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Sweet: Trump, Clinton campaign teams brawl

Kellyanne Conway, Trump-Pence campaign manager, sits next to Robby Mook, Clinton-Kaine campaign manager, before a forum at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. | Charles Krupa/AP

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The election is over, but not for the top Trump and Clinton campaign managers whose fight boiled over Thursday at a conference on the 2016 presidential race.

The emotion is still raw.

“I would rather lose than win the way you guys did,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s communications director, her voice cracking as she confronted Donald Trump’s campaign team, including manager Kellyanne Conway, sitting a few feet away.

Determined to make her point at a conference historians will use to analyze President-elect Donald Trump’s stunning victory, Palmieri said the platform the Trump campaign gave to “white supremacists and white nationalists” was “a very, very important moment in our history of our country.”

An angry Conway replied, “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform? . . . Are you going to look me in the face and tell me that?”

“You did Kellyanne, you did,” Palmieri said.


Or was it, Conway said, that Clinton just failed to have a message for “white working class voters?”

The verbal brawls broke out at a quadrennial gathering of presidential campaign managers, a conference run after every presidential election since 1972 by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The institute gathered the top operatives from the 2016 Republican and Democratic primary and general presidential campaigns — and the reporters and editors who covered them.

The conference provides a first draft of presidential campaign history, in 2016, a rule-breaking election cycle that led first to Trump’s surprise GOP primary win and then his shocking defeat of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The heated exchange between the Clinton and Trump camps came during a discussion of why Trump hired Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon to be a campaign chief strategist.

Bannon is part of a right-wing movement known as the “alt-right,” a home for white nationalists who are, invited or not, a part of Trump’s winning coalition.

Bannon will be a chief strategist and senior counselor in the Trump White House, as the “alt-right,” with its white supremacist elements, is entering the political mainstream.

I’ve attended these debriefs at Harvard after the 2004, 2008 and 2012 contests, and this one featured the sharpest clashes. What’s different in 2016 is that while obviously Trump won the electoral votes, Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by more than two million votes, with ballots still being counted.

A few minutes before the Palmeri/Conway shout down, Joel Benenson, Clinton’s pollster and strategist, told the Trump team, “Don’t act as if you have some popular mandate to your message.’

Conway snapped back, “We won. We don’t have to respond.”

There’s still a lot more to know about crucial campaign decisions that led to the Trump presidency. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said FBI Director James Comey’s two letters just before the vote — about reopening Clinton’s email probe, and then the Sunday before balloting closing the investigation down again — were “game changers.”

The media never understood the Trump phenomena, said Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s primary campaign manager until he was fired. He’s now back in the Trump fold after a stint at CNN.

A reason why so many political journalists were stunned by Trump’s ascent and presidential victory is that reporters “took everything Donald Trump said literally,” Lewandowski said, drawing groans from the reporters.

Take, for example, Trump’s allegations, based on a not true National Enquirer story, that GOP rival Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, was with Lee Harvey Oswald before he killed President John F. Kennedy.

“You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally. And the problem is, the American people didn’t,” Lewandowski said.

“And they understood that. They understood that when you have a conversation with people, whether its around the dinner table or around the bar or wherever it is, you are going to say something and don’t have all the facts to back it up,” he said.

In just a few weeks, everything Trump will be saying and doing will be taken literally. We’ll see how his base reacts.