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“We went in thinking we were going to win,” said John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Podesta spoke on Nov. 29 to a full house at Duke’s Penn Pavilion. 

In conversation with Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, Podesta discussed the biggest electoral upset in modern history. Podesta has long-standing ties to the Clintons, having served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and as a counselor to President Obama.

“It was a campaign of anger” that tapped into the mood of a country in transition with rising populist sentiments, said Podesta.

Man speaking
John Podesta, left, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, talks with Peter Feaver at Duke on Nov. 29.

Trump ran on a “complete rejection of President Obama, and it worked where it needed to,” he said.

Podesta said he saw Trump as a serious opponent early on.

“In sports terms, he was like a left-handed boxer; he was unpredictable. He was willing to do and say anything,” he said. By late 2015, he thought the Republican primary would come down to Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, with the mainstream Republicans rallying around Cruz, “even though nobody liked him.”

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders tapped into some of the same populist feelings as Trump and was a credible candidate, but “our coalition was bigger than his,” said Podesta.

Feaver asked whether the recent controversial book by Donna Brazile, former interim DNC chair, was correct in saying that “the fix was in” for Clinton.

“That doesn’t mischaracterize her headline,” said Podesta.  

“The party was open enough to let him in,” he said, even though Sanders had spent most of his career as an independent, not a member of the Democratic Party. “He had a fair shot.”

In the general campaign, Podesta said that they were leading, but “knew it would be a dog fight.” 

Trump was “able to control the tempo of the game.” The press was unable to resist when Trump said something outrageous. 

“It was catnip for cable TV,” he said.


Podesta had his personal emails hacked and released by Wikileaks during the campaign. He had opened an email from a possible Russian source, and did not realize at the time that his personal emails had been stolen.

“The DNC (Democratic National Committee) hack happened first. And some of those released seemed to be personal,” he said. 

In talking about Russian interference in the election, Podesta said, “The 17 American intelligence agencies were right. They did it to hurt her and help him.”

“We were screaming about it, but the media liked the gossip better. They all were running after a Pulitzer for explaining what happened after the election.”

He admitted that the campaign did spend a lot of effort on persuading voters on social media, especially in the final days, and that they were overconfident in Wisconsin.


Multiple factors worked against the campaign, such as the announcement by FBI Director James Comey in the final days about reopening and then closing again the investigation into Clinton’s State Department emails, the Russian disinformation campaign and sexism.

“It’s tough for a woman. When you want the top executive job, your motives are questioned if you are a woman. If you’re a man, your motives are seen as pure,” Podesta said.


Discussing Trump’s performance as president, he recalled Clinton’s assertion that Trump is temperamentally unfit for the job.

“He spends every day proving we were right.

“He has no respect for the boundaries on the president and for the rule of law,” Podesta said, pointing to Trump’s attempt to have Comey drop his investigation into Michael Flynn and to influence the ATT merger.

Trump has lowered the standing of the U.S. throughout the world, and is implementing the most plutocratic policies ever in this country. His governing seems built on a strategy of denying science, and an embrace of ignorance, Podesta added.

During the Q & A session at the end of the talk, a student asked how Podesta addresses a number of conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate and the Uranium One deal. Podesta became visibly angry.

“This is how the alt-right does fake news. My family and I have put up with this Pizzagate bullshit for over a year. It’s been disproven over and over. Fox News had to retract the story. It’s been very painful for my family,” he said. 

Feaver’s final remark referred to a planned Dec. 4 event at Duke with Reince Priebus, former Trump White House chief of staff. What would Podesta ask him?

“Did he ever try to tell the President he couldn’t use his telephone?” Podesta replied.

The event was the Ambassador Dave & Kay Phillips Family Lecture and sponsored by Duke’s American Grand Strategy Program, POLIS, the department of political science and the Sanford School of Public Policy.