John Podesta, the former chairman of the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign, described candidate Donald Trump as a “left-handed boxer” Wednesday.
“You weren’t sure what you were going to get,” he said about candidate Trump..
Podesta, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and White House counselor under President Barack Obama, spoke to an audience of more than 300 Duke students, faculty and community members at Duke University.
Podesta, a Democrat, said the Clinton campaign took Trump more seriously in the early days of the campaign than his Republican primary opponents.
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Podesta was the first of two speakers in the Duke American Grand Strategy series “One Year Later.” The second will be Reince Priebus, Trump’s former White House chief of staff who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2011-17. He will speak at Duke at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
Podesta said Trump’s controversial comments in mid-July of 2015 about U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a five-year Vietnam-era prisoner of war, marked the “moment that I thought that this guy has staying power and is able to live in a gravity-free world where nothing pulled him down.”
Trump said, referring to McCain, “He’s not a war hero .“He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Lauren Anders, a Duke senior at Wednesday’s event, said she found it interesting that the McCain comment was the most memorable for Podesta, given Trump’s wide range of controversial statements in the campaign.
Podesta said he thought that comment would be the end of Trump’s political career.
“For any normal politician, that’s a career-ender, but he stuck with it and his people rallied to him,” he said.
Despite its early concern about Trump, the Clinton campaign still thought they had the election won.
“I think we went into election day thinking we were going to win, and so did everybody else,” Podesta said.
It was not until Florida’s votes were counted that Podesta said he began to get nervous. Trump won Florida with 49.1 percent of the vote.
Anders also said she was surprised to hear Podesta’s recounting of the final days before the election.
“What stood out to me the most was when he was specifically talking about the day of the election and how Bill Clinton said we should really go back to these three states,” Anders said, referring to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three Democratic-leaning states Clinton lost to Trump.
Anders recalled heavy election coverage of Florida and North Carolina and thought Clinton and her campaign had been blind-sided by Trump’s wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Podesta said in the days leading up to the election Bill Clinton was the “loudest voice” advocating for more effort to gain white, working class votes, the demographic Trump did the best in, especially in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Podesta predicted that if Trump runs for re-election, he will win the primary election in 2020, but a large field of Democrats – up to 20 candidates including Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, he said – will challenge him in the general election.
Podesta closed by taking questions from the audience.
One Duke student asked Podesta about controversies aligned with his political career, including an email leak from his personal account and his connections to the lobbying and public affairs firm Podesta Group which was hired to lobby for a nonprofit connected to the Ukrainian government.
“This is how the alt-right does fake news,” Podesta responded. “It’s personally painful because a lot of this is total (B.S.). I’m sick of it.”