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

Corey Lewandowski

Former Trump campaign manager

Corey Lewandowski is a Republican political strategist and former lobbyist who in January 2015 became Donald Trump's campaign manager.

On the campaign trail, Lewandowski adopted a philosophy of "Let Trump be Trump." As he explains in the interview below, "I used to liken my role to being a jockey on a great racehorse ... My job was to maybe drive that horse into the corners a little bit and put some blinders on, but you gotta let it run."

While that approach helped Trump win the Republican nomination, it also irked many in the party, as well as some on the Trump team itself. In June 2016, Lewandowski was fired from the campaign. He went on to work as a political commentator for CNN, and then in December 2016, he opened a lobbying firm in Washington.

In this interview, Lewandowski speaks at length about Trump's early presidential aspirations, his controversial campaign kickoff speech, and why he believes Trump's message resonated with voters.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 20, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with the announcement, the escalator scene, which we're starting the film with. Why was it done in the way it was done? What was your involvement at that point?

The launch on June 16 of 2015 really took about three months to prepare for. And what really goes unwritten about this campaign is the campaign actually started in the exploratory phase back in January of 2015. And so, what we knew at the time was we were going to bring Donald Trump out to the public to determine if there was going to be an appetite for someone who has his success to run for president. And so, we spent about six months traveling the country in key battleground states, early, before we actually planned the formal launch.

And what we did in May is we get together with a very small group of people and said, let's plan our launch. We wanted to actually launch on Donald Trump's birthday, which also happens to be Flag Day, Sunday, June 14. But we also knew that the media's best coverage would be on a Tuesday, a Wednesday or a Thursday.

So in early May, we knew that we were going to launch on June 16. Part of the rationale for that date was, just prior to that, Donald Trump had to make an international trip to see his opening of his golf course in Scotland, so we didn't want to launch the campaign and then have him leave the country and come back.

So we postponed it. We launched on June 16. And the reason that that's important is we launched directly after Hillary Clinton did. She launched on the Saturday before. And Jeb Bush launched the day before we announced. He launched on a Monday, June 15. We launched on June 16. And what you saw in that particular instance was all of the oxygen in the room was either given to Hillary Clinton's announcement or to Donald Trump's announcement. And that became a microcosm of this campaign, which was timing and driving a media narrative.

There's been a lot said about the fact he had preparatory remarks, he had something written, but then he went off [script], which resonated with the crowd. What were you thinking as it was happening? Was it surprising?

Well, it was, it's been widely reported now that I wrote what was supposed to be his announcement speech, and that speech was supposed to clock in at about seven minutes and 43 seconds. Me and a small staff spent the weekend prior to the announcement writing that and going through every word. And we actually distributed those remarks prior to Mr. Trump getting up and making the full announcement speech.

And just before he came down that escalator, I was with him and Mrs. Trump up in his office just before he came down, and he said, "Are we ready?" I said, "We're ready." And he came down. And probably three or four minutes into his remarks, I could clearly tell that these were not the prepared remarks, which I had drafted ... And then he had gone on to make an announcement speech which lasted somewhere around 45 or 48 minutes.

And what's really important to remember is when he made that speech, there was no media outcry that day of, "Oh, look at the incendiary remarks" he had just made. He announced on Tuesday. There was no outcry on Wednesday. There was no outcry on Thursday. And what took place after that, if you remember, was a terrible tragedy in South Carolina. Someone went in and shot a bunch of people and killed them.

... And what happened after that tragedy took place in South Carolina was Hillary Clinton said, "It's because of the words of Donald Trump that this tragedy took place." And then the media went back and started reporting on his remarks on the Mexican people and those illegals coming across the border. And that's when the media outcry started. But it was a full 72 hours after he actually made the initial remarks before the media went into their frenzy.

There seemed to always be, and it started at that point, two ways of hearing everything that Donald Trump said. His supporters heard it one way, the establishment, the media heard it in another way. What was going on and how did you read that early on, and how did Mr. Trump read that early on?

I think what Mr. Trump understands is, he has had, and continues to have his finger on the pulse of the American people. And he says things unlike any politician would ever say. Every other politician's going to be measured and focus-group everything and test their messaging and make sure that the words are exactly right. He speaks from the heart. He speaks about things that he cares about and that resonate with the American people. And you saw that not just on the announcement day where the media said, "Oh, you can't say these things," and, "You've lost the campaign on day one." And we heard this right up until Election Day. They said, "He lost the campaign the day he announced because he made all these derogatory statements and women and Mexicans," and et cetera, et cetera.

The American people don't believe that. What the American people understand is, they want someone who's not beholden to special interests, who's going to talk to them in a truthful manner. And what I always say is, the American people are really smart. They're really smart and they understand that when you say something, and the media elites attack you for it, maybe that's how people talk in their living rooms. Maybe that's how people talk around their dinner tables. Maybe they don't. Maybe that's what some people think. Not everybody. But they finally have a candidate who's willing to tell them what he thinks. Whether you agree or disagree, he tells it from the heart. And I think that's what's resonated with the American people.

Talk about what the campaign was like in the very beginning. Some people have told us before that you'd walk into the campaign headquarters and there'd be you, and there'd be Hope Hicks and there'd be a lot of empty desks. What was it like in the very beginning around here?

... Until we launched, there was almost five of us for the whole campaign. It was a family. It was truly an opportunity to work closely with people who had the same fundamental premise, which is, we don't want all the consultants who get rich on the campaigns to come in and be willing to take our phone calls and get paid exorbitant sums for their lack of success in other campaigns.

You know what it was? It was people who were dedicated and had one sole purpose. Which was to help Donald Trump get elected. And I know it sounds altruistic, but there were no egos on the campaign. Everybody got along. The campaign literally traveled together everywhere. The five of us would travel together everywhere on the plane with Mr. Trump, making sure that we were all on the same page. We were so close, so united. That's what made this campaign successful.

And then we started to grow, and we put teams in Nevada and in Iowa and in New Hampshire and in South Carolina. But we kept it small. And a year before the election, there were only 25 people on the campaign. And we saw all the stories, how the [Scott] Walker campaign was massive and how the Bush campaign had raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

What we knew is, by taking the message directly to the American people through Donald Trump, through his rallies, and through his Twitter feed and through his social media activities, we didn't need all those things. We didn't need a direct mail program like everybody else needed. We didn't need donors. Donald Trump was funding his own campaign. That was a fundamental difference in the way we were going to run the campaign. We were going to run it lean. We were going to run it like a business. And that's how I hope you go and run the federal government.

Probably three or four minutes into his remarks, I could clearly tell that these were not the prepared remarks, which I had drafted. And then he had gone on to make an announcement speech which lasted somewhere around 45 or 48 minutes.”

Talk a little about the rallies, what they were like, what they taught you, why his message resonated.

The rallies were a critical component of this election, from the very first time after we launched. And to see the size of these crowds, not just the size of the crowds, but the people who would wait in line. I can remember in January of this year, January of the election year, we went to Lowell, Massachusetts. We went to the Paul Tsongas arena, very apropos -- former presidential candidate who actually won the New Hampshire [primary] in 1992 against Bill Clinton. It was a snowy day in January. It was the blue-collar town of Lowell, Massachusetts.

... That was the blue-collar crowd that [was] fed up with the broken Washington, people who want to work hard. They don't want anything special. They just want to work hard. But they're sick and tired of being lied to. And we saw that in Springfield, Illinois. And we saw it in Michigan. And we saw it all over the country. We saw it in Biloxi, Mississippi, on, on January 1, on literally New Year's Day. We went to Biloxi, Mississippi, and we had 15,000 people in an arena. And it was every location. It was the same messages: "We're tired of Washington lying to us. We want a person who isn't beholden to the special interests. We're fed up, we've never been involved in politics before. We're tired of it. We want change."

That message was the same message everywhere we went.

Talk about the ugly side, the way it was defined. A lot of people that were attracted to the economic message that he was given out were put off by the fact that there were also white nationalists, supremacists, whatever, that were also drawn. And you'd go to some of the campaigns and there'd be Confederate flags and there would be white nationalists there. How did the campaign deal with that? And what was the attitude towards the way that was defined in the media?

You know, the disappointing part was time and time again Donald Trump said, "I don't want support from these people," from the white nationalists. He said it very publicly, on multiple occasions. But that's not the narrative that the media wanted to report on. The media wanted to report on a room with 15,000 people, there's two people that are white nationalists, so that's what they want to talk about. They don't want to talk about all the other people who've waited in line, or the minorities, or the Hispanics, or the African Americans who would turn out to support Donald Trump, or the women, or the people who have lost their jobs and are now out the workforce. The media had their own narrative.

... One other thing on that is people would say then, and they still say, he would rev up anger in the crowds. He would rev up the crowds against the media, against demonstrators. That he was initiating anger, and anger was a motivating factor in why people were coming to see him and why they were interested in him. What's a defense towards those allegations?

Look, I don't think you're trying to defend people about being angry. They are angry. They're angry with the way our country has been run for the last 30 years. They're angry that we've got $21 trillion in debt. They're angry that many of our leaders don't think Americans deserve to be first anymore. They're angry at the bad trade deals that we've seen. They're angry that their jobs have been shipped overseas and offshore because of globalization. The American people are angry, and they have a right to be.

And what they see in Donald Trump is someone who's willing to fight for them for a change. Think about this. Donald Trump's message is, "I want to make America great again. We're going to put America first." It's so simplistic. And if you're an American, which I am, and I'm proud to be, look, I understand the global marketplace, but I also understand that I think it's time to put Americans first. And I think that's what the American people understand.

And so, have they been angry that if you're in Michigan and you're in Pennsylvania and you're in Wisconsin and your job's been shipped overseas for globalization, are you angry? You bet you're angry. And you know what they said? "We used to have a really good life." And my grandfather was a union printer in a mill town in Lowell, Massachusetts. I know it well. Those jobs don't exist anymore. And I know part of that is because of the way that the country has moved and the economy has moved to make things more efficient and more effective. But when you're building a car and our manufacturers are taking those jobs and moving them to Mexico and bringing them back into our country, those cars, at no cost, and you've been put out of work and your family can't afford a lifestyle which you think you've worked hard and grown accustomed to, it's time for your country to stand up for you.

That's the anger the American people have had. And that's permeated across the country.

The use of Twitter. Talk about that medium that he was using, the understanding that you can go around the rest of the media. Why that was important? And the phenomenon of Twitter in this campaign.

Look, there's a couple components which Donald Trump fundamentally knew that nobody taught him and nobody needed to teach him. That when his message is unfiltered and goes directly to the American people, he's winning. And that was very important from a media perspective, particularly when they were covering his rallies. Because what they would do is allow him the opportunity to go directly out to the American people to hear his message.

He also sat for hundreds of media interviews, which was the exact antithesis of what the Clinton campaign would do, or the Bush campaign would do. He would sit with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and NBC and ABC, and all the other networks and say, "I'm willing to sit with you, but please just air my interview in its entirety. Don't cut it up, just let me talk and please air that." Very important.

The other thing is, when he wants to get a message out to the American people, he has this thing called Twitter. And he now has between his social media, all the social media platforms, 30 million people. So that when he puts out a statement in 140 characters, he knows that that platform is going to be covered by the media and it's going to be a direct response from him.

And this was the genius of Donald Trump. If there's an issue that is affecting the campaign or something that he wants to talk about, the old days, you'd have to call a press conference. You'd have to sit down, call a press conference. Those days are over, right? Now with social media, Donald Trump can put out a message in one tweet or two tweets and be on to the next thing. Because he's addressed a specific issue, he's put it to bed, and now they're willing to move forward. ...

Would you wake up in the morning and first thing check his Twitter to see what the next controversy was going to be?

I think my role in this campaign, particularly in the early stages was, I used to liken my role to being a jockey on a great race horse. Let's say "American Pharaoh." And my job was to maybe drive that horse into the corners a little bit and put some blinders on, but you gotta let it run. And Donald Trump is the greatest, in my opinion, political asset that we have seen in a lifetime. And maybe longer. Um, raw talent, it's just amazing. He understands fundamentally things that other people wouldn't do.

And so people would say to me, "Can you take his Twitter account away?" I said, "My job isn't to control Donald Trump's Twitter account." My job is that when he asks for my opinion, to give him my best, unbridled, unvarnished opinion of what is right in my opinion. It doesn't mean he accepts it, doesn't mean he doesn't accept it. And when he'd call me sometimes and say, "Should I put this tweet out?" and I'd think about it, and I'd say, "Is it going to materially make a difference in the campaign if you put this tweet out? No, it's not. Go ahead, sir, I think that's a great thing."

He didn't call me every time. But sometimes he would call and say, "What about this or what about that," and maybe I'd offer an opinion to change or modify it a little bit. But at the end of the day, these are his words. And people weren't voting to elect Corey Lewandowski. They're voting to elect Donald Trump. And when he goes directly to the people, that's when he's most successful.

He asked me what I thought his odds were of winning the Republican nomination. I said 5 percent. And he said 10. And I said, ‘Let’s settle at seven-and-a-half and a half.’”

The first debate. Take us to what it was like. What was it like to prepare? What was the attitude? A lot has been said about the fact that he didn't want to prepare, that the people around him couldn't control him and he did things the way he wanted to do it. What was it like going in to that debate? What was the preparation?

To say he didn't prepare I think wouldn't be accurate for the first debate. Look, you have to remember, here's a candidate who is now in the center of the stage. Had never debated before in his life against some career politicians and national debate champions. And I think he understood the magnitude of this. And we did prepare for that debate. We prepared on specific issues for that debate. We put briefing pages together, which he reviewed. We sat down.

Look, Donald Trump is the type of person who prepares by talking with people, by understanding a situation and bantering back and forth, and getting as many inputs as possible so that when he went up on that debate stage, he was prepared. Was he prepared for the gotcha questions? No. But why is he so good? Because he was the only candidate on that stage in the very first question who said, "If you are not the nominee, can you promise that you will support the others," and he raised his hand and said no. And he's the only one who was honest about it.

And if you look at all those other candidates who were on the stage who didn't raise their hand, guess what? Some of them didn't support the nominee. They didn't have the ability to be honest with the American public. And that's what Donald Trump has always been.

And so, we were prepared for that first debate, and for all the subsequent debates in that primary season. And what you saw was his performance continue to get better. He was continuing to be aggressive. And he was very prepared for the attacks against his [opponents] and return them in kind as a counterpuncher.

... And with Hillary Clinton's debates, how was it around at that point when the media said he lost those three debates. Was the thinking different in the campaign?

Look, I think when Donald Trump debated Hillary Clinton, it was his first opportunity to ever be on a debate stage one-on-one with somebody else in a massive audience. The audiences for the first Fox debate and the first CNN debate weren't tuning in, with all due respect, to watch Rand Paul. They were tuning in to see Donald Trump. That's what drove the people. They wanted to see what Donald Trump was going to say and do. And the same is true with Hillary Clinton.

And when Donald Trump is talking about Hillary Clinton's emails, and talking about her issues, that she doesn't connect with the American people, that's when he's most successful. And I think as you saw the three debates, Donald Trump continued to be stronger and stronger and stronger in each of those debates. At the end of the day, Hillary Clinton's own team said that they wished they had more debates.

... Donald Trump went out and campaigned for five days. His preparation for those debates continued to be 40, 50 years of a business experience doing international deals, building things, talking about his success. Donald Trump is the first candidate in the history of the modern Republican Party to go out and talk about this success. Everyone else has run from it. It's a fundamentally different type of campaign when you can say, "Look, I'm proud of what I built. I'm proud of the company. I'm really rich, and guess what? I want to make you rich, too." It's a fundamentally different philosophy from what every other Republican would say. They would hide their wealth, "Oh, I'm really not that rich. Oh, I really didn't do that well." We flaunted it because the American people want someone who's successful.

Talk about the fight with the GOP establishment. The "Never Trump" movement that comes along. What's Mr. Trump's attitude about that? Does it work for you or against you?

The Never Trump movement was something concocted by these people in Washington, D.C., who were trying to protect their own livelihood. Because they knew that if Donald Trump was elected president, they would be out of jobs. And they have made a fortune working the industrial complex in Washington, D.C., by making sure that the same people are elected to office so that they can go back to their government jobs every eight years and then leave office and then come back and use their influence to get themselves rich. Donald Trump won't allow that.

And so, the Never Trump movement grew out of the people who, in Washington, D.C., had their own financial interests in making sure that, candidly, they would rather see a Clinton in office because it would be the status quo for them and they would know what the rules be, than a Donald Trump who says, "I don't need you and I don't want your money." Because what had happened in the past, money buys access. When you have a candidate who's invested almost $100 million of his own money, you can't buy access anymore. He doesn't need your money. That's the fundamental difference.

So that Never Trump movement grew out of those people in Washington who had made a living, living inside the Beltway, getting rich and causing the problems, like our $21 trillion in debt.

He would say things that would become front page news immediately, things that were considered outrageous. [John] McCain's not a hero, the whole Judge [Gonzalo] Curiel sort of week, or whatever it took to go through that. Were there points where you'd sit down in the campaign and talk about the fact, "oh god, what's this going to do us?" Or was there more of an attitude that nobody gets what's going on here, what he just said is causing uproar in the media, but in fact with our supporters it's being seen differently. What's the conversation like in the campaign when one of those statements was being made?

Look, I think the McCain one, which I was there when he made the statement in Iowa, was something that I found alarming. And I've said this very publicly, where I asked Mr. Trump after he came off the stage to have a private conversation with him and I said, "I think we need to fix this." And when I said fix it, I meant an apology. And Donald Trump, who, again, understood things that I didn't understand about the American people said, "No, no, you don't understand. We haven't done enough for our veterans. I'm going to make this the issue. I'm going to do better for our veterans." I didn't look at it that way. He understood fundamentally what he was trying to say was that, we need to do better for our veterans, that's what we need to do. We haven't done enough. Particularly in Arizona. Particularly in Phoenix. We've had all these problems with the [Department of Veterans Affairs]. We still see that veterans are dying without the care they need. And he said, "We're going to raise this issue and we're going to double down on it and we're going to talk about it."

... And once I understood that he was willing to double down on his comments and be a fighter for what he believes in, I'm all in. "And I'm there with you to support you." But as, you know, I'm a campaign guy, and my advice was, "Whoa, let's apologize." And he said, "No, no, we're going to make this an issue that the American people are going to talk about. We're going to talk about illegal immigration," which no one was talking about. "We're going to talk about VA reform," which no one was talking about. ...

 But did you ever say to him, "Mr. Trump, you can bring up those issues that are so important, that you so much believe in, but do you have to do it in a way where you ridicule a guy who's considered a hero, or go on and on about a judge that you don't believe in. Don't you realize it's causing you problems as well?" Did you ever have to have that conversation with him?

Sure, sure. I mean, look, I was there in San Diego, when he attacked, you know, talked about the judge. And he asked me my opinion beforehand and I told him I didn't think it was a good idea. That's my job, is to give him my best advice. Now, subsequently following that, I was summarily fired. And some people blame me for not being able to control what Donald Trump says. And I think that's an unfair assessment because I don't think anybody controls what Donald Trump says.

But look, my job as the campaign manager for this campaign is, regardless of what my personal belief is, I need to tell him what I think is best for him and the campaign. And sometimes we agreed and sometimes we disagreed.

Talk about the evolving campaign and why you were fired. [Paul] Manafort, what did he bring forward? When [Steve] Bannon and Kellyanne [Conway] came on later, talk about those transitions and what it brought to the campaign at different points and why. Was it all haphazard or was it thought out?

We were a start-up. We were a start-up like Uber, right? Which was a massive disruptive technology to the system. And that's what Donald Trump was, he was a shock to the Republican establishment and they did everything they could, for the most part, to prevent him. They told us we'd never make the ballot, and we didn't have enough smart people, and the whole thing.

But what continued to happen was, we needed to grow. When you have a company that experiences hypergrowth, right, that's what we were going through. And so, when Paul Manafort came in, his role in the campaign was ... the wrangling of delegates, so that when we went to the convention, Donald Trump would have all the delegates, which he won through our primary process. A very important role. And candidly, nobody's had to do this since 1976, which was a contested convention. Paul was involved in the last contested convention, which was 1976.

So he came in as an expert to manage the delegates. That was a very important function. And Paul's job was to manage the convention. That was a very important function. My job was to manage the day-to-day and go out and continue winning. And we won 38 times.

Now, any time you experience a company with hypergrowth, there's going to be things that go well and things that don't go well. And my role with the campaign, and the way the campaign was structured, was to be in the universe of Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump is the final decisionmaker on everything that takes place. And if you're not part of that, if you're not in that role, if you're not there when those decisions are being made, he's not the type of person who's going to wait and land and call you when he hits the ground in three hours.

And so, it's the exact opposite of every other campaign where the campaign manager would sit in the office all day. My job was to be next to him so I could give him advice and counsel. And we were so small that that's the way it worked.

... So my fault was not being in the campaign office day-to-day to continue to grow the campaign, because I was with the candidate all day. That was on me.

Did you think in the very beginning that this man would eventually win, become president of the United States? Or was this something different in the beginning?

Look, I think for anybody in January of 2015 to say that they thought Donald Trump was going to be the president of the United States, I think would be dishonest. Including himself. In my very first meeting with Mr. Trump when he offered me the position to be his campaign manager in January of 2015, he asked me what I thought his odds were of winning the Republican nomination. I said 5 percent. And he said 10. And I said, "Let's settle at seven-and-a-half."

We knew it was a long shot, because the field that was being put together, many people argue, was the greatest Republican primary field in a lifetime. In maybe history. Governors, senators, brothers of presidents, executives. A very crowded field. In states where on their face, Donald Trump should not win, a state like Iowa, that has historically gone for the ultra-conservative candidate, right; a state like New Hampshire, where Jeb Bush has a built-in constituency because his family is so well known -- his brother has done so well there, and they have a home in Kennebunkport; a state like South Carolina, which is overtly religious and the Christian conservatives have an oversized influence on the election down there.

When you look at the early primary states, just on the map, on their face, most pundits would have told you Donald Trump had no chance to win. What we knew was, we were shattering all of those expectations because Donald Trump wasn't part of a specific silo. He was receiving votes from every silo. And even if he wasn't the first candidate you would choose, on almost every occasion, he was your second choice.

So we knew that. And that was a fundamental difference with most of the other campaigns.

He was a shock to the Republican establishment and they did everything they could, for the most part, to prevent him.”

The "basket of deplorables" statement comes out. Was that something that was seen gleefully in the campaign? What was represented by that statement? And how it resonated within the campaign? What did it mean?

The basket of deplorables statement by Hillary was just a reaffirmation that she didn't understand what was taking place in the country. What it said was, when they went back and asked her, "Do you regret making that statement," she regretted saying "all of the people." But there was still a percentage of people who she thought belonged to be in that basket of deplorables. And what that did to the base that was supporting Donald Trump was to say, "People don't understand me. They don't think I am as good and as equal as the guy at the country club or the rich guy or the elites or the media special interests.

What Donald Trump had is a populist movement. He didn't have the elites. He didn't have the people who belonged to the country club. As a matter of fact, those people were really voting for Hillary Clinton. That was her core group of support. But what Hillary Clinton misunderstood was, people of all races, African Americans,  weren't going to turn out at the same percentage as they did for ... Barack Obama. And even if they did, Donald Trump was receiving a higher percentage of the vote than what Mitt Romney had received four years earlier, and double what John McCain had received.

And it was at one point in the campaign where a CNN poll came out and showed that Donald Trump was receiving 1 percent of the African American [community's support]. One percent. And I was on CNN at the time and David Axelrod came on and he said to me, "I will bet you a steak dinner anywhere you want that Donald Trump receives less [than] a percentage of the African American vote than Mitt Romney does." And said, "I'll take that bet."

I know Donald Trump. I know what he's willing to do. And think of his messaging to those inner-city communities: "What do you have to lose? People have taken advantage of the inner-city voters for 30 years and nothing has changed. So what do you have to lose? Give me a chance. Let me help rebuild your roads and bridges. Let me create jobs for you. Let me give you the same economic opportunity that you can provide for your family as everybody should have."

And what we saw is Donald Trump received a higher percentage of the African American vote than either Mitt Romney or John McCain did. He received a higher percentage of the Hispanic vote than either John McCain or Mitt Romney did. ...

The opponents would say his message, his black outreach, was not out to blacks, it was to whites to make them feel better that things that had been considered racist in the past about the campaign were not true and you could come to us and not feel bad amongst your other friends that might be more liberal.

I don't think there's any empirical evidence to back that up at all. You know, they can say a lot of things looking back. The bottom line is, you have a candidate in Hillary Clinton who didn't connect to the average voter. And you can blame the Russians. You can blame anybody you want. ... And let me just say this. Election Day I was on CNN. And at 5 o'clock the exit polls came out and everybody on those panels were saying ... Hillary Clinton has 300 electoral votes already and there's no path for Donald Trump. He has to do this and this. There's just absolutely no way for him to win.

... Every single one was wrong. The polling data was wrong. Nate Silver was wrong. The polls were wrong. But every time there's a bad poll that came out, you know what they'd do? They'd harp on it in the media for days and days and days, "Donald Trump can't win."

You know what the internal data said? Our numbers are moving in the right direction and Hillary Clinton has not been to Wisconsin. She hasn't been to Michigan. She hasn't put in the effort in Pennsylvania. She knew she was going to lose Ohio. She knew she was going to lose Iowa. They thought that by bringing out celebrities and giving free concerts, people are going to get excited. Yeah, they get excited to go see a free concert with some celebrities. But that didn't translate to voting for Hillary Clinton.

They thought that by putting Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on the stump, that those people who were going to see the president and the first lady were going to translate and vote for the first female candidate. The gender gap in this election was exactly the same as it was four years ago between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. There was no additional gender gap.

And that said what?

What it said was, gender was not the defining factor in this election. And I am certain in my lifetime there will be a female president of these United States of America. I'm completely certain of it. But just because you're a woman doesn't give you the privilege of being the president of the United States. You need to connect with people. And there will be a woman who will hold that high office. But just because you're a woman doesn't mean you're entitled to that.

What was happening in the campaign? The last 10 days, as you said, going out to the Rust Belt the last couple days. What was the campaign seeing?

This campaign has been underestimated from day one. And you know, our data program was much more sophisticated than any of the media knew about or understood. Our targeting. When we were looking at the absentee ballot/early voting numbers coming in, in the early states, the state that had us most concerned was the state of Florida. It's a must-win state, everybody knew that. What we didn't know as the numbers were coming in is ... what are the demographic of the people who are turning those in. And were the Hispanic, the large Hispanic population in Florida, going to turn out against Donald Trump as a protest vote, or were we going to do a number on par with what Republicans traditionally do? And instead, we actually exceeded those numbers.

What we did know was in a state like North Carolina, our numbers were significantly better going into Election Day than what Mitt Romney's were, and Mitt Romney won the state of North Carolina by 77,000 votes. So we felt very good.

What we also knew is in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, numbers were moving our way the last five or six days. And what Donald Trump did, he didn't do one rally a day, he didn't two a day, he didn't do three a day, he got on the airplane and he's doing five and six stops a day. And you know what that does? It drives the local media coverage. It made sure that people understand that you're there to campaign as hard as you could. And walking into election night, I think it's fair to say Donald Trump left nothing on the field. He put every effort he could in.

And if he would have lost the election, I don't think he would have looked back and said, "If I just did one more rally it would have made a difference." You know, our goal, selfishly, being a New Hampshire guy, I wanted to end the campaign in New Hampshire. And our goal was to have our last big rally at the Verizon Center in New Hampshire at 8 o'clock on the night before the election. And our numbers told us, you've got to make one more trip to Michigan.

And so, Donald Trump, after he was supposed to have that last rally done at 8 o'clock and be able to be back home by midnight that night said, "No, I'm going to Michigan." And he got on the plane, he flew to Michigan. He did a midnight rally in Michigan, and he came back into La Guardia and got in at 3 o'clock in the morning election morning.

And he left everything on the field. And that's what it takes to be successful.

... There are things that happened to this campaign, to Donald Trump, that would have killed any other candidate. The Access Hollywood tape. What was the feeling around the time that that happened?

When the Access Hollywood tape came out ... the question was, "What are you going to do about it?" It was a Friday night. It was in October. This was the October surprise. Had the ability to take down a campaign ... And the internal discussion amongst the campaign, some were "you need to apologize immediately," and some were, "You need to double down." And I think what Donald Trump went out and did, he said, "Look, if you're offended, I'm sorry. This is locker room talk. And that was between two people. That was a private conversation. And if you're offended, I apologize for that." And that's what he said.

And he got out in front of it. And my recommendation to him, and I've said this, was, "Look, sitting down and doing an interview to get this out and get it behind you as soon as possible." But he's smart, he's really smart, because the next day was the debate in St. Louis at Washington University. And he knew this was going to be an issue. And they already had put together a plan to answer these charges. And Donald Trump is best when he's counterpunching. So when he's on the defense, like anything, right, it's much more difficult. So if you can go the next day and have a massive audience in front of, you know, tens of millions of people who are going to watch the debate, and you can change the narrative from a tape of Access Hollywood to Hillary Clinton ... and her emails, and Benghazi and all those other things, then you are now driving the narrative once again. And that's what Donald Trump had the opportunity to do because of the timing of that second debate.

And the Clinton women brought out as well. Talk about counterpunching. The kids, we were always told, Ivanka [Trump] was against any of that. But yet, it was chosen as a way to counterpunch, I guess. What was that all about?

Because Hillary Clinton wanted to talk about Donald Trump and women. But as the first lady of the United States, she had an opportunity to stand up for the people who accused Bill Clinton of crimes against them. And she didn't do that. And so, if it's a character issue, then she gets the spotlight squarely put on her in the same fair way. And what these women did was came out and they said, "Look, our issue isn't with Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton is running and our issue is with her. She was derogatory towards us. She did X, Y and Z. So if we're going to have a big, bright light, let's put that big, bright light on Hillary Clinton, not as the former first lady, but now as someone who's running for president of these United States."

And that's what that did. And it forced them media -- see, the genius part of Donald Trump was, he didn't announce these women were coming. He just had them at a table and said, "The media's welcome to come in right before the debate." And the media was stunned. Because the media couldn't fathom doing something like this. They couldn't understand it.

Donald Trump understood that once your candidate is on the defense, you are winning. And that's the case the through the primary and it became the case for the general election.

That moment in the White House, two days after he wins the election, and he's sitting in the Oval Office with his nemesis in a lot of ways, these guys don't seem to like each other. What were you thinking as you saw that moment?

What it told me is that Donald Trump understands how important it is to be the president of the United States. And there are very few people who understand the responsibility of that job. There are five living people, I think, who understand that. And you may have political differences with some of them or all of them, but if you have the opportunity to go and sit with a person whose job you're going to succeed and understand how great of a responsibility that it is, you put your political differences aside, because your political differences pale in comparison to what is important and responsible for the United States.

And Donald Trump sat with President Obama, and Mrs. Trump sat with the first lady. And they walked away and said, "You know what, we can work together. Because we need to work together." And I think it's probably the same thing which took place when Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush. I think it's the same thing. I think it's a very, very small group of people who can actually explain to you how massive a role this is. And no matter what you've ever prepared for in your life, you're not prepared until you put your hand on that Bible.

The selection of people he's choosing to man his government, what should it tell us about how he will govern?

I think if you look at his first choice for staffing, and I mean that with his choice of the vice president, now Vice President-elect Mike Pence, exceptionally competent individual, exceptionally smart individual, loyal person, a person who has great respect by many in Washington. He's worked with them. And if you look at the people he's surrounding himself with in these Cabinet positions – General [James] Mattis at the Department of Defense may be one of the greatest generals of our lifetime, lauded by Republicans and Democrats alike. If you look at Jeff Sessions as the attorney general, someone who has high praise from his colleagues in the U.S. Senate. If you look at Linda McMahon for the Small Business Administration. If you look at Elaine Chao, his designee for the Department of Transportation. You go right down and he is surrounding himself with people who are exceptionally capable, exceptionally competent.

And I think the way that Donald Trump is going to manage is, he's going to ask these people to take his vision and implement it in their respective agencies, and then give them the freedom to do that. Because that's the type of manager he is. Holding them accountable with the freedom to go and do what is right for the government. ...

Let me ask you about the hacking stuff. Three days before the Democratic convention, Wikileaks dumped their first 44,000 emails. How did the campaign view this? Why did Donald use these in speech after speech? This seemed to have been the gift that never ended, that landed in the campaign's lap.

This was a fundamental flaw of the Clinton campaign. They had the opportunity and they said that they wanted to release all of their emails. They chose not to do that. In addition to the 33,000 emails that Hillary deleted that were supposed to be about yoga and Chelsea Clinton. They could have been out in front on this. And instead what happened, it became a drip, drip, drip. And what that meant to the American people was, Hillary Clinton's hiding something. And Donald Trump understood that if you can't be transparent on your email, then you're not transparent about anything. And this notion of the private server and then the email release.

The other thing is, the Democrats never questioned the validity of the emails. What they said was, "We're not going to address the authenticity of each and every email." But what we do know is, they've never said "that email is not actual, it's not valid." They never said that. And this is what gave people a further understanding that the Clinton machine was pay-to-play. ...

This was the part of the Washington that people are so fed up with. And so, to remind people that Hillary had the opportunity to put out all these emails but chose not to, that every single day more emails were coming out and the Clinton campaign, as you know, could have prevented this. They made a very poor strategic decision. Even in their own internal emails when they said that they should release these, chose not to, and that's a decision that ultimately helped to doom their candidacy.

And the speech that he gave where he made the comments about, if the Russians are hacking, I'm asking them to hack into the 30,000 missing emails. He got a lot of grief from that. And the Clinton people say he was basically asking for international espionage against the United States. What were your thoughts when that happened?

I don't think he was asking the Russians to hack. I think it was a tongue-in-cheek comment. But I do think that the American people were very concerned about the Clinton emails. Because it's one set of rules for the elites, and it's a different set of rules for everyone else. And we've seen time and time again, particularly as it comes to classified information, that if you are a service member and you share classified information with someone, you go to jail. Hillary Clinton didn't have that. What we saw with Hillary Clinton was the attorney general happens to have her plane on the tarmac at the same time that Bill Clinton has his plane on the tarmac and they decide to have a 30-minute conversation.

Look, this was a major turning point in the campaign. And because of that conversation, Loretta Lynch had to recuse herself from any additional information. And that's where [FBI] Director [James] Comey was empowered. And I think if anybody believes that the 30-minute conversation on the tarmac was about golf and grandchildren, they're very naive. I don't think anybody believes that. I think what the American people believed was that if that were them, and they had been accused of releasing classified information, on a server, to somebody else, they would go to jail. And instead, there's a different set of rules for Hillary Clinton. And that drove part of the anger that the American people felt.

The Comey letter that comes out 10 days before the election. Lots of difference of opinion about how important it was or was not. What's your overview of the Comey letter and how important it was?

The Comey letter came out on the Friday, the weekend before, so 10 days out. And Mr. Trump happened to be in New Hampshire when that came out, and I happened to be there at the time. And we didn't know what it was going to lead to. What we did know was that Clinton campaign was caught by surprise. They were unaware of it. They were on an airplane that didn't have internet service at the time. So they found out about it the same time we did, which was off of the television.

I don't know what direct impact it had. I think what it went to say was that there's more information here, and this issue continues to be of importance. And so, does it have an impact on the outcome of the campaign? I don't know. But what I do know is that, again, the American people said if Hillary Clinton would have released all of her emails, this would have been a non-issue. And she chose not to do that.

... The Republican National Convention. The perception is that this is haphazardly planned. It's not as glitzy as the DNC's certainly was. And I wonder if you could help us characterize what the view was from within, the decision to focus on security and perhaps to have a much more serious tone about the challenges the country faced.

I think national security is one of the most important issues that the president faces. And I have said many times, I think the role of the president is to keep his or her citizens, both domestic and abroad, safe. And throughout this campaign, when a terrorist attack occurred, Donald Trump has had a swift response to potential terrorist attack. And if you look at the San Bernardino killer ... what Donald Trump immediately came out and said was, "We need to have extreme vetting of these people." This is the exact antithesis of what every other candidate for office would say. And Donald Trump's swift response to potential terrorist attacks on our country is something that demonstrates strength.

And I think that's what the American people are looking for. That's why they voted for Donald Trump, because they believe, and I believe, that if there is a terrorist attack on our soil, it will be dealt with swiftly. And he has gone and said many times, "I will cut the heads off of ISIS." That is exactly the antithesis of what the bureaucrats in Washington believe and what some of the other candidates said. They want to take a more measured approach. People don't want a measured approach. They want a safe place.

Look, Donald Trump has talked about the fact that there are places where the United States and Russia can work together, and specifically when it comes to [Bashar] al-Assad and Syria and killing ISIS, would it be so bad if the Americans and the Russians agree on one thing and go and stop a common enemy so that they're not attacking us on our land? I think it makes sense. No other candidate wanted to talk about that. That's what sets him apart.

But the fear of this relationship being close to [Vladimir] Putin, what about that concern?

You know what I think? I think that you need to have Vladimir Putin to have respect for our president. And I think he has that with President-elect Trump. And I think you need to show that respect reciprocally. So I think what you'll find is that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both very strong-willed individuals, both have the best interests of their country at heart, there may be places they can work together to defeat a common enemy. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

Now, does that mean you're going to agree with a leader of every other foreign world all the time? Of course not. But if you can agree on one thing, which is to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism and prevent an initial terrorist attack on your soil, that's your role as the president of the United States. Your job is to protect your people. And in any means possible. Because that's the most fundamental job.

One other thing. Every president has to bring in the other folk, the other side of the country, the votes they didn't get. How does Donald Trump at this point pivot and try to work with blue state America, minorities. There are still a lot of minorities that are pretty upset at him for things that he has said. Is he capable of doing that?

Donald Trump is the ultimate deal maker. And if you look at not just the states where he won, but the states where he didn't win, states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire and New York, he's going to bring everyone together. And you know how he's going to do it? Through increasing our economic production. By going from a 1 percent growth to a 4 percent growth. His 4 percent growth doesn't say "we're only going to grow in Nebraska -- that I carried the state by 70 percent. It's for everybody. Growing the economy is something that Donald Trump has decided is going to be one of his very top priorities. That's good for all Americans. That's good for the Americans working in inner cities. It's good for rural America. It's good for everywhere in between. ...

... When did you know when he was going to win?

I knew he was going to win the day we finally won. I never took it for granted. You know, we worked harder and longer hours than I thought possible. Especially with a small team. We pushed our guys really hard. And I tried to be the campaign manager who'd be the first guy in the building every day and the last guy to leave. But anybody's who been on a campaign knows the toll it takes. You can't replicate it. There's not a business that you can say it's the same way. It's just constant. And eventually, 20-hour days wear on your health and on your family and on your mental state. It's very difficult to make good rational decisions when you're sleep deprived and you're just going and going and going.

Every election, almost every Tuesday was a bit like an episode of The Apprentice. Are we going to win today? Do I get to survive to the next one? And we won more than we lost. ...

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