awkward front-runner and adopt the hell-to-pay role of insurgents.
Since her defeat, Clinton has been wandering, with a tranquility that eluded her as a politician, in and out of strangers’ Instagram accounts in bookstores and doggie walks in the woods near her Westchester manse. But in the meanwhile people in her orbit — enraged by the victory of a campaign they view as beneath contempt and a president-elect they view as a disgrace — are plotting an anti-Trump resistance and venting with a fury they never could have expressed in the service of their hyper-cautious candidate.
A traditionally staid post-election forum at Harvard with Trump and Clinton’s top aides degenerated into a nasty shouting match on Thursday night, and the public battle spilled over into Friday — with aides emphasizing a disunity seldom seen in the aftermath of a national election.
In one of the nastiest exchanges between Trump and Clinton strategists in Cambridge on Thursday night, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri suggested Trump’s campaign was “a platform for white supremacists” and that Clinton’s camp “would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”
The sharp comment prompted Trump’s final campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, to ask Palmieri whether she thinks Trump “ran a campaign where white supremacists have had a platform,” questioning whether she could “look me in the face and tell me that.”
“I did, Kellyanne,” Palmieri said. “I did.”
Conway — who has spent much of the past two decades working for groups and candidates who have targeted the Clintons — was still smarting from accusations that the billionaire ran a racist campaign and still accusing Clinton’s aides of harboring a petty grudge a day later. “I think some people are stuck in a permanent campaign and not really past the anger, grief and denial stages and into the acceptance stages,” she told Fox News on Friday morning. “But that’s OK because we won.”
In Washington winning is everything — but it’s not permanent.
And Clinton’s vast network of supporters, staffers and operatives is now looking for a way to fight back — without their standard-bearer — modeled on the resistance movement organized by the GOP in the wake of President Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the Republicans’ “Party of No” period.
Clinton allies like David Brock have been actively recruiting Democratic donors to fund an anti-Trump movement modeled on the armada of organizations that sued, flacked, opposition-researched and insulted Clinton into a 55 percent disapproval rating. Trump is already there, but Brock and other Democratic operatives are contemplating a Freedom of Information Act barrage against the president-elect comparable to the one undertaken against Clinton by the conservative group Judicial Watch. Other left-leaning groups, including the Center for American Progress, are looking into ways of holding Trump accountable for his job-creating campaign promises — possibly by disseminating reports on the president’s record directly to voters and media into swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that swung surprisingly to Trump.
“We’re going to throw everything at him that he threw at us,” said one longtime Democratic operative active in the effort.
In the meantime, the shock and grief of Clinton’s loss has transmogrified into anger — and many Clinton and Obama veterans are saying that Trump’s low-road campaign frees them from the traditional wait-and-see period afforded to prior presidents. Trump, for his part, seems to have softened his taunting tone only modestly: During a victory lap event in Cincinnati on Thursday, the president-elect crowed about winning in a “landslide” — despite trailing Clinton by more than 2.5 million in the national popular vote, and he stood back smiling contentedly when the crowd broke into its familiar “lock her up!” chant.
Conway, who toured the morning news shows, maintained that Trump won “fairly and squarely” with 306 electoral votes — breaching a “blue wall” of states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and did little to hide her satisfaction at Trump’s stunning win three weeks ago.
“I understand that they’re angry,” she said, referring to Clinton aides. “I understand some of them are bitter, but they made it very personal last night.”
And she argued that the notion that Trump’s campaign is a platform for white supremacists is “not a fact” and “just completely false.”
“President-elect Trump has denounced every single element of that awful movement,” Conway said, referring to the so-called “alt-right,” a combination of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis who support Trump. “He’s never met these people. He doesn’t ask for their endorsement. He denounced it in an on-the-record interview with The New York Times just last week. But I think some people are stuck in the permanent campaign and ought to realize that Donald Trump won 306 electoral votes.”
Democrats have slammed Trump’s decision to name former Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor, labeling the former Trump campaign CEO a white supremacist who doesn’t belong in the White House.
“The white supremacist running the campaign was a pretty big hint” that the Trump campaign gave a platform to white supremacists,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, tweeted Thursday.
Joel Benenson, the Clinton campaign’s chief strategist, rebutted Conway in an interview Friday on CNN — his first TV interview since the election — pointing to Bannon’s past comments about Breitbart News.
“Mr. Bannon called it the platform for the alt-right,” he said.
But Benenson ultimately put the onus on Trump himself. “He’s the president-elect right now. He’s got a responsibility to both run the country and show moral leadership,” Benenson said. “And when people, like they did in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, you know, deliver the Nazi salute blocks from the White House, he should be denouncing them by name, he should be calling them out, he should be saying the Ku Klux Klan should not be celebrating and parading in North Carolina.”
And Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon advised the media to call out bigotry by any means.
“If calling out bigotry is uncivil, then maybe the media needs to be less hung up on civility these next four years,” he tweeted Thursday.