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

John Podesta

Clinton campaign chairman

John Podesta served as chairman for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign for president. A former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Podesta became a central figure in the campaign when one month before the election, WikiLeaks began releasing thousands of hacked messages from his personal email account. U.S. intelligence agencies would later trace the hack back to Russia, describing it as part of a broader effort by Moscow aimed at tipping the election in Donald Trump's favor.

In the following interview, Podesta reflects on the fallout from the hack, and how the FBI responded. He describes what he sees as ineffective media coverage, what the breach meant for his personal life, its implications for democracy, and more. Addressing conclusions about Russia's involvement, he laments, "it was a winning strategy."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 16., 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

We'll do the Russian hacking story first, as much detail as you want to give us. March 19, the Times reports you get an email that turns out to be a phishing email. Do you remember getting that? What happened? And how do 60,000 of your emails end up in the Russians' hands?

Yeah. Well, in some ways, one lesson I learned is, I had a number of people who had access to my email account, one of whom checked with one of our security people about whether it was a phishing email, was told no, it was real. Another one of my staff people clicked on the link, and zoom. ... At the time, I was not aware that I had been hacked, and it took a while to develop that. It wasn't until really in the fall that the full contents of my email was--it was clear that it was going to be put on public. I didn't really know what they had taken for many, many months I'd say. A: Yeah. Well, in some ways, one lesson I learned is, I had a number of people who had access to my email account, one of whom checked with one of our security people about whether it was a phishing email, was told no, it was real. Another one of my staff people clicked on the link, and zoom.... At the time, I was not aware that I had been hacked, and it took a while to develop that. It wasn't until really in the fall that the full contents of my email was--it was clear that it was going to be put out into public. I didn't really know what they had taken for many, many months I'd say.

You look back at that now, and that one typo, or whatever the story is on why the person pushed the button, and what were the effects?

Well, the effects were to kind of weaponize WikiLeaks, to try to harm our campaign to help Donald Trump and try to get Donald Trump elected. ... It was clear we were being done by Russian intelligence agents. Now, there's been more reporting on that. Again, even throughout the course of the summer, it was clear that there were two different groups of military-related Russian intelligence agents going after Democratic accounts, and the fact that my account had been breached was, you know, the latest in a series.

But that gave a weapon to the Russians to try to influence our election. Indeed, I think that had an effect and helped elect Donald Trump. But obviously, during the course of the campaign, we had criticized Trump for adopting foreign policy positions that were more consistent with Vladimir Putin's than the bipartisan tradition of the United States, everything from weakening NATO to not saying that we would live up to what are called our Article 5 obligations, our obligation to come to the common defense of other NATO countries; to essentially taking the Putin line with respect to what they were doing in Syria, including bombing civilians and committing what many people thought were tantamount to war crimes. Trump, throughout the course of his time in running for president, was basically an apologist for Putin.The invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea were all things that basically he adopted. The Russians returned the favor.

And it was certainly clear to them that Secretary [Hillary] Clinton --they were no fan of Secretary Clinton.

Well, I think she had had a contentious relationship with Putin. When President Obama was elected, President [Dmitry] Medvedev was the president of Russia, and that was a time of some cooperation between our two countries, particularly around strategic arms reductions. We successfully completed a new treaty to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons by reducing the numbers on both sides.

Putin was then the prime minister. When he reassumed the presidency, things started to sour. And as secretary of state, Secretary Clinton was critical of Putin, particularly his anti-Democratic activities in Russia. He was, I think, obviously took offense by that.

So last summer, as WikiLeaks started publishing the DNC emails just before the convention, what is the feeling in the campaign? What is the worry in the campaign about what is going on? How much do you know at that point, and how much do you think that this is going to go on for a while, and you guys have to deal with it?

Well, you know, it wasn't one of those things that has an instant explosion and goes away. We knew or felt that this could go on for a while. The sites that were releasing information, Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks, WikiLeaks, I think it became fairly clear to experts who study these things on the outside--certainly I assume became clear to people inside the government, although very little information was coming to us, [people who] were associated with these hacks that had been done by Russian intelligence agencies. We began to warn the press about that, [to] talk about it publicly, say that this was an attack on our democratic processes.

I think the press, and particularly the mainstream press, were more interested in the contents of the leaks than where they had come from, or what the democratic threat really was for a foreign government interfering in our election. I think they remain defensive about that point, but I think they were more interested in the campaign gossip than they were into the source of the links.

The New York Times wrote a quote that was pretty interesting, written by one of the guys that was just in here. You refer to it in the op-ed piece. In some ways, the press became an instrument of Russian intelligence. I mean what was the concern? What were you telling the press at that point? And what was the reality behind that?

Well, look, I think the story developed over the course of the campaign. But I think that clearly, by the time the leak of particularly the contents of my personal emails, Ambassador [Capricia] Marshall's emails, etc., this was, as I said, a weaponized effort to try to hurt our campaign. If Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were interested in transparency, they would have dumped them out all at once. But instead, there was a bleed. ...

Just to put that a little bit in context, the leaks of my emails had been foreshadowed in August by Roger Stone, who's closely associated with Mr. Trump. But they didn't occur until October, an hour after the Access Hollywood tape became public. So clearly, I think this was done to some extent to distract the press, to get them off the Access Hollywood story. That was too big a story to get off of. But I think they wanted to--it was a winning strategy to try to, again, influence the conversation, influence the press coverage, influence what the American people were receiving in terms of the information that they were going to need to make up their minds.

I think that if you look back at the coverage The New York Times has done post-election, [it's a] fairly good reconstruction of what happened. But pre-election, over and over again, even as they covered the leaked material, they would constantly refer to that as stolen information that the Clinton campaign claims came from Russian sources. Now, obviously intelligence communities confirmed that late in the cycle, and now they've obviously reconstructed what happened, but that was pretty well known before the election by, again, outside experts, government experts.

And yet they, I think, began to undermine the veracity of the claim, even in their own coverage. So that's something that they'll have to review and consider as they think about this new world we're living in, that's a world of fake news and stolen information, purloined information, stuff that's been made up. Even in the original release there was factual inaccuracy in what Assange put out.

I think we live in a world where, you know, Trump was noted for lying 70 percent of the times he was fact-checked. It's very hard. I think it's been hard for the press to catch up with that, hard to know how to deal with information that's coming directly from foreign intelligence sources. They're going to have to do a lot of, I think, self-reflection about how they cover that in future elections, because I think if anything, that what this has done is it probably emboldened Putin, who started doing this in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, interfering in other elections, in his own elections, if you can call them that anymore, in Russia. But we see it now in support for authoritarian-aligned parties in Europe, and it's going to be a fact of democratic life, and I think the press is going to have to decide what kind of context they put around information that they're reporting on.

As the emails were being released, what was the reaction? What were the conversations that you might have had with Secretary Clinton or others about the way Trump was dealing with it, the way Trump was jumping on these WikiLeaks releases and telling the press, "You've got to look at these things; you've got to report on these things"?

Well, he did more than that. Really, from the early summer, when the DNC emails started to be released, he encouraged the Russians to do more of it. In previous elections, [it] would have been jaw-dropping for a presidential candidate to encourage a foreign adversary, really, to hack the democratic process and do more releases. But, in fact, he did that, and he did it without consequence.

When you heard that speech that he gave, what did you guys decide to do? What could you do when he's making statements like that?

Look, we tried to push back. We raised it. We tried to have people who were experts, really, in not just in cybersecurity, in foreign policy, people who served at senior levels of government. Obviously myself, our other senior campaign spokespeople tried to counterattack, tried to argue to the American people that this was not just unbecoming of a presidential campaign, but was downright dangerous.

Again, it was in the swirl in the world of the 140-character news cycle, sometimes that stuck, sometimes it didn't. It was a point that we made in arguing that he was unfit, really, to serve as president of the United States. I don't take much solace in this. But I think the American public, in the end of the day, a majority agreed with us. Twenty percent of the people who voted for him in exit polls said that he was unfit for office, but they voted for him anyway.

Were you surprised at the effectiveness of these tactics, of saying things like the fact that the Russians should hack into the 30,000 missing emails?

... I don't know that we were surprised, but we were in a constant combat with him. And I think one of the things that he perfected was, to give him his due, I guess, is that he figured out that the press would change the subject almost not, I wouldn't say on a daily basis, but almost on an hourly basis, by just something slightly more outrageous than what he had just said.

The coverage was always flipping to one of his latest statements, and that was no doubt challenging. Again, I think we felt like we had a strategy for dealing with that. We had an argument that I think that Secretary Clinton prosecuted particularly well in the three debates, which we felt like she had won each one of, which was that this is not the behavior of someone we want to entrust with the nuclear codes; we don't want him breaking with bipartisan tradition in foreign policy, and again, that his ideas were dangerous, and that he was, just by his temperament as well as his judgment, unsuited to be president of the United States.

That argument didn't stick for some reason. Why do you think?

Well, it did stick; it just didn't prevail in the electoral college. It did stick in the sense that, by the end, a majority of the public really believed that. Perhaps that's why she got nearly 3 million more votes than he did nationally. But he had a different argument, and he had an argument that prevailed among a group of people who felt like, I guess as he said in one of his arguments, "What have you got to lose?"

I think people felt disenfranchised from their government, from the economy, felt like they had been left out and left behind, and they were willing to take a radical chance on someone who was saying that he would blow up the system. And that prevailed in enough places that he was able to capture thin majorities, but majorities in the states that he needed to win in the electoral college.

As I noted--again, I'm just quoting the exit polls--20 percent of the people who voted for him thought he was unfit for office, so we'll see how that works out. I think that's, to some extent, unprecedented in American politics. But it's not just an American trend or not just something that we face, but it's been true globally. You've certainly seen that in Europe. It's almost a primal scream for change or for resistance to globalization. And he found a way to take advantage of that and get an electoral college victory.

Let me ask you a couple more questions about the WikiLeaks thing, then we'll go more into the general campaign. October, WikiLeaks starts releasing your emails, as you said, drip by drip by drip by drip. When they were coming out, were you surprised when the first ones were released? Was there a conversation on how one should deal with it, the worries about where this was going?

Well, we quickly put together a team that had actually been assembled just before that, because we, again, they were tipping their hand that they had something and they were coming after us. The first person who was directly involved, I think, was, from a campaign perspective, who had emails released was Ambassador Marshall. So we were trying to get on top of it. We had assigned a team of technical experts and researchers to try to manage what was a tremendous volume of information.

This was a daily phenomenon, so we had people from the press team and from our research team and our tech team trying to forecast what they might do, and to deal with what they had done, and to respond, and to try to manage and knock down. Most of the coverage, really, was about inside campaign gossip. It wasn't earth-shattering, but it was a constant pain to our campaign. It filled up time on cable television.

One of the things that's kind of a secondary consequence was, it was always easier to cover that than to cover whatever the substance of the campaign was, whatever Hillary was saying out on the campaign train, so it kind of obliterates your ability to have a positive message. We obviously had wanted to try again, at the end of a campaign, I think what people want to hear about is the future. But we were stuck in a cycle in which the dominant coverage was either, again, something outrageous he had said or something they had leaked. We were always dealing with that, and it made it more difficult to try to break through with what she wanted to do for the country and what her concerns were, why she believed that the country would succeed more by bringing people together rather than the campaign of division that Trump was running.

The problems that it brought for the campaign are pretty clear because of the fact that it kept on coming up. But these were your emails. Did this also take a personal toll on you?

I tried to deal with it as a professional, and that's all I can say. I suspect no one would like to be put in the circumstances I was put in. And certainly I felt badly for what became kind of collateral damage, not just of private emails that people thought would obviously never become public, but then the conspiracy theories, the fake news, what ended up culminating in somebody getting in a car and coming to a pizzeria in Washington with a loaded weapon and shooting his weapon and being arrested.

The collateral damage, which was not just the release of the information but then the hyperconspiracy nature of fake news also fomented by Russian sources and others, by the "alt right" movement, by the Russian sources, was really--you know, after all these years in politics, my skin is pretty thick, so in that sense, I don't feel like I have any sense of privacy anymore. It didn't bother me from that perspective, but it bothered me that my friends were being put through this, that innocent bystanders were being put through it. You know, my family was attacked, etc.

My wife sort of got a kick out of it. She would engage with the people who would call her at home. Seemed like an odd reaction, but she would decide that as they would call her, usually the most nasty, she'd just hang up on. But if people wanted to have a conversation, she'd engage [with] them, which I suggested to her was probably--perhaps, she had better things to do with her time. But she thought maybe she could convert a few of them, I guess.

Pretty strong woman. The CIA makes it clear that the Russians are responsible, but it's a year before the White House confirms this, announces it. There's no counteraction, counteroffensive in some ways that goes on. There's a report that's being done, but it takes a very long time to happen. The FBI, you have some problems with the way they treated it. Talk a little bit about: You guys are trying to win an election. You cannot become involved, of course, with people in the White House, because, of course, then the press is going to come down on you for connecting politics with national security issues. What's the rock and hard place that you guys are behind, and sort of how [do] you view what the White House was doing, what they possibly could do, and the way the FBI was dealing with it?

Well, for the last perspective, there was no way for our campaign to engage on the substance of this. I think that the White House would have been criticized for that, and we were getting criticized for it. We expected and knew that this was, in fact, a national security threat and were hopeful that there would be a strong reaction to that. I know the president talked to Putin about it on one of his foreign trips.

But I think the entire government was overly cautious about what they knew and [about] putting information out in the public and describing the nature of the threat, when the Russians are actively trying to interfere in the democratic process. That's a national security issue; that's not a political issue. And I think they were perhaps overly cautious, not wanting to appear to be interfering in the election.

I think, again, in retrospect, late in the process, the director of homeland security and the director of national intelligence issued a statement saying that the Russians were directly involved in these incidences. Post-election, we now know, it's a little unclear because we don't have access to the information. They've drawn additional judgments about Putin's direct involvement, about the fact that this was done by the Russians directly to help Trump not just undermine what people's perceptions were about the fairness of the democratic process. When they came to those conclusions, what they knew, I think history will ultimately find out, but it's going to take a while.

As we were actively engaged in it, we obviously would have preferred that more information came out in a timely manner. I'd been highly critical of the FBI because of the hypocrisy that I think they showed, both in their engagement and involvement in the direct application of investigations of what the Russians were up to, in comparison to the massive reaction they had in investigating Secretary Clinton's use of a private email server, which she said was a mistake. But at the end of the day, as Director [James] Comey himself said, there was no case; it wasn't even a close call.Yet they put massive resources against that problem.

It appeared to us, on the outside, that they were sort of lackadaisical about investigating what the Russians were up to.The incident exposed by The New York Times coverage was the fact that they couldn't bother to even take an Uber over to the DNC 10 minutes away from FBI headquarters, to go see someone senior and say, "You know, your computers are under attack by the Russian government." Instead, they left a voice mail on the IT helpline at the DNC, which seems in stark contrast to what was going on, on our side.

Perhaps more completely unexplainable was Director Comey's judgment that he couldn't sign onto the letter that the director of national intelligence, 17 other intelligence agencies, the director of homeland security signed onto in October because he thought it might look like he was politically interfering in the campaign, and yet released, over the advice of senior members of the Justice Department, over a long practice of both Democratic and Republican administrations going back decades, released the letter to Capitol Hill that he was going to take a look at the laptop server of the spouse of one of our staffers 11 days before the election.Really incendiary move by the director, only to have, a week later, say: "OK, we looked at it, and there's nothing there. I haven't changed my judgment. Nothing to it."

But the last week of the campaign was consumed by that matter. So it's just inexplicable, I think, to all of us who worked on the campaign, that he would render one judgment when it came to Mr. Trump and such a fundamentally different judgment when it came to Secretary Clinton.

Let's go back. After those last 11 days, 10 days of the campaign--we'll talk about that--you saw Trump people going to the Rust Belt at the very end. Their people, their pollsters were telling them that there were people they could convince, even in this "blue wall," which was famously going to prevent and win the election eventually. What was going on? When you guys saw them going to Wisconsin and to Michigan and Pennsylvania, focusing on Pennsylvania, what were you thinking?

Look, I get paid to worry, so we were always worried. Those states were a little bit different. They were all battleground states. We had staffed them all to the extent that we had higher numbers of staff by maybe a factor of two than President Obama had in his re-election campaign. Pennsylvania was an all-in operation for us. Whether it was her time, our vice president candidate Tim Kaine's time, President Clinton, President Obama, Michelle Obama, Sen. [Joe] Biden, we were always, that was a highly competitive state. We did whatever we could to win it.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, we felt like we had a bit more breathing room. But we resourced those states accordingly. Those were decisions that were being made on a daily basis by our campaign manager, Robby Mook. And we were trying to track and see what was happening. We saw him going in. We always knew his appeal was essentially to a group of voters who felt dispossessed in the economy, particularly non-college-educated white voters.

We felt like we had a strategy of assembling a coalition that was a little bit different than President Obama's. It built on the Obama model, but included college-educated voters, particularly college-educated women, independently, and even some Republican-leaning women. We were campaigning where we thought we needed to run and to win.

In the end of the day, his surge of the vote among those voters--and come back to the Comey letter. I think the Comey letter ended up hurting us in a couple of different ways. That process, you know, the bookends of those letters ended up firing up support among his voters and, to some extent, suppressing support, particularly among those college-educated voters I mentioned.

So it is what it is. We thought that, again, through the three debates, that we had established a lead, that we were tracking in a lead, and that the overall popular vote, as I noted, remained very strongly in her favor. But in those places that had been left behind economically, he was able to squeeze those votes out. We knew that was his strategy, and we were trying to counter it.

There has been some reporting that President Bill Clinton had complained at some points that--of course, the white working-class voters were a hugely important part of his base--that he was complaining that there wasn't enough energy being spent, that there was too much focus on Obama's coalition and not on this group of voters. Is that true?

Look, I think most of those conversations are placed between him and our campaign manager. But I think it belies the fact that, for example, in a state like Pennsylvania, we were just all over everywhere in the state. We had strong surrogate voices like Vice President Biden, who's viewed as someone who really, that's kind of what is his bread-and-butter politics; Bernie Sanders was out campaigning for us; Elizabeth Warren was campaigning for us across those states.

There's a lot of woulda, coulda, shouldas in politics. But I think that we were campaigning based on a theory of the case that we thought we could be victorious with the people we were trying to go after. We came out of Philadelphia, for example, with a very substantial margin, ... but he had a big surge in the middle of the state and the western part of the state and was able to eke out a narrow victory.

Same thing was true in Michigan and in Wisconsin. If you knew the outcome before the election, you might make some different allocation decisions. But look, he was going places that we won, too. He was back and forth to Colorado and to Nevada and trying to compete in places that we didn't think were really in play. Turned out he went to New Mexico. We thought we had a solid lead there, and it turned out to be true. ...

He had so offended Latino voters that those margins and those states held for us. Nevada was not only victorious at the presidential level, but we held on to the Senate seat, picked up a couple House seats there.

Let's do election night, and then I'll go back to the debates and the convention. Election night, where were you early on? What was the mood? Remember, again, the polls must have made you guys feel very confident. ...

Earlier in the late afternoon/early evening, I was in touch with our analytics people. We weren't seeing anything that was too strange. There were different reports coming in from different states. But after doing some press at the Javits Center, I went back to the Peninsula, where Hillary was and where President Clinton was, and as the returns started rolling in, I think the first indications that we were in for a long night was the Florida results.We thought that was going to be a tight race, but we felt like we had a lead there, and we thought we were going to win it. As more and more vote came in in Florida, we felt like we were just tracking below where we thought we would be. So that, I think, was really the first indicator that we were going to have a problem that night. Mood got a little more tense. We kept looking at the other states. Other states were performing as we had expected.

Then, obviously, all the attention kind of turned to those three Midwestern states. It was earlier in the evening, in East Coast time. We were trying to look also at what we were expecting out west in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and obviously New Mexico. But everything--at that point, we felt like we were still in a place where we were likely to win. No one was ever overconfident. We always knew it was a tough race, and we went into those last days not being cocky, knowing we had a lot of work to do. We felt like we finished strongly.

I was at the event the night before, with President [Obama], Michelle Obama, and President Clinton, Chelsea, and the secretary, in Philadelphia. It was a massive crowd. There was tremendous energy. We went from there to Raleigh, [North Carolina], and joined a rally that was, again, with Lady Gaga and Jon Bon Jovi that was enthusiastic. People were just feeling pumped, feeling good. But by then, tension had set in. We were in the hotel, looking at returns, trying to find anything that we could about what was happening, and then, looking both at the reports we were getting from our team in the field, from the reports that the elected officials were reporting, and then what AP was counting. ...

We thought we were ahead in Pennsylvania, and we thought we were ahead in Wisconsin and Michigan. And as those states came in, the vote was tight. You know, everybody was worried. Then, as the night wore on, and those states looked like they were dipping or tipping toward Trump, kind of a gloomier mood set in, both among the staff, who were trying to keep Hillary and President Clinton up-to-date on what we were seeing.

It was in the wee hours, I guess it was probably 12:00 in the morning, that it felt like those states were beginning a move, that we needed them all, and we weren't going to get them all. So it wasn't clear. There were still votes to be counted. We weren't sure what was in and what was out. We were hopeful that we would make up the difference in those states. And again, as it turned out, they were all less than 1 percent. They were very narrow margins of victory for Trump. But we didn't get there.

We were digesting that. ... And at some point, it was clear that we were not going to--we certainly were not seeing a path clearly to victory that night. We weren't certain we had lost it at that moment. But I made the decision somebody needed to go say something, so I went over there and told people that we're going to work through the night, continue to count votes, and people could wait a little longer, but they should go home, and we'd regroup in the morning.

... So I had made the move over to Javits. But back at the headquarters, I think our team back there concluded that it wasn't clear that we were going to lose all three of those states by then, but it was clear that we weren't going to win all three of those states. She talked to President Obama and then called President-elect Trump and conceded to him.

Were you there when that happened?

No, I was over at the Javits Center.

Who told Secretary Clinton that it wasn't going to work?

Well, I think by the time I had left, it was feeling that way. It was sort of a glum mood over there. But in between that time and when I had gone to talk to our supporters, when I got back, she had just, hearing from our campaign manager and the person who ran our data analytics, it was clear to her. I think that President Obama was getting a separate stream of information through his people who do politics for him and David Simas, who runs his political office, that it looked like we weren't going to get there. ...

Your first conversation with her when you got back to the hotel was what? What was that like?

What do you think it was like? My first conversation with her was, you know, I told her how sorry I was that we didn't get over the finish line. I believed, on the last day more than I believed it on the first day, that she'd have been a great president of the United States. It was heartbreaking. And you know, as she's always been--she's got so much grit and grace that I think she was digesting what had happened, but was trying to just reassure other people that we're going to do what we need to do, and tomorrow she'll go and, as she did, make a gracious speech and talk about [how] the ideas that we raised in the debate were still there, that what kind of country we'll be was still up for grabs; that we were going to need to stay together as a family to ensure that the country didn't go off the rails, because we thought that it very well could have, and I still believe can, given the tendency to divide people rather than bring them together that the candidate Trump exhibited in the campaign and President-elect Trump is exhibiting in this period of time. I think we're going to have to accept the result, but not accept the future.

In the very beginning of the campaign, when Donald Trump starts his campaign, is in the primaries, was there ever a belief that this guy actually might be the one that Secretary Clinton would run against?

I was an early adopter of the "Trump's for real" theory. I thought perhaps the moment of realization for me was when he made the famous comment about Sen. [John] McCain and that he liked people who didn't get captured. Anyone else would have just been blown to smithereens in politics for that statement, and his people seemed to like it and sort of buoyed him. He went up rather than down.

There was a factor there, you can call it an X factor, of people who just somehow found that which I found so despicable, they found it appealing. It seemed to me that it was going to come down by Labor Day of 2015. I thought it was going to come down, and said so at the time, to [a] fight most likely between him and Ted Cruz. I thought the other person who might be a factor was [Marco] Rubio. But I thought it was that he had a base of support that was significant and was going to stick with him in a very crowded field, and that Cruz had a base of support that was likely to stick with him in a very crowded field. The other candidates were having a hard time finding the oxygen to find their voice and get their strong base of support.

It, to some extent, played out on those terms. At that time, I thought, in the end of the day, the establishment of the Republican Party would choose whoever the alternative was over Trump, that he was still less likely than not to be the nominee. But I thought he was a serious factor and could be the nominee.

Take us to the first debate. After the first debate, what was the conversation like with Secretary Clinton? How did you think you guys did?

As she had done in the primaries, she took these debates very seriously. ... It may have been the biggest audience for a debate, maybe. I've now forgotten whether the first Obama-McCain debate--I don't even think so. I think it was the largest audience.

I think it was, yeah.

So it was the largest audience for a debate. She took it very seriously. She knew this was an opportunity to talk directly to the American people, one of the few opportunities that's unfiltered by the press, where people could really judge them side-by-side and without a lot of, if you will, English on the ball from commentators, from the press, etc. She worked hard, prepared hard, knew what she wanted to say, and I think delivered a terrific performance. I think he was thrown by it. I think he thought he was a better debater than he proved to be over the course of all three debates. It had been a successful format for him in that big array of Republican candidates, but I think one of the reasons for that was he could pick his moments when there were 17 people on the stage, or 11 or 10 or whatever, whatever the formats were, and pick his moments, take a shot, which he likes to do, and then kind of recede.

In a one-on-one debate, you can't do that. What I think surprised us was in the immediate aftermath of the debate was not that she knocked him off his game, but that he couldn't let the Alicia Machado hit go. We could claim to be geniuses and have forecast that, but we thought it was a legitimate, very legitimate story, very legitimate punch. He had been disgraceful, I think, in the way both he treated women, the way he treated Latinos and Latinas, and I think that this was an example of who he was like as a person. So it was a very legitimate shot.

What we didn't anticipate was that he would keep it going for a whole week, by going back on Twitter and attacking her again.That was sort of error on his part, but more importantly, I think she just demonstrated a depth of knowledge, a command of the issues, a breadth and seriousness that he didn't.

We came back in St. Louis, and I think they had adjusted their strategy. I think they probably sensed that it was going to be very hard for him to just go toe-to-toe with her. So the antics started, etc. The Access Hollywood tape had broken just before that, and they decided that ... if you're in a conversation about who had better ideas and who is better to be president, that was probably not his strong suit. So they wanted to mix it up, change the dynamic.

Thus the women.

Yeah. So [he] went hard at her, attacked her marriage, did this and that. I still don't think that worked. I think most of the post-debate polling showed that she had won that encounter as well.Then in the third debate, I think that again, I think that he came out on the losing side, so we felt those debates had really worked for us.

Normally, debates don't matter that much in presidential politics. You kind of go in and things move back and forth a little bit, and you come out kind of where you went in. We thought we had moved the public a little bit during the course of these debates.

With all three. The "basket of deplorables" quote, 9/9, Some people look back at that now and sort of say it was a turning point that hurt her in that same group of people that we were talking about before.

Well, look, it was a slip of the tongue. It's funny. If you look at the context, which nobody does, of the entire statement that she was making, what she was saying was we have to listen to the people who have been left out. I think she was trying to isolate the people who had gravitated to Trump, the white supremacists, etc., and say, in that sense, that's a group of people you're never going to reach, you can't reach, but there are a lot of people who Trump has an appeal to, who voted for him in the primaries. If you look at her entire statement, she was saying, "We need to talk to them."

But of course people only quote the sound bite. And I think what she said at the time, what she regretted saying, was that half of his supporters, which she had obviously regretted saying and wasn't true, but there was an element of the people who supported him who were just outright bigots, and she had given the speech earlier in the year on the alt right, their connection to white supremacy, and we again, it was in that context that she was actually trying to isolate that group of people from the mainstream. But in politics, it's the sound bite. Those things stick with you. She did apologize for it within hours of making the statement.

But you knew that it was probably going to be a problem.

Yeah, it was a problem. Again, it was something that was mischaracterized, caricaturized, not in her heart. She was running for president because of what's always motivated her her entire life, which is that she has always fought for people who needed someone to champion their cause, for kids, for women, for families, for people who had been left out and left behind in this society, and I think that she's gotten results for people. But from her days leaving law school, her cause has always been to fight for the people who have been forgotten, who have been left out.That's what she did on the campaign. That's what she did when she interacted with people on the campaign trail. That's why her policy was oriented at trying to help them.

And when you look behind the rhetoric and the façade of Donald Trump, what you see is ... really the opposite of that. But she said it. It was a mistake. It was probably a costly one. ...

Next Interview