Hillary Clinton's supporters say they warned voters of Donald Trump's behavior
Trump's comments this week are reminding Clinton aides of a speech last year
Many of Hillary Clinton’s top aides sat nervously a year ago this month as their boss stepped up to a podium in Reno, Nevada to decry then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, accuse him of “taking hate groups mainstream” and come close to labeling him a racist.
With a year of hindsight and the sting of a demoralizing election loss slowly wearing off, Clinton’s former aides now feel their campaign is slightly vindicated by the tone and tenor of Trump’s presidency, highlighted by the President’s news conference Tuesday that equated white supremacists at the heart of violence over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia with those who came out to protest racism.
There was a deep internal debate within the Clinton campaign on whether the former secretary of state should give a speech that directly challenged Trump’s views on race, according to interviews with more than 10 former top Clinton aides, some of whom asked to speak anonymously because of their current roles in Democratic politics. As Trump contentiously defended the alt-right on Tuesday, though, these former aides were left feeling with one overriding sense: Hillary Clinton tried to warn us.
“This is what I want to make clear today,” Clinton said, flanked by American flags at Truckee Meadows Community College. “A man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far reaches of the Internet, should never run our government or command our military.”
She added: “He says he wants to make America great again, but, more and more, it seems his real message is Make America Hate Again.”
Nick Merrill, the Clinton campaign’s traveling press secretary and her current spokesman, said the Reno speech was a push to speak at length during the summer about “the perils of giving in to what Trump represented and what he was inciting.”
“We did it on all mediums, via all quarters of the campaign, from surrogates to candidates,” Merrill said, reflecting on the feeling that his boss tried to warn people about Trump’s past. “I think it is pretty unassailable that we were as clear as we could be on this topic.”
Trump’s staggering, impromptu Tuesday news conference outraged Democrats and Republicans alike, but those who worked for years – and eventually failed – to stop Trump from winning the White House were particularly distressed, with some aides describing their stomachs turning as they watched the president blame “both sides” for the violence.
Trump, standing in pink marble the lobby of his eponymous tower in Midtown Manhattan, laid bare Tuesday his unvarnished view of whom was to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, which left one woman dead after she was rammed with a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said. “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.”
Asked to respond to the Clinton camp’s allegations of racial discrimination by Trump, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “The president has strongly condemned these groups and all hate and violence.”
Clinton responded to the violence in Charlottesville by tweeting Saturday that “the incitement of hatred that got us here is as real and condemnable as the white supremacists in our streets,” adding in a later message that “every minute we allow this to persist through tacit encouragement or inaction is a disgrace.” Clinton has yet to respond to Trump’s news conference Tuesday, but to the aides and advisers that helped shape her August 2016 speech, her response was given a year earlier.
The decision for Clinton to deliver a speech on Trump’s racial past was never a forgone conclusion inside the campaign.
There was deep debate between a wide array of aides whether a speech from the candidate on Trump and race would be well received and whether the message could be delivered without it being cast as nothing more than an already subterranean political discourse going lower.
Clinton, according to an aide, said at one meeting about the speech that she was not prepared to call Trump a racist, something reporters would later ask her directly.
“I don’t know what is in his heart,” Clinton told her top aides, “but I want to lay out the facts.”
The speech was crafted by Dan Schwerin, Clinton’s longtime speechwriter, who aides said played a major role pushing the speech long before it was delivered. But two former aides told CNN that former President Bill Clinton also had a large part in writing the remarks and focusing the arguments against Trump.
Schwerin said Wednesday that the former secretary of state was “adamant” that she would not make “ad hominem attacks” against Trump.
“There is no where in this speech where she says Donald Trump is a racist,” Schwerin said.
Looking to invigorate Clinton’s base and sway independent and moderates, Clinton and her advisers decided to give a speech that asked Republicans to consider if Trump represented conservatism exemplified by past leaders like Sen. Bob Dole, former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, whom the former first lady name checked.
“This is not conservatism as we have known it,” she said. “This is not Republicanism as we have known it.”
Before the speech, according to the former aides, there were two overarching questions: Was Clinton the right messenger for this stinging indictment, and would the speech go too far?
“She is the person who talked about the vast right wing conspiracy,” said a former top aide, referencing what Clinton said in 1998 about Republicans trying to bring down her husband’s presidency. “And at the time people thought she was overreacting. … There was some thought that we didn’t want people comparing the Nevada speech to that argument.”
Reflecting on the Reno event on Wednesday, Schwerin said it was “heartbreaking” to think about how Clinton predicted Trump’s presidency a year before his Trump Tower news conference.
“It is tragic. She said in that speech that his long history of racial discrimination and his trafficking in prejudice and paranoia was a good preview of what he would be like as president and it totally was,” he said. “Everything she said would happen has happened.”
The timing of the speech was important, too. Days earlier, Trump had hired Steve Bannon, the controversial former head of Breitbart News, the CEO of his campaign. Bannon, a political operative with a street brawlers reputation who once touted his website’s association with the alt-right, was a primary foil in Clinton’s speech.
August was also a unique month for Clinton, a time defined by a series of high-profile and well received speeches, including the Reno remarks. But the overriding focus of the month was fundraising.
Days before the speech Clinton headlined a three-day, nine-fundraiser swing through California, hob-nobbing with celebrities like Magic Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. She also went to the tony Hampton’s region of New York, including an event with Jimmy Buffett, Sir Paul McCartney and Jon Bon Jovi at Buffett’s Sag Harbor home.
To break through the slog of fundraisers, which were getting considerable attention from the media, the Clinton campaign was eager to get reporters to dig into Trump’s questionable history with race. Campaign surrogates tried to raise the issue in television hits and conversations with reporters before the speech, but when the stories failed to get the attention the campaign believed it deserved, top campaign aides realized the words needed to come from Clinton herself.
In hindsight, multiple aides said they would have rather had Clinton hit the road with this new anti-Trump message, not hit the fundraising trail. But, as one aide put it, “I would have done a lot differently given the chance.”
Clinton, aides said, bought into the idea of an “alt-right” speech, energized by the idea of energizing her base and wooing moderate Republicans with the message.
Another reason the speech went forward: The campaign had reams of opposition research, dug up by Clinton staffers in their Brooklyn, New York headquarters, that showed Trump, in the words of one former staffer, “at minimum, had issues with African Americans.”
“It was deep,” the aide said. “And started with (Trump’s father) and it continued with his leadership of the company.”
The Justice Department accused Trump, then a young real estate developer, and his father, Fred Trump, of housing discrimination in 1973. The Trumps settled two years later, but the court documents were filled with details the Clinton campaign was eager to get to reporters, including the accusation that applications from black applicants to Trump’s buildings were marked with the letter “C” for colored. Trump also waded into the contentious Central Park 5 issue, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York in a series of newspaper ads after five black and Hispanic teens were accused of brutally raping a 28-year-old banker who had been jogging at night in Central Park. The Central Park 5 were later exonerated, but Trump has stood by their guilt.
With a year of hindsight, former Clinton aides who worried about the speech now think Clinton could have even gone further.
“From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia,” Clinton said. “He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party. His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous.”
She added that “someone who’s questioned the citizenship of the first African-American president, who has courted white supremacists, who’s been sued for housing discrimination against communities of color, who’s attacked a judge for his Mexican heritage and promised a mass deportation force, is someone who is very much peddling bigotry and prejudice and paranoia.”
Some Clinton aides, still recovering from a disorienting loss in November, said watching Trump on Tuesday was like “Hillary Groundhog Day.”
“We all say to each other, ‘She predicted exactly this,’” one former Clinton aide said. “In her speech, she warned that Trump was mainstreaming hate groups and empowering them to take over the Republican Party, and what we saw yesterday is confirmation that they’ve now taken over the presidency.”
Another former aide, said, “yes, she called it,” but added that it is “not gratifying to say ‘I told you so,’ since this is so serious.”
“It’s not like we are saying, ‘I told you so’ and then being pleased with ourselves,” the former aide said. “It is not good. I would have rather been wrong.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the crimes the Central Park 5 teens were accused of.