Trump and Clinton campaign officials spend two hours yelling at each other at Harvard

A group of people attending a meeting with campaign officials

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Top officials from the Clinton and Trump campaigns engaged in bitter, contentious arguments over the course of a remarkable two-hour roundtable at Harvard University's Institute of Politics on Thursday, revealing a shared contempt between both camps that still exists in the weeks after the election.

"I would rather lose than win the way you guys did," Hillary for America communications director Jennifer Palmieri told her Trump counterparts.

"No, you wouldn't. It's very clear today, no, you wouldn't, respectfully," Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway shot back during an exchange over the "alt-right" movement popular among internet trolls, anti-Semites and white nationalists. "Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform? Are you going to look me in the face and say that?"

"You did, Kellyanne! You did!" Palmieri said.

Seated across from each other at tables covered in white cloth, the afternoon regularly devolved into a shouting match between the two campaigns. The Trump team relished the opportunity to boast about their unexpected victory that turned the political world on its head. The defeated Clinton officials defended the decisions they made, placing the blame for their loss at the feet of FBI director James Comey, Russian intelligence agencies and WikiLeaks.

"What happened while you remember it"

The roundtable was part of a conference of top campaign officials from the 2016 cycle organized by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, starting Wednesday evening and continuing Thursday. Since 1972, staffers from both sides of the aisle have gathered at the Kennedy School of Government following the presidential election to debrief journalists and students about the race. 

As one Harvard organizer put it, the purpose is "to capture for history what happened while you remember it."

The school recorded audio of the event and published the transcripts of the sessions, but no cameras were present. Attendees agreed to delay publishing or posting any information gleaned from the panels until Thursday evening, allowing participants to speak more freely than they otherwise might have.

The representatives from the Clinton campaign included Palmieri, campaign manager Robby Mook, adviser Mandy Grunwald, senior adviser Teddy Goff and spokeswoman Karen Finney.

The Trump delegation consisted of Conway, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, pollster Tony Fabrizio, digital director Brad Parscale and deputy campaign managers Michael Glassner and David Bossie.

Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Dan Balz of the Washington Post and Katherine Miller of BuzzFeed moderated the discussion, with dozens of journalists and political operatives looking on in a ballroom on the Harvard campus.

Harvard Institute of Politics

The Trump officials relished the opportunity to call out members of the media who had declared their electoral chances essentially dead in the weeks before the election.

"There are publications in this room that for two weeks before the election were running nothing but headlines, 'The path is over, the race is closed, Hillary Clinton doesn't even talk about Donald Trump anymore,'" Conway, who is involved in Trump's transition effort, scolded the room.

The Trump officials argued that the media failed to understand Trump's appeal and ability to speak directly to voters. They attributed their victory to Trump's media instincts and his harnessing of the anger of the electorate, which allowed them to take advantage of Clinton's deficiencies as a candidate.

The Clinton team placed the blame for her loss squarely on FBI Director James Comey. They argued that Clinton would have won were it not for Comey's pair of letters to Congress just days before the election. They also blamed the media for what they said was uneven coverage of Clinton and Trump, saying the press assumed Clinton would win and therefore subjected her to more scrutiny than Trump.

"If you asked me what was the single greatest headwind we faced in the race, it was the two letters by James Comey, and one made the other worse," Mook said. "You could argue the first one depressed our support ... the second letter inflamed some of those voters in Mr. Trump's base."

"We're not at a Trump rally, Corey. Come on."

The roundtable was most remarkable for the bursts of heated arguments between the two sides. The Trump team was combative, challenging their Clinton counterparts over their criticism of Trump's position on flag burning, the hiring of former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon and Clinton's popular vote victory.

At one point, Joel Benenson, Clinton's pollster, called out Lewandowski's defense of Trump's flag-burning position, leading Lewandowski to interject for the first volatile exchange of the panel about 30 minutes in.

"I didn't interrupt you, Corey," Benenson said.

"You want to attack me directly, Joel, I'm happy to have the conversation with you," Lewandowski fired back.

"I didn't attack you directly."

"I understand, but I'm just taking the chance to respond."

"Well, I'm responding to you now, you can respond when I'm done. That's reasonable. We're not at a Trump rally, Corey. Come on," Benenson quipped.

Harvard Institute of Politics

"Let's try to keep the conversation moving," the Washington Post's Balz deadpanned.

Later on, Lewandowski said New York Times editor Dean Baquet "should be in jail" for publishing two pages of Trump's 1995 tax returns.

A question about Trump's speech to the Republican National Convention sparked a fierce argument about Trump's mandate heading into the White House. Miller called Trump's speech "dark" in a question to Fabrizio, who took issue with the characterization.

"This is the fundamental problem. This is the fundamental disconnect," Fabrizio said. "You have a country where you have 70% of Americans say it's headed in the wrong direction. Obviously a majority of people are seeing the country that way. And it's you all that see it differently," gesturing to the room.

After a brief pause, Mook jumped in. "I would say Hillary did win the popular vote. So, if we're talking about a majority of the country..."

"Why does it matter?" Conway asked.

"It matters because it's two and a half million Americans," Finney responded, sparking a brief back-and-forth that devolved into Benenson and Conway angrily arguing about Trump's mandate.

"Listen, you guys won. That's clear, you won the Electoral College," Clinton's pollster said. "Let's also be honest. Don't act like you have some popular mandate for your message. ... The fact of the matter is that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump."

"Hey guys, we won. You don't have to respond," Conway said to her side of the table before addressing Benenson. "I mean, seriously? Why is there no mandate? You've lost 60 congressional seats since President Obama got there. You lost more than a dozen senators, a dozen governors. One thousand state legislative seats.

"I want to go back to the 270, or the 306 that we won. Because that's how you win the presidency. And we did it."

At around 5 p.m., the panel concluded, the participants and the attendees mingled around, trying to reckon with the shouting match they had witnessed over the past two hours. The animosity on both sides was palpable, with both sides exhausted — by the event and by 2016.