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'It Is Soul-Crushing!' Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta on President Trump

In an interview six months after the election, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, discusses the night of his candidate's defeat, the mistakes made on the trail and Donald Trump, who he says is "unfit and unqualified" to serve as president.

John Podesta, 68, served as White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, as an adviser to Barack Obama and as the campaign chairman for Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. During his interview, he sits with a loose tie in the historical hall of the guest house of the Hamburg city government, having just arrived on a trans-Atlantic flight. The same evening, he is to give the opening address at the annual Hamburg Media Dialogue conference. Since Clinton's defeat in November, Podesta has focused on his work and granted few interviews. He sat down for one with DER SPIEGEL during his visit to Germany.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Podesta, the election took place only six months ago. For many, though, it seems like an eternity has passed since Barack Obama's presidency. Are you suffering?

Podesta: Yeah, Donald Trump has given a new meaning to dog years. The only constant seems to be his unpredictability. America lives in a state of constant turmoil. There were those who thought maybe that would calm down when he became president, but what has happened is that the pressures of the presidency have actually exaggerated those tendencies. So rather than trying to find some sense of normalcy, we get the 6 a.m. Saturday tweets that Obama ordered the bugging of Trump Tower without any evidence and with his entire intelligence community telling him that was not true and a lie.

SPIEGEL: Did it take long for you to get used to the fact that Donald Trump is now sitting in the White House?

Podesta: I have not gotten used to it. I think there's more of a danger now than at any time since I've been working in politics, and that's a long time.

SPIEGEL: Do you fear he could unintentionally start a war?

Podesta: He's impetuous. There's a chance of a horrendous miscalculation that could lead to a conflict with North Korea. But there is good news. He has put together a group of people now that are realists, who are experienced, who know the consequences of false starts in military actions. He's listening more to James Mattis and less to Steve Bannon. That's good. That makes things a little more stable. But he's still on the phone at night talking to Philippine dictator Rodrigo Duterte and inviting him to the White House without anybody in the government knowing he's going to do that.

SPIEGEL: Is Trump a threat to American democracy?

Podesta: I think it's fair to say that to endorse Duterte's policy of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines is essentially to sweep out American values. He has no respect for the rule of law. He attacks judges personally who enter rulings that disagree with his view and they're personal. He's not arguing that his interpretation of the law is different. He attacks the media as "fake news" every time they write a story he doesn't like. He can do a lot of damage.

SPIEGEL: Can he destroy Obama's legacy  in the period of just a few months? This week, Congress voted again on "Obamacare," which he wants to radically change. He also wants to repeal many environmental laws and regulations that you helped craft.

Podesta: It looks like it. In the long term, his rampage against the environment is a very challenging problem -- not just for the United States, but for the world. There's still hope because there is a very strong group of political leaders in the United States who are committed to moving forward. They have the authority and the means to continue the project of clean energy. And before Obama left, the tax breaks for installing new renewables were extended. So, they're in existence. Trump can't just shut them down as he tends to think. We can survive four years of him, but it's going to take the strong will of political leaders on the state level. And state attorneys general who won't just do what Trump wants.

SPIEGEL: You've compared Trump to Vladimir Putin, saying he's emulating the Russian president's successful propaganda strategy. Isn't that a bit of an exaggeration?

Podesta: I meant Putin's and Trump's efforts to manipulate the public. Trump wants to manipulate the media, to try and create a media environment where nothing can be true. I think he wants that sense in the country that any trusted sources, particularly anybody that opposes him, can't be trusted. Hillary got 3 million more votes than he did? Fake news for him. He won. He's in the White House, but he can't stand that fact. That breeds cynicism and distrust of the electoral process, of the democratic process itself, of any sense that your civic participation counts for anything.

SPIEGEL: Let's talk about last year again. How sure were you that you would win on Nov. 8?

Podesta: We felt like we had a lead. We always knew Donald Trump was a competitive candidate. He had consolidated Republicans in September. And there were certain groups of people who didn't want to vote for him, certain groups of people that didn't want to vote for us. We thought we were ahead. We had won three debates. We went into election night thinking and believing we were going to win.

SPIEGEL: Is that why it was so difficult for you to accept defeat? You went onstage at 2 a.m. and sent your supporters home. You told them they should get some sleep, that the votes were still being counted. By this point, however, many had already declared Trump would be the winner.

Podesta: We were still looking at votes in the three states: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. So maybe it was an exercise in disbelief or wishful thinking or something. We were still trying to find where maybe our vote models were off, where there were additional votes. There were still votes out in Philadelphia. There were still votes out in Milwaukee.

SPIEGEL: Eleven days before the election, FBI Director James Comey made the surprise announcement that his agency had reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server because new documents had been found. Did this determine the outcome of the election?

Podesta: When a race is that close, there are a lot of things you could say decided the race. The letter from the FBI director 11 days out affected the race. I don't think there's any question about that. We saw the numbers begin to close. I think it was a horrendous exercise of judgment on Comey's part. It is made more inexplicable by the way he handled the Trump investigation (Eds: into the candidate's ties with Russia, which had already been launched in the summer before the election). But can I sit here and say that's what did it? Was it a bale of straw on the camel's back? I don't know, but a lot of independent analysts think it was decisive.

SPIEGEL: Would you say today that you underestimated the email affair? For months, the fact that Clinton had sent work emails from a private server dominated the campaign debate.

Podesta: No, I don't think we underestimated it. It was difficult. We got caught in a long-running trap of not being masters of our own fate because the investigation was ongoing. It was taking as long as they wanted it to take and there was no way for us to accelerate that. It was completely out of our control. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have returned the emails to the State Department. I would've just released them. Perhaps we could have ended the whole thing with it.

SPIEGEL: Your email account was hacked by Russians and it very much appears that Moscow tried to influence the election. Is this something that we are going to have to get used to in the West?

Podesta: I'm afraid: yes. We see it in France, where Emmanuel Macron's server was hacked. I think the overall intention is to weaken the Western alliance, to weaken the European Union, to weaken NATO. I think it's a very, very dangerous development for Western democracies. Maybe in our case initially it was intended to undermine the legitimacy of the election, kind of flipped into a program just to try to weaken her as they thought she would probably win but wanted her to come in weakened, and then flipped to be pro-Trump. Lots of questions have no answers yet. The administration should quickly declassify as much as possible concerning what is known about the Russian hack. Congress should authorize a far-reaching, bipartisan independent investigation modeled on the 9/11 Commission.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 19/2017 (May 6, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: You make it sound as though lots of people were responsible for Clinton's defeat -- the director of the FBI, the Russians -- and just not you. Hillary Clinton said similar things a few days ago in an interview with CNN. What mistakes did you make?

Podesta: No question: We made mistakes. We probably under-resourced Wisconsin. We were confident we would win there. We had a fairly full field team there, way more people than Obama did. But we didn't advertise there. We thought it wasn't necessary. Trump had no presence in the state, so we thought we didn't need any. But the National Rifle Association advertised heavily there. We underestimated that.

SPIEGEL: That can't be the only mistake.

Podesta: We were unable to get out of the loop that Trump created and that the media created of outrageous statement reaction, new outrageous statement counterreaction. That left an opening for a lot of people to think that this conversation really wasn't about them. And the media was thankful for a reality TV candidate. Most of the media turned into accomplices of Donald Trump.

SPIEGEL: There was another surprisingly successful Democratic Party contender: 75-year-old Bernie Sanders. Did he have a chance of winning the election?

Podesta: We took him seriously very early. There's the theory that he could have gotten some of these angry white working-class voters that went to Trump that Clinton couldn't get, and particularly the Obama Trump voters. That's true. He probably could have gotten a few of them. But not enough. We talked to him, early on. We wanted him to be part of our campaign. After the New York primary, which was in mid-April, after Super Tuesday, which was in early March, it was clear that he couldn't catch us. But he wanted to keep going. It was his decision.

SPIEGEL: Apart from all these things, was Hillary Clinton the right candidate?

Podesta: What makes a candidate a good one? I think one has to at least start with, "Can the person be a good president?" And I think she would have been a fabulous president. She's got deep values. She knows how to get stuff done in Washington. She has a lot of experience. She was and is very effective when she starts things, whether as senator or in the State Department. She has the depth, the stature, the values to be a great president.

SPIEGEL: She was strong in 2008, but Obama was even stronger. But in 2016, she proved less capable of engaging people. Did you really never have doubts about whether she was the right candidate?

Podesta: No. Otherwise I would not have become the chairman of her campaign.

SPIEGEL: "Shattered," a book recently published in the U.S. by journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, very harshly criticizes Clinton's campaign team. The book alleges it suffered from a lack of coordination and proved incapable of making clear to voters why they should choose Clinton.

Podesta: How do you think that book would've come out if those 70,000 votes had gone the other way? The same authors would have written about a huge success: what a genius, well-oiled machine.

SPIEGEL: Is there any critique in the book that you take seriously? The criticism, for example, that your campaign lacked a big, overarching idea.

Podesta: I think a lot of that is 20/20 hindsight. The same authors wrote glowing reviews on Hillary's campaign before the election. She routinely said on the campaign trail what kind of values she stands for, what her priorities were. She wanted more equality -- for women, black people, Hispanics. She had understood that there was a strong desire for change in the country. Wages hadn't grown in 15 years. But maybe we live in a world where authenticity is simply judged by whether you say crazy shit and those things become less important qualities. Whether she became a credible champion of change, particularly after four years working for the Obama administration, that's a different question. I think that probably most people who worked for her would say, "yes!" And others would probably say "no."

SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes feel responsible for the fact that Trump is now president?

Podesta: Sure.

SPIEGEL: Is that your whole answer?

Podesta: How do you think I feel? I feel terrible. It is soul-crushing. It was our job to win, and we failed to do that. The fact that we let Donald Trump have the keys to the White House and the codes to the nuclear football is soul-crushing, and a heavy burden to everyone who had a leadership role in our campaign.

SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to say that Trump's election victory was the biggest defeat you have ever suffered in your professional life?

Podesta: Oh, yeah. I mean, I've worked on losing campaigns. But this time we spent six months trying to prove that he was unfit and unqualified to be president of the United States. On Election Day, 60 percent of the American people believed that. Unfortunately, 20 percent of his voters believed that too and still voted for him. I still believe that he is unfit and unqualified to be president of the United States. He lacks the temperament, he lacks the knowledge and he lacks the judgment to carry out that office. So, the people have spoken -- or at least the Electoral College has spoken -- and now he's our president.

SPIEGEL: How did you spend your days after the election. Did you stay home in order to cope with your grief?

Podesta: No, there was no time for it. I was the guy trying to close things down, through December. We were being attentive to the recounts in single states. It wasn't really until Christmas that I got any time off.

SPIEGEL: Will you ever manage a campaign again?

Podesta: I have no desire to do so and after the post-mortems, maybe no one will ask.

SPIEGEL: How did Hillary Clinton cope with the result of Nov. 8?

Podesta: I think she went walking a lot in the woods. But now she's back.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Podesta, we thank you for this interview.