(Bloomberg) -- Hillary Clinton’s senior campaign strategist did not mince his words Thursday when confronted by top staffers of President-elect Donald Trump: he doesn’t have a voter mandate.
“You guys won. That’s clear. You won the electoral college, that’s the currency,” Clinton strategist Joel Benenson said during a contentious three-hour forum hosted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “But let’s also be honest. Don’t act as if you have some popular mandate for your message … the fact of the matter is that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.”
“Hey guys, we won,” said Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s third and final campaign manager. “You don’t have to respond. I mean, seriously. Why is there no mandate?” she asked as she she pointed out congressional seats, governorships and state legislatures lost by Democrats since Barack Obama became president.
The confrontation came as tensions between the two campaigns continue to simmer following an unprecedented and bitter fight for the presidency that ended in Trump’s surprise victory last month. The fact that Clinton has won 2.5 million more votes than Trump has galvanized her supporters and led him to claim that it’s because of widespread voter fraud.
“Guys, I can tell you’re angry, but wow. Hashtag he’s your president,” Conway said. “I was asked a hundred times on TV – maybe a thousand times – will he accept the election results? Will he accept? Will you? Will you ever accept the election results? Will you tell your protesters he’s your president too?”
Six Clinton staffers faced off against a team of five Trump advisers during the panel, one of several during the two-day Harvard conference, which also included a grilling of CNN president Jeff Zucker on the role that cable news played in Trump’s rise. But it was the member of the Trump team who had been slated to appear but didn’t, campaign chief executive and former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, whose views on race led to several minutes of heated back-and-forth.
Conway and other Trump aides praised Bannon as a “brilliant tactician.”
“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am glad to have lost,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri responded. “I am more proud of Hillary Clinton’s alt-right speech than any other moment on the campaign because she had the courage to stand up. I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”
“Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?" Conway fired back. "You going look me in the face and tell me that?”
Conway said Clinton lost because people simply didn’t like her and she offered up no viable plan to strengthen the U.S. economy for middle-class Americans. “How about it’s Hillary Clinton? She doesn’t connect with people. How about they have nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message.”
Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, offered a peek at the president-elect’s decision-making process during a panel discussion of the Republican primary.
In July 2015, just five weeks into Trump’s candidacy, his aides worried that it might already be over after he questioned Arizona Senator John McCain’s war-hero status at an Iowa forum. “As soon as he was done speaking, I closed the door and said, ‘Sir, we have a problem.’” Trump insisted he wouldn’t apologize and instead would pivot to arguing that veterans aren’t being treated the way they should be, Lewandowski said.
“Donald Trump does what he always does – he doubled down,” Lewandowski said.
Trump also debated with his aides on whether to call out U.S.-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel, overseeing a trial over allegations of false claims made by Trump University, as biased because of his family’s Mexican heritage.
“I made the strategic recommendation not to do that, as did others,” Lewandowski said. But Trump’s instincts with the electorate was so spot on, numerous times, that it was difficult to dissuade him, he said.
During a separate conference session Wednesday, CNN’s Zucker faced criticism from campaign managers for Trump’s primary race challengers for the disproportionate amounts of airtime that cable news gave to Trump, letting him frequently call into shows rather than requiring him to appear on camera, and airing his rallies live and in full. Zucker insisted that his network handled the rise of Trump well, putting him on air as often as it did because he said yes to invitations while other candidates did not.
“Did we probably take too many of them unedited? Yes. I think we did," he said. “That is not why he was Republican nominee and that’s not why he’s president-elect.”