Former Clinton campaign chair discusses Comey apology, 2016 election

Yale student Sarah Donilon with John Podesta
Yale student Sarah Donilon with John Podesta.

In his upcoming book, former FBI director James Comey publicly apologized to Secretary Hillary Clinton and her supporters for how he handled the FBI's investigation of her email use. Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair, John Podesta, speaking at a Poynter lecture on April 12, rejected the apology.

In an excerpt obtained by ABC News Comey wrote, “I'm sorry that I couldn't do a better job explaining to her [Hillary Clinton] and her supporters why I made the decisions I made.” Just days before the 2016 election, Comey publicly disclosed the FBI had reopened the probe into Clinton’s email use as secretary of state. It was a decision Clinton and her campaign staff believe contributed to the Trump victory.

Podesta said he doesn’t accept Comey’s apology and that he believes Comey put his reputation first and the reputation of the FBI second, and both of these before policy. He discussed how Comey’s actions affected the election during a talk at William L. Harkness Hall.

We went into election night feeling not overconfident, but we thought we were going to prevail. The course of the previous week was tumultuous. Comey’s decision to reopen the email investigation to us was a profound error of judgment,” Podesta said.

After Comey’s announcement, the Clinton campaign watched the margin between the candidates in the polls become closer, according to Podesta. However the campaign’s first indication of a potential loss was during election night when results came in from the state of Florida.

When we lost Florida by a little less than a percent, the enthusiasm gave way to concern,” Podesta recounted.

Podesta, currently the chair of the think tank Center for American Progress, reflected on the lessons the Democratic party can learn from the 2016 presidential campaign.

We set off to prove that Donald Trump was unfit and unqualified to be president. I think we proved that actually. He now proves that every day, in my view. But I think we succumbed to the anger of people who just wanted to blow things up,” Podesta said. “Trump did a better job of channeling that anger. People have to know you are willing to take on the political structure. It is not enough to have policy ideas, but you have to project that level of heat.”

For Democrats to regain momentum, Podesta said their goal should be to win the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.

People want to take the country back, they don’t want the division, they don’t want the direction that the president is leading us in, and the way to affect that is by first winning back the House. I think winning the Senate is possible but more complicated,” he said.

Podesta began his career in politics working on Democratic campaigns. He served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1998 to 2001. Through all the challenges Podesta faced working in politics, he said, he never lost faith in the field.

I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never become cynical. Politics can be a source of good, a source of change. You can restore hope, you can restore balance and progress. The way to lift people up is largely through political activity,” said Podesta.

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