The Delegitimization Of Donald Trump

By David Catanese | Senior Politics Writer
In a typical year, Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign would go down as one of the most startlingly deficient endeavors in political history.

But a postliminary campaign by Clinton allies to shape why the heavily favored and first major party female nominee lost to an eccentric billionaire reality television star is already bending the storyline in their favor through a concerted media offensive meant to undermine the president-elect, his tactics and the ultimate outcome.

The Clinton campaign's stunning and largely unforeseen loss has only hardened its own resolve to win the post-mortem of how it happened. In the six weeks since the election, her aides have cited white supremacy, FBI Director James Comey, the apparent Russian hacking of campaign emails and a delinquent press corps as primary reasons for Clinton's loss.

While the messaging has evolved, the motive has becoming strikingly apparent: It's an unrepentant effort to delegitimize President-elect Donald Trump and absolve Clinton of the lion's share of electoral liability.

"Their intent to try to rewrite the history books is super obvious," says Chip Englander, a Chicago-based Republican consultant who ran Rand Paul's 2016 presidential campaign. "The history books are not written by losers. She lost the election because she broke the law and didn't bother to campaign in swing states. She's got nobody to blame but herself."

Yet even as Monday's Electoral College vote assured the presidency for Trump, former President Bill Clinton, an elector himself in New York, was still claiming a sort of victory for his wife.

"She fought through everything and she prevailed against it all but, you know, then in the end we had the Russians and the FBI deal. She couldn't prevail against that. She did everything else and still won by 2.8 million votes," he told reporters in Albany.

'Low grade fever'
The post-campaign campaign began in earnest on Dec. 1 when top staff from both candidates convened at Harvard University for a quadrennial tradition dating back to 1972: a two-and-half-hour roundtable discussion on the general election featuring the top lieutenants on each side, designed to formulate a historical account on the election that was.

It turned into a venting session for both campaigns, each of which felt their boss was consistently treated unfairly by the media.

For the Clinton entourage, though, it was a stinging exercise given the result, but one that allowed them to lay down early markers for their case.

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook characterized the steady drip of campaign chairman John Podesta's email releases as a "low grade fever throughout that was an enormous strategic disadvantage."

"So, if you ask me what is the single greatest headwind we faced in the race? It was the two letters by James Comey," Mook said, referring to the FBI director's pair of public statements about the investigation into Clinton's own decision to use a private email server when she was secretary of state.

The first letter, delivered on July 5, chastised Clinton for "extremely careless" handling of sensitive classified information but cleared her of any violation of law. The second, released more explosively on Oct. 28 -- 11 days before the election -- informed Congress that due to the discovery of new emails potentially relevant to the case, investigators would be conducting a further review.

It was this hair-raising development, Mook surmised, that prevented Clinton from consolidating her most-wary supporters and gave them a last-minute reason to defect to third party candidates. "Millennial attrition," is how another aide described it.

'White Supremacists, White Nationalists'
Yet during the same panel discussion, Jen Palmieri, Clinton's communications director, raised a different reason for Clinton's defeat, alleging Trump's campaign was rooted in appeals to racism and upbraiding them for "the platform they gave to white supremacists, white nationalists."

Her voice quivering during an emotional back-and-forth with Trump aides, Palmieri icily said, "I would rather lose than win the way you guys did."

She wasn't done there.

Six days later, Palmieri took to the pages to The Washington Post to double down on her charge that Trump was buoyed by a white-nationalist movement. There was no mention of Comey or the Russians in her op-ed, but rather a statement that the burden remained on Trump to earn the support of Clinton voters.

"If Trump expects the Americans who did not vote for him to accept him as president, he needs to show that he accepts all of them as Americans. He needs to show that he understands their concerns and hears their fears," she wrote.

Putin's 'Personal Beef'
Then came the reports from CIA officers that Russian hacking efforts had apparently targeted Democrats in a more "sustained and determined online assault," leading some analysts to conclude the efforts were designed to assist Trump and hurt Clinton.
On Dec. 15. Podesta penned his own op-ed in the Washington Post lamenting the FBI's focus on investigating Clinton's private server given the clear and present threat of international espionage aimed at swaying a U.S. election.

"There are now reports that Vladimir Putin personally directed the covert campaign to elect Trump," wrote Podesta. "So are teams of FBI agents busy looking into the reported meeting in Moscow this summer between Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser, and the Putin aide in charge of Russian intelligence on the U.S. election? What about evidence that Roger Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks and knew in advance that my hacked emails were about to be leaked?"

This was undoubtedly the result of Podesta's deep frustration, but it also served to raise the idea that some on Trump's team colluded with the Russians in the cyber attacks, a prospect Podesta would repeat later in his first television interview since the election.

At the same time, Clinton told a group of donors in Manhattan that Putin himself ordered the hacking against her due to a "personal beef" over an accusation she made that he oversaw rigged parliamentary elections in his country, according to The New York Times.

She also took a swipe at the media for "finally catching up to the facts, which we desperately tried to present to them during the last months of the campaign."

At the same time, American Bridge, the pro-Clinton super PAC during the campaign, signaled its intentions to weaponize into a purely anti-Trump entity. "Our goal," said Bridge's founder David Brock, "is to keep Trump unpopular."

The day after Clinton briefed donors, President Barack Obama, in likely his final press conference, also placed his finger on the scales of history, telling a packed White House briefing room that he believed the campaign coverage of Clinton was "troubling."

'Claiming' Victory
Left unmentioned in most of these ripples of remarks was any accounting of what happened in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- the three traditionally blue states Clinton forked over to Trump by a combined 80,000 votes.

When pressed, Clinton officials allowed that they "absolutely" wished they had devoted more time and paid communication efforts to these Midwestern states. But then they swiftly returned to their gripes about "unprecedented" outside forces largely beyond their control, like the FBI and the Russians.

And they've helped make those outside forces the center of the conversation, dominating discussions during the past three weeks, from the Harvard panel to a "Meet The Press" interview with Podesta on Sunday.

At the start of the program he refused to say the 2016 election was "free and fair" when pressed several times by NBC's Chuck Todd -- only allowing that Trump was "claiming" to have won.

"Hillary Clinton got 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump, but you know Donald Trump is claiming the electoral college victory," he said.

He eventually promised to help facilitate a full autopsy of the campaign in a few months, once more data is ready, and agreed about certain missteps made. "I think Wisconsin, we could have done better, there's no question about it," he said, leaving specifics to another day.

On Tuesday, more fuel was poured on the fire when the warrant that prompted the FBI to reopen its inquiry into Clinton's email system was made public.

Clinton campaign staff leaped on the revelation, claiming it proved Comey's late campaign intrusion was "utterly unjustified" and "decisive" in the election's outcome.

Jeff Roe, a GOP consultant who managed Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential bid, says the Clinton campaign remains in a terminal spin of disbelief and hypocrisy.

"The intent is to keep the country from coalescing behind the president-elect. And while that is a worthy political goal, it cuts across every single statement they made before the election," he says.

"The worst outcome from a loss is to blame something else rather than internalize the factors."

'Anything and Everything'
For Republicans, the Democrats' exercise in discrediting Trump's triumph is not wholly new.

As recently as 2014, former President Jimmy Carter asserted in an interview that former President George W. Bush never actually defeated Democratic nominee and former Vice President Al Gore.

"I don't think that George W. Bush won the election in 2000 against Al Gore because I think that he probably lost Florida, and also nationwide," Carter said.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman even posited an inflammatory theory that Trump could gain legitimacy from a terrorist attack in the same way the 9/11 attacks helped Bush grow into the role of commander-in-chief.

What makes Clinton's loss particularly exasperating for Democrats is that, like 2000, the difference in Electoral College votes was so small, any change could theoretically be applied as the cure-all.

"In an election this close, anything and everything could have made the difference," says Andrei Cherny, a former state Democratic Party chairman in Arizona.

There are still Republicans who believe that the only reason Clinton ever had a chance in the first place was because the GOP nominated another less-than-optimal standard-bearer.

What's being lost in the rolling history of the aftermath is the most obvious and important factor of all: The candidates themselves.

American elections are still about choosing a leader of the pack, and even with all of his verbal miscues and head-spinning offenses, Trump displayed strength and determination as an irreverent, humorous warrior whereas Clinton came off as calculated, strained and often joyless. Faced with the choice of two seriously flawed options, just enough voters picked the one who appeared slightly more human and charismatic, a call for change compared to a more-conventional option espousing to build on the status quo.

"They had a tired old lady who was effectively de-sexed from saturation familiarity whose ultimate rationale could never be defined beyond, 'It's my turn and I am entitled to it, dammit.' The Clinton campaign almost made a silk purse out of a sow's ear," says Drew Nettles, a conservative political consultant with ties to the energy industry. "If someone is to blame, it's HRC. Forty years of sleaze with zero tangible accomplishments. Some of the worst political instincts in recorded history. The charm of an asp and the charisma of a slug. I think Clinton maxed out, given who she is and the moment in which she was running."

Al From, the Democratic strategist who helped usher Bill Clinton to power, says much of the Democratic Party's ruminating is a natural byproduct of the soul-crushing disappointment that accompanies a defeat in a "tough, close campaign where a lot of factors could have tipped the balance."

Like scores of Democrats, he supports a push for a high-level commission to investigate the Russians and says Democrats must show spine in opposing Trump's more radical legislative pushes. A lingering focus on the past could distract the party from real, substantive fights that lie ahead. But there's logical reason that, in the five stages of grief, depression comes before acceptance.

"He's not my cup of tea, but he's been elected in a legitimate process and should be dealt with as a duly elected president," says From. "We should accept that."

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