Brand is the be-all-end-all of Donald Trump. And the core of Trump’s brand is that squinty, jut-jowled, unreflective scowl, the Dirty Harry stare he insists on plastering everywhere — book covers, posters, his website—because it advertises his most marketable selling point: toughness.
But the people around the next president of the United States know he’s a lot more insecure than his blustery facade would suggest. And he had a moment of serious apprehension as he toed the diving board before his big leap into the presidential pool on June 16, 2015.
Trump was an uncharacteristic jumble of nerves that whole month, several friends and advisers told me, and he repeatedly asked if he really should go ahead with it. On calls from a summertime vacation in Scotland to buddies back in New York, he would often answer his own question with a reference to his eleventh-hour decision to skip the 2012 presidential race: “If I pull out again, nobody is ever going to believe me again.”
Trump, of course, went through with it, on his own terms. This wasn’t going to be a circus, he said, when someone in his circle suggested his announcement should feature a live elephant, balloon drop and confetti blizzard. His mouth would provide the spectacle.
Moments before he made his announcement, riding the escalator down to the lobby of Trump Tower and right before he set the tone of the sulfuric 2016 campaign with his Mexican “rapists” declaration, there was one final flash of anxiety: As Trump walked from his 26th-floor office to the elevator with his wife, Melania, and an aide, he stopped and said to no one in particular, “This is big shit.”
That decision to step onto that escalator—which seemed like a sideshow one-off at the time—irrevocably changed American politics. And it was not the only such decision in the 2016 campaign.
George W. Bush—like Trump, a popular vote-losing winner whose unusual 2000 election victory cast a long shadow over his presidency—viewed politics as a series of “decision points.” Some, he argued in his memoir of that name, were made half-consciously in the frenzy of events, others after careful consultation.
That was the conclusion I arrived at, too, after dozens of interviews with senior Democrats and Republicans over the past 18 months: The outcome of the extraordinary campaign, which has left the country divided and disoriented six weeks before Inauguration Day, came down to a succession of decision points by the candidates, their opponents—and the nation’s top cop—some of which seemed consequential at the time, many of which didn’t.
If Trump leaped, his opponent looked, and for a long time. Hillary Clinton’s choices were, characteristically, painstakingly and privately concocted, befitting a two-time presidential candidate whose defining—and perhaps fatal—characteristic was risk aversion. The omens of defeat were everywhere if she was looking for them—nagging, disquieting, try-and-forget-what-just-happened whispers of looming catastrophe. But the biggest warning was one of the quietest, a razor flick of doubt at what should have been Clinton’s moment of triumph. On the night of July 28, the Bernie Sanders and Clinton supporters shouted in rare unison as their hero Barack Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. “Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!” they chanted. This was not an option. Obama shushed them and reminded everybody—as he always did—that this was Clinton’s hour. Except, it wasn’t.
Trump, of course, couldn’t have been more different from Clinton—in process as in everything else. Improvisational and impulsive, Trump made decisions shaped by intuition, impelled by his branding genius and reality-TV showmanship, largely uninformed by research, polling, ideology or even fact. Above all, every call he made was buttressed by a sense of daring that allowed him to take advantage of every mistake made by every opponent he faced. This was a candidate who decided from Day One that he would win or lose on his own terms, playing the cable networks for free airtime, using his Twitter feed to communicate directly with the media and voters—as if the “Fireside Chats” were written by Don King—and eschewing traditional advertising for rowdy and rousing mass rallies like leather-lung politicians in the era before microphones.
Together, these choices, combined with lightning flashes of luck and happenstance, added up to the biggest surprise in a year of shocks. Here, then, are 10 decisions that defined the 2016 campaign—and changed the course of American history.
1. Hillary Clinton copies the Obama playbook. December 12, 2013.
In the spring of 2014, Clinton was already the presumed Democratic front-runner for 2016, so it came as a real surprise when one of her most trusted advisers told me that Clinton was seriously considering “permanent retirement.”
The former secretary of state, even at a time when her favorable ratings outshined Barack Obama’s, seemed to know what trouble a race might bring her, and her two most influential friends and advisers, Cheryl Mills and Maggie Williams, privately urged her to skip another presidential campaign. “Cheryl knew better than anybody the shitstorm that was about to hit us,” said a former Senate aide close to both women.
Clinton, it turned out, never seriously considered going gently into the good Chappaqua night. She may have equivocated a bit, but deep down Clinton had always wanted to run, and I later learned she had actually started tentatively discussing a possible run with interested outsiders while still serving at the State Department. As early as the middle of 2013, she began having more serious talks about what a campaign would look like with confidants and a handful of high-powered outsiders, according to people close to her. Neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders figured much in the conversations at the time.
In December 2013, Mills—who had met Clinton as a young lawyer in Bill Clinton’s West Wing two decades ago and remained her go-to organizer even for the campaign she counseled Clinton against launching—reached out to David Plouffe, a prime architect of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, hoping he could help them replicate Obama’s successes and avoid repeating Clinton’s past mistakes.
Mills gauged Plouffe’s interest in playing a major role in the campaign. The 49-year-old Delaware native declined; he had just taken a high-paying gig with rideshare company Uber. So he offered Mills a plan of action and personnel suggestions instead, according to a December 12, 2013, email that later became public when WikiLeaks this fall published the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“Well, against my better judgement and perhaps because of your directness, count me in. … It’s too important not to help,” Plouffe, a ferocious competitor who had been one of the final anti-Clinton holdouts on Obama’s team, emailed Mills. “I'd like to run a list [of potential campaign staffers] by you of who I would ideally enlist to assist in some parts of this. Small number, but without that will be an inferior product. No knowledge of who the project is for of course.”
Mills replied: “I have shared that we met with HRC and JP; and with no others. Both are eager to learn if the template/bible/plan for action is something you will undertake. … They are committed to maintaining our confidences.”
Over the next few months, Plouffe would offer the kind of strategic advice that had worked so well for Obama. He was sure Clinton needed to focus, as Obama had done, on maximizing turnout in Democratic strongholds—black communities, youth voters, educated cultural elites—and create a messaging and data machine that shaped the electorate in the Democrats’ direction, never mind that the strategy Plouffe advocated notably didn’t include a major push to win over working-class whites alienated by the two terms of America’s first black president.
Sure, there were adjustments to be made (Clinton needed to outperform Obama with educated whites and Hispanics to compensate for the loss of black voters and young people), but most Democrats believed Plouffe and Co. had created a durable presidential strategy that could serve almost any nominee. It was only afterward that Plouffe—who became attached to the Clinton cause with the zeal of a convert—realized that Trump was right, that one size didn’t quite fit all: “Presidential campaigns are driven in large part by personality, not party,” he wrote in a New York Times mea culpa a few days after the election. “Ronald Reagan, President Obama and now Mr. Trump all were able to create electoral coalitions unique to them.”
The piece of hiring advice Plouffe viewed as essential—so much so that he told Clinton about it personally: He wanted her to pick 35-year-old field organizing specialist Robby Mook for the campaign manager’s job, insisting Mook could execute the sophisticated data and outreach efforts that had enabled Obama’s grind-it-out victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. “Robby has a steadiness to him. And I think he’s more strategic than tactical, and I think that's really important in that position,” Plouffe told me last spring, when Clinton [and Mook] were still struggling to put away Vermont Senator Sanders in an unexpectedly tough primary campaign.
“It’s got to be very hard for the Clintons,” Plouffe added. “They’ve been on the scene for decades. So any time things go wrong, they have dozens of people, you know, in their email box, and probably calling, saying, ‘Told you so. You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do this.’ ... You’re going to have your valleys, and that’s always a test. And if the thing you do is sow internal tension and allow voices from the outside to really, I think, affect the campaign in a negative way, you may not win.”
Clinton had been considering several people for the eye-of-the-storm job, but had narrowed it down to two by late 2014: Mook, a former summer camp counselor with a reputation for translating voter data into lean, effective turnout operations, and Guy Cecil, a 42-year-old Clinton hand who had impressed the candidate and her husband by salvaging the campaign’s neglected field operation in late 2007.
Bill Clinton favored Cecil and never tired of reminding his inner circle, several people close to the situation told me. But ultimately, in part because of the trust she vested in Plouffe, Clinton chose Mook.
Mook, well aware of the Clintons’ propensity to jettison staff on a whim in 2008 (“layer over” was the chosen term of art when Clinton sacked her first campaign manager after her loss in the Iowa caucuses that year), was philosophical about his chances of remaining at the helm for the duration. When he was formally offered the job just after Christmas, he went so far as to tell his parents, “I’m probably going to be fired, so expect to read some terrible things about me,” according to a friend who relayed the story to me.
Clinton can be paranoid and self-destructively self-protective, but she’s also capable of assessing her own deficiencies as a politician in a bracingly clear-eyed way. And the conclusion that she drew from her 2008 defeat was essentially an indictment of her own management style: Eight years earlier, she had personally presided over a talented, sloppy, squabbling, sprawling menagerie of pals, longtime advisers and hangers-on who somehow managed to bungle the building of a basic political infrastructure to oppose Obama’s efficient, data-driven operation.
To do so, Mook hired a buddy who had helped Terry McAuliffe squeak out a win in the 2014 Virginia governor’s race: Elan Kriegel, a little-known data specialist who would, in many ways, exert more influence over the candidate than any of all-star team of veteran consultants. Kriegel’s campaign-within-a-campaign conducted dozens of targeted surveys—to test messaging and track voter sentiment day-by-day, especially in battleground states—and fed them into a computer algorithm, which ran hundreds of thousands of simulations that were used to steer ad spending, the candidate’s travel schedule, even the celebrities Clinton would invite to rallies.
The data operation, five staffers told me, was the source of Mook’s power within the campaign, and a source of perpetual tension: Many of Clinton’s top consultants groused that Mook and Kriegel withheld data from them, balking at the long lead time—a three-day delay—between tracking reports. A few of them even thought Mook was cherry-picking rosy polling to make the infamously edgy Clinton feel more confident.
Mook, for his part, had ample reason to be self-protective. There were obstacles, not least the tight-knit, often downright insular inner circle that had long accompanied the fiercely private Clinton, a circle in which the lines between buddy, attorney and adviser remained blurred: Clinton’s body-woman-turned-confidant Huma Abedin; contentious spokesman Phillippe Reines (who vowed not to join the official campaign and stayed an invisible presence in the background until popping up as the man who would play Trump in Clinton’s debate prep); lawyer David Kendall; campaign chairman Podesta; Mills; and a handful of others.
Mook had engineered big Midwestern primary wins for Clinton in 2008 as the campaign director in a handful of states, but he wasn’t friends-and-family, which was the point of his hiring in the first place. In that regard, the decision was a sensible one, not to mention that his level-headed leadership would rescue Clinton time and again when her scandals and deficiencies as a retail campaigner threatened the entire enterprise.
Not everything changed, however. Brooklyn was still a beehive of, at times, comically overwrought collective decision-making; one of the hacked Podesta emails chronicles a daylong drafting process for a single, innocuous tweet.
From the start, Mook would come under constant pressure, and by the summer of 2015, it was clear that lifelong socialist Sanders, whom Clinton initially dismissed as a gadfly nuisance, was gaining ground as an enemy of the status quo.
Mook’s ground operation was a bulwark against Sanders’ popularity. Which is why, if the outside world viewed Clinton’s unexpectedly narrow 0.2 percent victory over Sanders on February 1, 2016, in Iowa as a defeat, internally it was regarded as a Mook triumph. He maintained his upbeat disposition even after Sanders’ blowout victory in New Hampshire, a period when both Clintons openly questioned his leadership and mulled a staffing shakeup.
Another internal earthquake struck in early March, when Clinton narrowly lost Michigan—in part because Mook’s team had come up short in get-out-the-vote efforts in Detroit. Once again, both Clintons were infuriated. But still, at Plouffe’s urging, Clinton decided to stay the course and was rewarded with game-changing victories in the March 15 primaries that essentially ended Sanders’ insurgent bid.
In retrospect, the Michigan loss should have been a huge wake-up call for the campaign that something was seriously awry. Sanders beat her in bellwether Michigan by an excruciatingly tiny 17,000 votes—and of course Trump would go on to capture the state by just 10,000 votes, the first time a Republican had won it since the 1980s.
In numerous interviews conducted throughout the campaign, Clinton staffers attested to Mook’s upbeat attitude and mastery of detail. But, in the end, Brooklyn simply failed to predict the tidal wave that swamped Clinton—a pro-Trump uprising in rural and exurban white America that wasn’t reflected in the polls—and his candidate failed to generate enough enthusiasm to compensate with big turnouts in Detroit, Milwaukee and the Philadelphia suburbs.
Either way, there was something missing that technocrats couldn’t fix: The candidate herself was deeply unappealing to the most fired-up, unpredictable and angry segment of the electorate—middle-income whites in the Middle West—and she couldn’t inspire Obama-like passion among her own supporters to compensate for the surge.
2016 wasn’t 2012 because Obama wasn’t the nominee.
“She isn’t Obama. She is who she is—for good and, you know, for bad,” said Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager—and the first staffer who had been “layered over” in 2008.
2. Jeb Bush decides to run for president. December 16, 2014.
There wouldn’t have been a President Donald Trump without Jeb Bush. A rebel needs a crown to crush, and the wolfish insurgent found his perfect prey in this third Bush to attempt to claim the White House, a princeling of a family that by 2015 had come to represent everything angry GOP voters hated about their own party.
The former Florida governor had no illusions about how tough a road he faced when in mid-2014 he quietly began exploring a run after an eight-year hiatus from politics. Indeed, when he asked longtime adviser Mike Murphy what his chances were, Murphy replied, “40 percent”—and a prophetically self-aware Bush shot back, “Oh, I think it’s a lot lower than that,” according to a Bush family friend.
But, working with a veteran team he had assembled during his two terms running America’s quintessential swing state, Bush went for it anyway, building what advisers boasted would be a “shock-and-awe” organization rooted in annihilating his GOP opponents in the money race while projecting an image of inclusive, reasonable and experienced Republican stability for the inevitable general-election contrast looming against Clinton.
The money part worked amazingly well. The Bushes were legendary fundraisers after the presidencies of both his father and brother, and this time Jeb enlisted Murphy, one of the party’s smartest strategists, to set up a powerhouse super PAC on his behalf that would go on to raise a war chest of $120 million from virtually all the GOP’s established donors. This was a bully-boy power play before Trump cornered the market on alpha: The goal was to hoover up the cash before the two opponents Bush feared most, fellow Floridian Marco Rubio and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, could begin putting together a campaign.
It was a brilliant strategy for 2004—or maybe 2020, who knows?—but not for a year like 2016. Trump voters (of course, they didn’t yet know they were Trump voters when Bush posted his intention to run on Facebook, on December 16, 2014) hated everything the scion stood for, and the early polls had him struggling to hit 20 percent in a weak early field. As would soon become clear, this wasn’t just a matter of Republicans despising dynasties. It was about a rebellion against “establishment Washington” in general, as well as a pent-up fury at brother George W. Bush in particular, for the botched invasion of Iraq and the deficit-ballooning spending habits that shattered a party unified after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
This Bush, moreover, seemed determined to drive using a rearview mirror. The former Florida governor, committed to a noble but out-of-vogue notion of big-tent conservatism that included comprehensive immigration reform, calculated that his most pressing political problem was keeping out the 2012 Republican nominee. When he visited Romney at his vacation villa in Utah to talk “sports” on January 22, 2015, and make sure he would stay out of the fray this time, reporters treated it like the primary campaign’s decisive moment. Within months, it would look just as important as the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s last chat with the Kaiser.
By June, Bush was still the presumed front-runner, and his team openly scoffed at Trump when he descended the escalator at Trump Tower that month to announce he was running. Later, Bush, the proud husband of a Mexican-born wife, would take credit for challenging Trump on the infamous Mexicans-are-“rapists” comment that Trump made at his announcement, but Bush in fact stayed mum initially—until the reality-show star unleashed his first attack on Bush in August during a tour of the Iowa State Fair. Murphy later explained the ignore-him-and-he’ll-go-away strategy to the Washington Post. “Trump, quite frankly, is other people’s problem,” quipped Murphy, who saw Ted Cruz as his candidate’s biggest threat.
Big mistake, right there. “One of the main reasons I’m running,” Trump privately told one of his advisers in early 2015, “is to beat Jeb.”
This wasn’t merely a tactical pronouncement, though Trump would profit greatly from what he bitingly—and effectively—dubbed Bush’s “low-energy” presence on the debate stage. (Trump’s advisers initially saw Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, then the darling of the Tea Party movement, as their most dangerous short-term threat.) Nor did it reflect any deep personal animus against Bush on the part of the blustery New York billionaire; in fact, Trump, several people in his orbit told me, thought his opponent was a nice guy and viewed the dismantling of Bush as just business.
But Trump’s anti-Jeb crusade was an existential enterprise for his campaign. In such a crowded Republican field, Bush was simply the perfect foil for Trump’s anti-establishment crusade, a living, breathing, preppy monument to the system who stood in stark contrast to Trump and the motley collection of outsiders, newcomers and renegades like Cruz, Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson who were also running.
“Jeb was the embodiment of the establishment, everything the people we were meeting on the road would tell us they didn’t want,” Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told me during a talk earlier this year.
“Jeb represented everything Trump stands against,” former Trump adviser Mike Caputo added. “You couldn’t have drawn up a more perfect opponent for us.”
Trump, I was told, would “comfort himself” with the prospect of taking on Jeb. But it wasn’t until the debate season began in late summer of 2015, by which time Bush had already plummeted to single digits in the polls, that Trump really found his voice: brutal, funny, fact-free, baiting and wildly quotable as he turned the well-mannered Bush into a 6-foot-3 human springboard for his own ambitions. And that was where Trump’s political imperative—to position himself as the ultimate outsider alternative in a field crowded with wannabes—fused with something more primal, even ugly, in Trump’s character. He didn’t just want to beat Bush; he wanted to prove his own manhood at Bush’s expense.
As Republicans prepared for the debates that would have as many as 11 of them jostling each other on stage at a single time, Trump’s team watched YouTube videos of Bush’s memorable 1994 debate against Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles in Florida, noting how the challenger wilted and stammered when the incumbent counterattacked. Trump paid attention and decided on a preemptive strike that was designed to get into his opponent’s head: a retweet (quickly deleted) about the ex-governor’s Mexican-born wife on the eve of the first GOP debate in August. (“Bush has to like Mexican illegals because of his wife,” it said).
Bush eventually fought back against Trump’s repeated baiting and battering in the debates, but even then he did so in calibrated, gentlemanly terms. The Bushes wouldn’t lower themselves to Trump’s level, he told aides. No, he would go after his tormentor in private, as when Bush told one donor friend, discreetly, that Trump was “a buffoon,” “a clown” and “an asshole.”
The problem, of course, is that those were the kind of things that Trump was saying in public—to the howling admiration of the thousands of superfans who were soon cramming his sold-out rallies.
By the time I interviewed Bush in New Hampshire in early February 2016, sloshing around in a snow squall a few days before the primary he would lose badly, he was tense and downbeat, but still convinced his old-school style would eventually prevail. “This is the immediate gratification,” he said of Trump. “Public sentiment, how people feel, will change. It always does, and if you stick to who you are and believe what you believe and persuade people over time and you’re consistent and you’re not in the witness protection program every time the going gets tough, the simple fact is you can win the day. And I’m in it for the long haul.”
The haul wasn’t that long. Trump won South Carolina. Bush finished a lowly fourth, with just 8 percent of the vote. A few hours later, he quit the race that had started out as his coronation.
3. Donald Trump taps Corey Lewandowski as his campaign manager. January 7, 2015.
It was probably the single most important decision Trump made early in his campaign for the presidency and, true to form, the candidate made it without much consultation or due diligence, and without quite knowing what he was getting into.
Trump had been toying with the idea of running for the White House since 2012, had been quietly polling his chances on and off for years, and loved the attention (and clucking disapproval) of the Washington elites he garnered with his PR-stunt “investigations” into President Obama’s birth certificate and college transcripts. But actually running was something he hadn’t quite been willing to undertake.
By early 2014, though, Trump was telling friends and GOP operatives that he was serious about seeking the presidency this time. His main guides in the process were a trio of outsider Republican veterans: David Bossie, a former Hill staffer who founded the anti-Clinton group Citizens United; New York GOP operative Sam Nunberg; and Roger Stone, the colorful former Richard Nixon staffer who had been Trump’s informal political Rasputin for decades.
Nunberg, working with Bossie, came up with two candidates for campaign manager, but they quickly rejected his entreaties: data whiz Jeff Roe, who would go on to run Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign, and Missouri-based operative Gregg Keller, a widely respected veteran operative who would hitch up with Scott Walker on his short-lived campaign.
With Trump’s options limited, Bossie recommended a third name. Very few people outside the D.C. political class knew an amped, combative and cagey GOP campaign hand named Corey Lewandowski when he was summoned to Trump Tower in mid-December 2014. But Lewandowski, a 41-year-old operative in the Koch brothers political network, had a bantam strut and a healthy impression of his own value. Lewandowski had some bargaining clout, even if he didn’t know it at the time: Nearly all the available brand-name GOP talent had already turned down Trump, and the rest of the players who didn’t reject the long-hot reality-TV star outright wanted to shake him down by demanding $50,000-a-month retainers and first-class flights everywhere.
“What do you think of my chances?” Trump asked Lewandowski as soon as he sat down in Trump’s office, according to a person familiar with the interaction.
“Five percent,” Lewandowski replied.
Trump countered with his own assessment: 10 percent.
“Let me propose a deal,” Trump then joked. “Let’s settle on 7½.”
Trump had heard good things about Lewandowski from Bossie, and he quickly saw in the guy sitting across from him the same chip-on-the-shoulder, outsider complex he had. No stranger to big challenges, Lewandowski grew up in hardscrabble Lowell, Massachusetts, and took on a man’s role in his house at age 13 when his father dropped dead of a heart attack. Besides, Trump needed someone who knew New Hampshire, and that this blue-collar New Englander did.
The meeting took less than 45 minutes, and it set the course for Trump’s campaign for the next year and a half. The brash Lewandowski—soon jacked to the gills on a daily habit of a dozen Monster Energy drinks—would serve as the brush-cut extension of Trump’s will, keeping the campaign’s spending to a bare-bones minimum, elbowing out rivals, traveling with the candidate almost everywhere to ensure maximum face-time and, most controversially, warring with the candidate’s travelling press, whom he regarded as a threat to be managed. In this he echoed his boss: The idea to confine the media in pens began innocently enough: Trump’s advance team simply thought it was the way it was done, but Lewandowski, at Trump’s urging, used it as a way to punish a national media that viewed the candidate and his little-known campaign manager as marginal players.
For all his deficiencies as a campaign manager, it became clear that Lewandowski mind-melded with his new boss. And he saw something the more jaded professionals who viewed Trump as an orange-coiffed clown couldn’t: The monster rallies he was proving so good at putting together weren’t just a part of Trump’s campaign, they were his campaign, the source of his power, a showcase for the candidate’s rambling genius, not to mention arena-size focus groups for his messaging and a test run for his vintage Trump insults.
But of course, that all came later. When he started in January 2015, sources told me, Lewandowski saw the whole enterprise as a career-building lark, even as his buddies gave him the “You’ll never work in Republican politics again” shtick. “Fuck it,” the impulsive Lewandowski told a friend at the time. “I’ll make a few bucks and hang out with Donald Trump for a while. … How cool is that?” That changed fast: “I realized he was a serious guy from the outset,” Lewandowski told the same friend soon after.
Stone, whose steadying strategic influence is belied by his Clinton-hunting public persona, quickly clashed with Lewandowski, arguing he was more of a “tour manager” than a proper electoral executive. As the rallies got bigger, Lewandowski added a first-rate advance man, George Gigicos, who was working for the president of Panama. The watershed moment was in August 2015, the Trump team aimed higher: a rally in a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama. The candidate and his tiny cadre of advisers—Lewandowski was fond of referring to the campaign as “Five People and a Plane”—liked the idea, but they were a little nervous Trump could fill enough seats at the Ladd-Peebles Stadium right up to the moment their 757 staged a dramatic flyover to the cheers of a crowd outside observers estimated at between 18,000 and 22,000 people.
Hope Hicks, Trump’s rookie press aide, was so thrilled she walked into the cockpit and asked the pilot to execute a wing waggle.
From that point on, Trump’s rallies became the centerpiece of the campaign. Trump told Lewandowski to book as many of them as he could. And they served to obscure the campaign’s glaring shortcomings, while letting an improvising candidate—Trump’s decision to call out Mexican “rapists” at his kickoff, for example, was inspired, in part, by a random chat he had with two Border Patrol agents at one of his golf resorts, two of his friends told me—road-test his talking points. Trump picked up insights and policies like a stand-up comedian collecting material for a show. The subject he kept coming back to, increasingly, was anger, and Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border became a staple, simply because it got the greatest applause lines.
“He lives for the energy. There’s no one better at taking the temperature of the crowd,” Lewandowski told me during the campaign. “You can get instant feedback. … We’d test out all of our best lines, some would work, some wouldn’t. … That’s how we got ‘Little Marco’ and ‘Lyin’ Ted.’” How precise a focus group were the rallies? Trump started with Little Marco—then switched to “’Lil” because it got more laughs.
Lewandowski’s flaws would become more apparent as the year dragged on. He held a grudge, was too turf-conscious and had a truly volcanic temper, even locking out staffers who showed up two minutes late for one memorable early 2016 staff meeting. Fatally, he alienated Trump’s kids and the candidate’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who would emerge as an increasingly powerful rival. Lewandowski became the gritted-teeth keeper of scores with reporters, banning outlets from rallies and news conferences because he hated their coverage (POLITICO was in the doghouse for months), and he took no small delight in the angry protester taunting and tossing that became the main action at Trump events.
Lewandowski was, however, a scrapper in ways that endeared him to the candidate. Trump was cheap, and Lewandowski obliged, becoming a one-man shoestring impresario, sitting in a tiny unheated office on Trump Tower’s fifth floor, space heater at his feet, managing every aspect of the campaign. That was, of course, also Lewandowski’s biggest failing, and one he would later admit to friends: He never hired empowered, competent deputies, and he lacked the experience to scale up a modern presidential campaign when Trump vaulted to front-runner status.
But Lewandowski was struggling, and eventually he went too far. After a rally in March, he reportedly grabbed at the arm of a Breitbart reporter who later pressed charges against him. By that time, his days were numbered, and on June 20, in a Murder on the Orient Express-style group coup, Trump’s children, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Stone persuaded their boss to sack Lewandowski.
Yet Lewandowski never lost faith in Trump—or stopped talking to him—even after he hitched up with CNN as on-air contributor. That drove liberals nuts; they couldn’t understand how a guy who had been publicly rejected remained such a fierce Trumpite. But they missed the point: Lewandowski was never just an employee. He was, in many ways, the prototypical Trump voter, and he never forgot whose side he was on.
In St. Louis, at the second debate of the fall, a pro-Trump crowd gathered to heckle the talking heads on the CNN set, where Lewandowski happened to be sitting.
Despite their apprehensions about Lewandowski, many of the Democrats who sparred with him on the set liked him personally and found him to be friendly and self-deprecating. But during a break, a witness told me, Lewandowski pivoted in his chair, grinned and offered a pumped-fist salute to his brawling brothers outside the bubble.
4. Bernie Sanders doesn’t attack Clinton on her “damn” emails. October 13, 2015.
Two very bad things happened to Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2015 on the way to what was supposed to be her Democratic coronation. The first was external and probably inevitable: Sanders, the darling of the young progressive wing in a Democratic Party he wasn’t technically even a member of, rose out of wild-haired socialist obscurity to mount a major challenge from her left, quickly closing on the front-runner in the critical battlegrounds of New Hampshire and Iowa.
The second problem was more durable, utterly avoidable, entirely self-inflicted and ultimately damning: Clinton’s enemies were starting to weaponize the murky tale of her private email server, an issue that would do her permanent political damage, sap public trust and, eventually, hand Trump a winning issue. “It’s a cancer,” a longtime Clinton insider told me as her campaign was ramping up. “She’s her own worst enemy,” another said.
Lucky for Clinton that Sanders wasn’t her worst enemy. Sanders, an (uncommonly) principled politician who was as intent on running the campaign he wanted as in winning, attacked Clinton on the issues he felt were the most important. Under pressure, he would eventually bash Clinton on her refusal to release the text of her Wall Street speeches, her cozy relationship with fat cat donors, her late-in-the-day conversion to an opponent of trade deals. But that was only in later debates, and only after Clinton and her team had savaged Sanders on his gun control record.
Most of all, he flummoxed his own advisers by steadfastly refusing to attack Clinton on the issue that would hurt her most: the emails.
Sanders delivered his blanket pardon on October 13 in Las Vegas, site of their first debate, telling his vulnerable opponent he was sick and tired of hearing about her “damn emails.” His magnanimity was a life preserver for a Clinton campaign riven by turmoil over how to deal with their boss’ seemingly incomprehensible decision to flout State Department rules by exclusively using her own private server for emails throughout her State tenure.
“He made that decision not to attack her on the emails. On one hand, it was his brand—to be positive. On the other hand, it took the most volatile issue off the table,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ top strategist and admaker. “He hadn’t been in a presidential debate before. I don’t think he fully understood the dynamics. … But I don’t think he would have hit her under any circumstance.”
In fact, when Devine and campaign manager Jeff Weaver had asked Sanders to pay for focus groups that would test any attack on Clinton, he flat-out rejected the idea. “Bernie said he didn’t want to run that kind of a campaign, and there was no use trying to convince him otherwise,” Weaver told me in late July, the day Sanders finally endorsed Clinton at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Devine, Weaver and Sanders himself had been so overwhelmed by their overnight success—their online fundraising exploded after Sanders’ win in New Hampshire, and they lost states like Nevada, in part, because their bank account outmatched the pool of political talent available for them to hire—they didn’t quite understand how serious a dilemma the email issue posed to Clinton.
Which was a big missed opportunity for Sanders, considering that, from the minute news of the secret personal email server broke in the New York Times on March 2, 2015, Clinton had seriously bungled her response, infuriating the campaign professionals she had paid to promote her as she hunkered down instead with her secretive legal team, led by Cheryl Mills and longtime Clinton attorney David Kendall, who wanted her to act like a client, not a candidate. Privately, Clinton lashed out at her enemies, repeatedly demanding of her inner circle, “How do we get past this?” But she inflicted major damage to her cause by staging a stonewalling news conference at the United Nations eight days after the campaign-defining story hit.
John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, thought right away that she needed to dump everything out in public as quickly as possible to avoid the deadly drip-drip-drip, my colleague Annie Karni and I reported more than a year ago. “We need to throw the facts to the dogs, and let ’em chew on it,” Podesta told the candidate. Neera Tanden, another longtime Clinton adviser, expressed the prevailing view outside of the Mills-Lindsey cadre. “This is f---ing insane,” she wrote in an email to Podesta that later became public when his hacked email was released by WikiLeaks, adding that whoever had given Clinton permission to set up the server should be “drawn and quartered.”
Sanders, however, wouldn’t be part of the Hillary hit squad. Part of his strategy, his advisers later told me, was to let the media and Clinton’s conservative foes bring up the email issue, which helped to erode her trust and approval numbers without altering his clean-hands brand. It was his positive message—exemplified by an inspirational video set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”—that accounted for an impressive run of primary and caucus wins until Clinton effectively ended the race with a bloc of victories on March 15. “I can’t walk down a hallway in the nation’s capital without people begging me to beat up on Hillary Clinton, attack Hillary Clinton. Tell me why she’s the worst person in the world,” Sanders complained to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow during a presidential forum in the spring. “I resisted, I resisted and I resisted. I think unlike our Republican friends there, who think that politics is about attacking each other in incredibly stupid and destructive ways.”
This wasn’t a moment of unity. Sanders personally believed Clinton was the representative of a corrupt, outdated system and there was much residual bitterness: Sanders’ supporters heckled Clinton at rallies and ridiculed her supporters on social media. But Sanders, cranky as he can be, is an ineffectual hater who feels personally uncomfortable on the attack, and he only really showed his pique during a nasty New York primary in April, when the end was near.
The same cannot be said for Clinton’s team, especially Podesta. The arch-pragmatist viewed the Vermont senator as a feckless amateur, and took special satisfaction in Clinton’s 16-point primary victory in Sanders’ home state of New York. As the returns streamed in that April night, the hyper-competitive campaign chairman shouted across the campaign’s headquarters to find out how Clinton had done in Sanders’ childhood Brooklyn neighborhood, according to a staffer who was present.
When an aide relayed the news that she had taken the area, 60 to 40 percent, Podesta let out a war whoop and shouted, “Fuck yeah!”
5. CNN shows Trump’s empty podium for 30 minutes. March 3, 2016.
By the spring of 2016, Clinton was still struggling to dispatch a guy she repeatedly referred to in private, incredulously, as “a socialist.” In the meantime, Trump—a man who seemed to shrink in stature, like an unwatered fern, the longer he was away from the camera—was blossoming under the bright lights.
Here was a one-man Viagra shot for the entire TV business who drew viewers equally attracted and repelled by his antics. By the third quarter of 2016, Fox—Trump’s primary outlet for venting and headline-making—logged its best-ever quarter, averaging a whopping 2.44 million prime-time viewers. CNN also drew blockbuster ratings. It can’t be overstated how much life the race pumped back into Ted Turner’s drifting middle-of-center network: CNN in November 2016 averaged 1.5 million viewers each night during prime time, a 128 percent increase from the previous year. And the network is due to book a $1 billion profit, its best performance in years, according to industry analysts. (POLITICO and other news sites weren’t immune from the Trump bump either, at least when it came to eyeballs for the coverage.)
But if Trump’s time was, literally, money for the networks, the cable-Trump marriage was also unprecedented in a way that threw the political coverage dangerously out of balance. The absurdity of the situation was laid bare on March 3, 2016, when CNN, Fox and MSNBC prepared to air what was billed as Trump’s much-anticipated rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s claim that the GOP front-runner was a “phony” and a “fraud.” Trump was supposed to start talking at 1:30 p.m., but he was strategically, playfully late.
The live shot of a flag-backed podium in Maine sat empty for five, 10, 15, eventually 30 minutes of Donald-free empty space that illustrated the vacuity of the celebrity-driven frenzy that defined Trump’s early campaign. CNN officials dismissed the incident, arguing that the image was just that—a static picture—that provided a backdrop for a stream of talking-head banter, much of it critical of Trump. For Trump, the point was clear: He was so much more important than any of his rivals that even his absence was more newsworthy than their presence, and the networks did nothing to dispel that view, airing his speeches in their entirety when no other candidate or even President Obama was afforded that privilege.
If there was any doubt about what was motivating news execs, CBS chief Les Moonves dispelled it during a candid exchange with a reporter following Trump’s big win in New Hampshire in February. The campaign, Moonves said, was a “circus”—in a good way. “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?” he said. “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. … I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
CNN was a particularly notable case: CNN President Jeff Zucker, who had come aboard in 2013 with a mandate to revive the flagging 24/7 cable news pioneer, had grown personally close to Trump as one of the executives who green-lighted The Apprentice. Trump even liked to brag that the CNN president was “my personal booker,” Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough told me when I interviewed him last summer. (“I actually reject the premise that we’ve given too much attention to him,” Zucker insisted at one point to reporters, even as airtime monitors showed Trump getting more exposure than all the other candidates in both parties combined.)
After the election, Zucker tried to defend himself during a panel discussion on the media at Harvard’s symposium for campaign officials and reporters. But he found himself heckled, literally, from the audience when the campaign advisers for Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio criticized CNN’s coverage, with one shouting, “You showed empty podiums!”
If having a reality-star candidate was great for the news business, it was even more valuable for Trump: By the time he arrived at the podium in Maine, he had already racked up an estimated $1.8 billion in free or “earned” media—a huge boost to a skinflint campaign that had, up to that point, spent about only $10 million on ads, according to analytics firm media Quant. No other candidate came close.
Trump, for his part, watched cable constantly, but often in passing, while chowing down his McDonald’s, sometimes even with the sound off. Words meant a lot less to him than pictures. Liberals might make fun of his hairspray-sculpted coif and mock his exaggerated scowl, but Trump believed his snarling, unique look projected the one attribute he most wanted the world to see—strength—and his followers seemed to agree.
“He’s a visual guy,” one longtime friend told me. “When he comes off of O’Reilly or Hannity, it’s always, ‘How did I look? How was the lighting?’ Never heard him ask about how he sounded, not once.”
6. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio play patty-cake with Trump at the debates. August 6, 2015.
While the Barons of Basic Cable were giving Trump more or less unmediated access to their audience, his Republican opponents were too dismissive, scared or preoccupied with their piddling intramural rivalries to notice he was taking over their party—until it was too late.
The only two candidates who ever really had a real chance to stop him—golden boy hawk Marco Rubio of Florida and Tea Party icon Ted Cruz of Texas—made the calculation that ignoring Trump, and letting him run amok in the early debates, was their best chance at self-preservation. The decision by the two young senators—they are both just 45 years old today—may well go down as one of the most consequential wimp-outs in recent politics. But it seemed to make perfect sense in the summer of 2015, when Rubio’s Capitol Hill-based circle and Cruz’s Houston-based operation simultaneously decided on a hands-off-Donald approach.
From the defiant first debate in Cleveland that August, the one when he refused to commit to endorsing the party’s eventual nominee, Trump’s opponents viewed him less as a serious contender than as a bear who had busted into their cozy vacation cabin. Sure, he would chew up some furniture. But get out of his way, and eventually he would wander back into the woods.
“We looked at recent history, and the guy leading in the polls the summer before the primaries had never won the nomination,” recalled Alex Conant, a top aide to Rubio. “In 2012, it was Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich. We figured the test of a good campaign was to ignore the flavor of the month and execute our long-term strategy. … Like everybody else, we assumed he’d just fade. I guess there was a failure of imagination.”
Conant and his crew weren’t alone. The basic problem for all of Trump challengers was that none of them (apart from the fast-fading Bush) had any national name recognition. So they needed to make a good first impression with voters, and the political playbook said attacking was no way to do that. Jeff Roe, Cruz’s brainy, analytics-savvy top strategist, a pro-life Plouffe, said his main goal was to win Iowa, and give voters there a positive impression of a candidate who wasn’t a naturally warm-and-fuzzy guy. “I mean, nobody knew our name,” Roe told me. “We had like 24 percent name ID in Iowa.”
Trump’s team couldn’t believe their luck. “This is the most amazing part—none of these other campaigns ever took Trump seriously, so we never had to go and out and really attack Marco and Jeb early on because these idiots were attacking each other,” a top aide to Trump told me.
Back at Trump Tower, they were also stunned that no one, not even in the amply funded Bush network, had bothered to dredge up more opposition research on the eminently oppo-able Trump. Everyone knew there were reams of news stories and radio recordings and TV videos of Trump saying offensive stuff about women and minorities. And the candidate himself warned Lewandowski and other advisers about some of his inflammatory remarks to radio host Howard Stern.
The problem, at least at the start of the race, was that the Republican Party was locked in a kind of inward-focused trance, which began with a much-publicized post-mortem of Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 effort to unseat Obama. By the primordial pre-Trump days of mid-2015, GOP optimism abounded. Just look at this deep Republican bench, party leaders boasted, pointing to their polyglot 17-candidate field. There were the brash outsiders (Trump, Carson, Fiorina), the maverick-y insiders (Cruz, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham), the iconoclastic governors (John Kasich, Chris Christie, Scott Walker) and Rubio, a young, polished gifted politician who seemed to defy easy characterization (which turned out to be his greatest flaw).
What senior Republicans couldn’t predict: Trump would maneuver in a crowded field of jockeying pols more obsessed with pulverizing each other than confronting the incipient threat Trump posed.
The biggest blood feud, heading into the debates, was between Bush and Rubio. The ex-Florida governor had mentored the state’s junior senator, and viewed Rubio’s decision to run as a personal affront by a onetime protégé. There were a half-dozen other scores to be settled, all of which had not a thing to do with the man who would eventually dominate the primaries.
Rubio, whose small, smart team prided itself on Obama-style message discipline, took a tactical, and ultimately conventional, approach: He would calmly position himself as a hawkish foreign policy heavyweight and principled fiscal conservative while avoiding Bush’s attacks—and let Trump bash everyone else who got in his way. It was a battle plan that collapsed at the first shot.
“We only have to lead for one day in this campaign—Election Day,” a top Rubio adviser told me in February, just before Trump ridiculed him as an over-rehearsed “robot” during a debate in New Hampshire that, in retrospect, torched Rubio’s campaign. Rubio would go on to finish fifth in New Hampshire, and never won a contest other than a meaningless caucus victory in Minnesota.
Cruz, arguably the wiliest natural political strategist in the bunch, adopted an even more accommodating stance on The Donald, and seemed content to position himself as an alternative to Trump when Trump inevitably collapsed. He didn’t exactly praise Trump, but he judiciously pulled his punches: At a December 15 debate in Las Vegas, Cruz refused to confirm a report that he had privately told donors that Trump was temperamentally unfit to be president. This earned a head-pat from Trump, who purred, “I’ve gotten to know [Cruz] over the last three or four days. He has a wonderful temperament, he’s just fine.”
By the time Rubio and Cruz realized their play-nice strategies had flopped, it was already too late. On February 25, days before the big run of March primaries—when Trump would win seven of 11 Super Tuesday states, effectively sealing the nomination—Rubio went on the attack in a Houston debate. Cruz would have too, if he had gotten more airtime.
The Rubio team’s fears of a backlash turned out to be justified—his poll numbers quickly tanked—but by this point, he had no choice but to keep swinging. Cruz, whose fortunes were rising at the time, pulled off the mask during a downright nasty debate in Detroit in early March, accusing Trump of having a “tenuous relationship with the truth,” while also mocking his habit of breathing heavily into the microphone. Cruz surged to a win in Wisconsin a month later, but both Cruz and Rubio were never able to recover.
It was Bush, Trump’s personal punching bag, who actually charted a course that might have stopped—or at least hobbled—Trump. By early February, with nothing to lose, Bush was the one Republican to take Trump on directly, though he didn’t have the “campaign skills” (in the words of one senior adviser) that Rubio or Cruz possessed.
“I'm the only guy that has consistently gone after him,” Bush told me in New Hampshire, with a pained look. “Everybody else has avoided him. It's ‘God forbid you meet the wrath of Donald Trump and have a tweet storm coming at you.’ Well, I'm a big boy. I can handle it.”
7. Trump insults the parents of a dead war hero. July 28, 2016.
There were already signs, even as he trounced his opposition in the primaries that Trump’s big mouth would overshadow his big wins. In June, for reasons known only to the blurt-prone candidate, Trump decided to launch a xenophobic attack on the judge in a suit against his Trump University. Gonzalo Curiel, the Mexican-American jurist from Indiana who had issued rulings that Trump didn’t like, is “very strongly pro-Mexican. … I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” Trump told an interviewer on June 3.
No single Trump comment up to that point evoked such a powerful negative backlash in his own party. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a frequent critic and reluctant supporter, flat-out called the Curiel quip “racist.” Trump was at a crossroads. This was the time for the mythical “pivot” to the general he never would actually make.
His kids blamed campaign manager Lewandowski for enabling a dangerous Let-Trump-Be-Trump mind-set. For months, the family—led by son-in-law Kushner, whose role in the campaign had been steadily growing—had been harping on Trump to scale up his seat-of-the-pants operation. Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s 35-year-old husband, was becoming an especially influential and calming presence in Trump’s orbit. By May, Jared and Ivanka were openly agitating to oust Lewandowski, who was fond of telling friends the campaign had a “two-point decision matrix” — meaning himself and Trump and nobody else. The family and a growing chorus of Republican outsiders wanted to hire a more conventional campaign manager who could build out a real general election.
The RNC's Reince Priebus was at his breaking point, GOP sources told me, over Lewandowski's failure to set up a functional joint fundraising operation. Another agitator pressing hard for the change was Roger Stone, who cut a provocative public profile but acted as a measured counselor with Trump in private, and had long clashed with the intense campaign manager. All of them agreed on one thing: Lewandowski reinforced the candidate’s undisciplined, shoot-from-the-hip style and spent too much time on the road to adequately run the growing Trump Tower operation.
Stone was an in-and-out presence in Trump world, but he had already helped maneuver his former lobbying partner, veteran GOP operative Paul Manafort, into the role of campaign chairman, in part to help Trump deal with an anticipated convention floor challenge by Cruz. By late June, after a meeting with Trump’s adult children—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric—Trump had agreed to can Lewandowski and shift all the rest of the operations over to the 67-year-old former Ford administration official Manafort (liked by his new boss because, Trump told advisers, he had “made a fortune” out in the world).
Lewandowski, it turned out, couldn't have picked a better time to get kicked off of Donald Island. The Republican National Convention in Cleveland turned out to be a depressing, amateurishly staged mess, a community college theatrical about an America in decline for a party that had not so long ago prided itself on slick, grandiose Hollywood spectacles. For three nights, Trump filled prime-time hours with a relentless recitation of death, anger, danger, helplessness, blood, murder, fear and terror—showcasing graphic stories about Benghazi, crimes committed by illegal immigrants and out-of-control terrorism abetted by Clinton, who, needless to say, was as crooked as they came.
It was, to some extent, an unconventional rendition of a conventional convention tactic: A challenger, after all, needs to lay out a crisis first and then offer a prescription for curing it, and Trump’s stilted final night address did that. Still, Trump’s aides quickly realized he was unlikely to get the usual 3- to 4-point bump in the polls they had hoped for, especially after Cruz pointedly refused to endorse Trump in a dramatic on-stage lecture to conventiongoers to “vote your conscience.”
If Cleveland was a wash, the Democrats’ Reagan-slick Clinton coronation looked to be a big win, seemingly erasing Trump’s gains on Clinton. Bernie Sanders tucked himself neatly into the fold (even if some of his supporters vowed to fight on); both Barack and Michelle Obama delivered powerhouse speeches (even if Bill Clinton’s rambler of a Hillary paean was less memorable); and the party that had long been known for its fractious intramural battles seemed to reunite harmoniously.
The final night of the convention was supposed to be Clinton’s big night, and many of the reporters who crammed into the press section in the early evening of July 28 were busily pre-writing their big Hillary speech stories when Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala, walked onto the stage.
“Donald Trump: You're asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution?” said Khizr Khan, whose son, a Muslim-American Army captain, had died protecting his fellow soldiers from a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2004.
Khan spoke, in a quavering monotone, about the injustice of Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban. By the time he pulled out a tiny dog-eared copy of the Constitution from his suit jacket pocket, the audience was on its feet, and reporters on press row were plucking out their ear buds to hear what he was saying. "I will gladly lend you my copy," Khan told Trump, as his wife silently stood next to him, fighting back tears.
It was a critical moment in the election, or so it seemed at the time—“an appeal from a regular person for Trump to show some human decency,” in the words of former Jeb Bush adviser Tim Miller, "which he never does."
Privately, Trump fumed about the Khan speech—he hated to absorb any insult without responding—even as the people around him, including Manafort, encouraged him to let it go. But there was, as always, no controlling Trump. When he talked with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos a couple days later, the Republican nominee lashed out at the Khans as if they were political opponents, not grieving parents.
“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. … I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot,” said Trump. He also offered a snide hit on Ghazala Khan’s silence onstage—suggesting that Islam dictates that women be seen and not heard. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” he said. “She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Trump had already created his own low-light roll of outrageous attacks on people: his infamous arm-flap impersonation of a disabled reporter, his nasty dig at John McCain’s five-year internment in a Hanoi POW camp. But this was different: A candidate who was supposed to be fighting for regular people was attacking them in a cutting, personal way and would continue doing so until the last votes were cast.
The public hated it. A Fox News poll taken in the first week of August signaled to GOP leaders (wrongly, as it turned out) that Trump was cooked and could never recover: He dropped from running neck-and-neck with Clinton to 10 points down over the course of two weeks. “I thought that was it,” said one former Trump aide. “I started updating my LinkedIn page.”
“If he loses,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told me at the time, “his attack on Khans was the turning point.”
But here’s the thing: At that very moment, Mook’s own internal data was showing that Trump’s negative message overall—his “diagnosis of the problem” as Brooklyn called it—was resonating.
Clinton’s team laughed off Trump’s nomination speech. Yet her pollster John Anzalone and his team were stunned to find out that dial groups of swing state voters monitored during the speech “spiked” the darker the GOP nominee got, according to a staffer privy to the data.
8. Clinton decides to take a summer break. August 1, 2016.
Trump wasn’t dead. And the polls clearly showed that whatever he said or did, he still commanded between 36 and 43 percent of the national vote. The partisan divide was simply that stark, the animosity toward Clinton that real.
But it was a genuine boot-on-neck moment for Clinton’s Brooklyn operation.
Too bad it was the height of summer, and the Clintons had made plans they refused to change with their rich friends. So, the race almost, seemingly in the bag, Clinton came off the road, for a work-and-play semi-hiatus to regroup for the big fall push that saw her take four consecutive weekends off the trail, post-convention.
It wasn’t an entirely irrational choice: August was traditionally a tune-out month for voters, Clinton and her team were intensely focused on delivering a knockout punch in the coming fall debates and the candidate was eight years older than in her first run for the White House—less inclined to test her stamina with a breakneck 2008-type schedule, and more pr