On May 23, The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty hosted The Daily 202 Live with former Hillary Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta. They discussed President Trump’s first months in office, including the latest developments with the FBI, the reported sharing of sensitive intelligence and allegations of Russian interference in American politics.

 

This transcript has been edited for length and readability.

Tumulty:          Well, first of all, thank you so much for being here this morning and thank you, John.  John, most recently, of course, was the campaign chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign.  Recently, I think POLITICO referred to him as the closest thing to a wise man that the Democratic Party has.

Podesta:          That’s a very low bar, Karen.  [LAUGHTER]

Tumulty:          I’ve always thought of you more as a Swiss army knife.  No matter what needs to be done, he’s got a way of doing it.  He has been White House chief of staff to one president, managed a very, very successful transition for Barack Obama, was brought in as a counselor in the Obama White House to sort of get things on track.  Basically, John has done pretty much everything that can be done and in the meantime, he started the Center for American Progress, which has become a powerhouse of intellectual thought of generating ideas for the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

But you were in the news quite a bit last fall for what I think has sort of become the original sin of this whole Russia scandal, which is the hacking of your emails, of the DNCs emails, of the DCCCs emails; could you sort of describe what it felt like to be in the middle of that?  Because the very afternoon that The Washington Post is breaking the news of the Access Hollywood tapes; John, how did you figure out that your emails had suddenly fallen into the hands of Wikileaks?

Podesta:          Well, Karen, of course, this story starts back a little bit further when the DNC hacks began to be dropped in the summer, leading up to the Democratic National Convention.  And at that time, I think there was some suspicion that other accounts may have been compromised.  I wasn’t sure at that moment that mine had been compromised and it took awhile to figure that out but in August, Roger Stone sort of pointed to the fact that there were surprises coming, so we say.  And I think that that day in October that you referenced when I realized and the campaign realized the full extent of the penetration that a couple of things had happened earlier in the day.

One is that the director of national intelligence and the secretary of Homeland Security released a statement saying that the Russians were actively interfering in the election and pointed to the hacks of Democratic accounts as evidence of that but went beyond that.  And then, of course, the Access Hollywood tape came out in the afternoon.  This was a Friday afternoon and low and behold, a half an hour later as everyone had turned their attention to Billy Bush and Donald Trump and boys on the bus, Wikileaks and Julian Assange started dropping my emails and that continued on through the process right up and through to election day. 

Tumulty:          And we found out many state secrets, including your risotto recipe, which I hear is great but I’ve always thought risotto is way too much too much work.

Podesta:          I will get credit for that.  [LAUGHS] Not at all.  That’s a mistake.

Tumulty:          One of the things that happened in this and I think it says a lot about the state of how information flows these days; that things were taken out of those emails and spun into really weird, dark conspiracy theories, including this ridiculous one about a child trafficking ring being run out of the basement of a pizza place that didn’t have a basement.  We’re seeing some of that now and there’s a conspiracy theory that involves the murder of a 27-year-old DNC aide.  An apparent robbery, but really police haven’t gotten to the bottom of it last summer, last July.

I don’t know if you guys have been following this but a number of people—because you worked for the DNC, people like Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich are suddenly trafficking in this idea that he was the actual leaker of the emails; that it wasn’t Russia at all.  This would be a convenient way to sort of get rid of all of the clouds hanging over Donald Trump right now.  How do we know that it was Russia that did this?

Podesta:          Let me come back to the trafficking but I think there’s a very simple answer to the question.  How do we know?  Because 17 intelligence agencies gave a report to the president of the United States and released it to the public, which identified Russian intelligence, two different groups of Russian intelligence agencies; one from the FSB and one from the GRU, the military intelligence unit, were the most active in releasing the emails and I think that it goes to the largest question about the way people spin and create fake news.

And the Russians’ engagement and involvement in that and the participation, the support from the alt-right media from guys like Sean Hannity.  It’s pretty disgusting to see a former speaker of the House traffic in this at this point.  But I’ve come to expect that from Mr. Gingrich.  But the real story of the Russian engagement in terms of trying to undermine the democratic process in the U.S. was not simply the hacking and release of emails from the DNC, from the DCCC, as you noted, from my account, from other campaign people’s accounts.  But they were also very active in propagating and distributing fake news working with these alt-right sites and in conjunction with them.

There’s been testimony on Capitol Hill by Clint Watts and others about how that echo system really pushes that information out and I think it says something that in the last 75 days of the campaign, that the top 20 fake news stories outpaced, out-friended and out-liked on Facebook the top 20 real news stories from legitimate sites like The Washington Post and The New York Times.  So there was a very active program.  We saw it again in European elections.  Most recently in the French election when they dumped a bunch of hacked emails from the Macron campaign. I think, unfortunately for us, but perhaps maybe fortunately for the world, I think the French press was more sensitive to it.  They contextualized it, knocked it back, and of course, Macron won in a landslide victory against Marine Le Pen.

Tumulty:          But they also have different laws than we have in terms of what the media can report in the last 24 hours before an election as well.

Podesta:          But the leakers are pretty sophisticated too.  So they dropped that before those laws triggered and by the way, the first reports of them came from U.S. alt-right sites back into France.  So this is a global phenomenon.  Again, it should be worrying to all citizens; not just progressives or not just Clinton supporters but people across the political spectrum that a foreign power; one that’s often hostile to the United States’ interests is so actively participating in the electoral process of other nations.  They’ve hacked in Norway.  They hacked the Bundestag in Germany.  I expect in the run-up to the German national elections in September, we’re going to see, again, these very active programs.  They were rewarded for it in the U.S.  The return on investment, as it were, was pretty high.

Tumulty:          What was it?  Did it really make a difference in the outcome?

Podesta:          Look, I think there’s a lot of different factors.  I think it’s hard to poll and say that this made a difference, that made a difference.  I think the overall effect of the hacking emails kind of left that kind of undertow of emails were never going away.  It was always a problem.  We hadn’t put it to bed completely and I think it originated with a look Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email server but it kind of dogged us through the campaign.  But it brought it back and I think the last weeks, Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation and then close it nine days later.  All that had a kind of swirl and had some impact and I think certainly was as—again, not the Clinton campaign but as the U.S. government said, what started as a program to really undermine the faith in democratic institutions, the faith in the electoral process became morphed into a program to damage and weaken Secretary Clinton, who I think probably Putin and the Russians thought was going to be successful.

But that she would come in undermined and damaged as a result but that eventually turned when they saw the opportunity to—and again, I’m citing the U.S. intelligence community, to say that their sources indicate that they were actively trying to help Donald Trump.

Tumulty:          Now, it seems like—

Podesta:          And there’s a good reason for that because had adopted most of President Putin’s foreign policy during the course of the campaign, including undermining NATO and the E.U.

Tumulty:          But it seems like the biggest issues going forward are figuring out exactly how they were able to do this and what we and other governments can do to prevent this from happening in the future.  But if you look at the president’s response to this, he seems to think of this primarily as a challenge to the legitimacy of his own election.  How difficult is that going to make it to sort of keep the investigation framed on what it ought to be looking at?

Podesta:          Well, I don’t know.  He’s going to meet with his G7 partners here in Sicily on Friday and I suspect that all of them are facing a similar dilemma in their own electoral processes.  I mentioned Macron.  Merkel, I’ve had occasion to be back and forth to Germany; back and forth to the U.K.  I think people are very concerned about it there.  So I think those other leaders are going to say, “What’s up here?”  We know the Russians are engaged and active, both in the over sense through the use of RT, the Russian Kremlin-sponsored television station, through Sputnik and other information sources, which now seem to be the favored go-to sources in the White House press room.  Even they ask tough questions these days, I guess.

Tumulty:          Also an additional source of income for General Flynn.

Podesta:          An additional source of income for General Flynn, which I think he forgot to report on his form to the—if we can believe the breaking news today in The Washington Post.  But they do that overtly; they do that covertly.  These are methods that have gone back to the Cold War days when the Soviet Union practiced them but they’ve been, I think, weaponizing the fruits of hacks has kind of supercharged their capacity to get involved and distribute their propaganda in democratic societies.  I think going back to those Soviet days, the best probably disinfectant to that is largely to be able to identify and publicize and contextualize what’s really going on.  From my personal perspective, I didn’t feel like that really happened last fall.

The mainstream U.S. press was much more interested in the gossip, none of which was particularly that big of a deal, as you noted, but again; it kept a kind of low burn.  “Oh, my God.  What’s going on?” sort of sense and story going, even as there were no blockbuster revelations similarly in France.  But I think if you contextualize it.  If you say, “The Russians are coming and the Russians are here.”  That would give people a sense that they need to be more careful in the way they assess what they’re hearing, what they’re seeing and what’s being pedaled.

Tumulty:          Well, you have a pretty unique perspective, having been a White House chief of staff in a time of scandal, trying to keep an agenda on track while you were being engulfed by what turned into an impeachment inquiry.  You also helped organize the Obama White House.  You wrote recently that the biggest problem in the White House is that there’s nobody there of stature to tell this president no.  Can you describe what it takes to tell a president no?

Podesta:          Well, I often say that the most important thing you need to say no to a president is to make sure that you have a spouse that works.  [LAUGHTER] So when he kicks you out the door, your children will eat.  But seriously, I think President Clinton respected people who would say no to him, would fight with him, and ultimately, he’s the president of the United States and makes the final calls, but you have to want, to some extent, the ability—you have to want that input and you have to want strong, not weak people who will just bow to your every whim.

I particularly called out the chief of staff in the White House counsel in that piece and I called out the White House counsel in particular because I think there’s been just a series of errors there and the White House counsel is the rock in the White House that either gets you in trouble or keeps you out of trouble.  And the president has to know that when the White House counsel says, “Mr. President, we cannot do that.  That’s violating the law.  It’s violating norms.”  You cannot operate on your—and particularly with this president.  I know that it’s tough for these guys.  I understand that Trump’s a bully.  I’m sure that he kicks around the people who try to speak up to him but if you’re going into a situation like that, you owe it to the American people and to the office of the presidency to say that there are bounds to what you can do and you’ve got to stop doing—when you’re crossing the line, somebody has to be able to stop him from doing that.

Just a couple of recent incidents was when Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, former deputy attorney general, acting attorney general at the beginning of the Trump Administration told him that Mike Flynn had been compromised by the Russians.  He’s serving as national security advisor, privy to the most sensitive intelligence, to the operational intelligence of actions going on all around the world and the attorney general tells the White House Counsel that that person has been compromised by the Russians and he doesn’t do anything?  That, to me, is beyond belief.  And then the Jim Comey firing.  It looks like that virtually no one said, “Think of the consequences of this.  Think of what you’re getting yourself into.”

Tumulty:          And it’s even not just the chief of staff or the White House Counsel.  You’ve got also the day after General Flynn is fired and the president is meeting with Jim Comey and the vice president is there and the attorney general and the president says to the vice president and the attorney general, “Leave the room.  I want to have a private word with Jim Comey.”  Now, according to Comey’s contemporaneous notes, he asked him something, suggested to drop the Flynn investigation.  Can you imagine a situation in a more traditional White House where a president would have said, “I want to have a word alone with the FBI director at a moment like that”?  Would people have left the room?

Podesta:          Well, it’s hard to imagine.  Let’s put it that way and I think you see the consequence.  The reason those norms exist is because they keep you out of trouble.  He seems to break them and gets himself into more and more trouble and I think there’s no reason to think that he’s kind of learned his lesson from that.  I mean, even in Israel yesterday, calling the press back in and saying, “I never said the word “Israel” was”—by the way—

Tumulty:          That was not something he was accused of doing.

Podesta:          He wasn’t accused of doing it.  The press hadn’t asked it.  He thereby confirmed it.  He’s so impulsive, he can’t help himself.  So look, it’s a tough job for all of these people but at some point, the car is just going to keep skidding around on the ice until he puts people in those places that he will listen to and will be tough with him.

Tumulty:          There are some Democrats already talking about impeachment, talking about using the 25th Amendment to—are they getting ahead of themselves and is there a danger that the Democrats could sort of overplay their hands on this the way the Republicans did with Bill Clinton?

Podesta:          Well, I see no sign that there’s any likelihood that he’ll be impeached.  I think the Republican leadership has decided, “We’re in the boat with him and the boat is going to sink and we’re going to sink with it but we can’t really throw him out of the boat.  That’s not going to be politically viable for us.”  So they’ve decided to, as I’ve said before, Velcro their fate to him.  I think they must be waking up in a sweat at night thinking about what the prospects of that are but I think there’s no chance that the House would mount the kind of serious investigation that would lead to impeachment and as for the 25th Amendment, do you really think Mike Pence and as I said, Betsy DeVos is going to sign that paper relieving the president of his duties?  I don’t see that either.  So it is really left to Bob Mueller to conduct a complete investigation and to ask the hard questions.  And again, there’s new information that comes out every day, including the fact that the FBI under Comey’s leadership had focused in on someone senior in the White House.

We’re not certain about who that is but it’s not just Mike Flynn.  It’s not just Paul Manafort.  It’s not just the people who they’ve kind of pushed out or pushed aside but people actively in the White House that are under investigation.  My own view and from experience of being in politics for a very long time; it’s usually not what you did back then, it’s what you say now that gets you in trouble.  And for a group of people who seem to have a very tenuous grasp on the truth, the chance of lying in an official investigation is pretty high.  And I think that is a place where they have massive vulnerability and I think the people in the White House, as they know that they may be called to testify, as Trump searches out for his own private lawyers, other people in the White House probably are going to have to go find their own lawyers.  They’re probably sweating a little bit.

I don’t wish it upon them but it is what it is and I think it makes it all the more imperative that you have a structure in the White House where you have leadership that separate the investigative elements and what’s going on, on that front, and try to keep it contained and rather than every day pouring more gasoline on that fire, try to keep it contained and get the rest of the White House working on the American public’s agenda.  I think that’s a lesson from the Clinton White House and we were successful in doing that and that’s why President Clinton, after impeachment, after all that, still left the White House with a 65% job approval rating because we kept the government and the White House focused on the people’s business even as we had to contend with Ken Starr and with the impeachment investigation.

Tumulty:          Yeah, it was really interesting.  If you look at the Gallup poll, the week that Bill Clinton was impeached was the very week that he hit his highest in job approval in the Gallup poll, which was a pretty good job of what we used to call “compartmentalization.”  But Donald Trump does not seem to have sort of that kind of focus.  He keeps going back—I mean, he’s sort of easy to get his goat on things.  And one of the lines on your resume that people don’t talk about all that much is that your first job in the Clinton White House was as the staff secretary.  Now that’s probably not a job you guys have heard much about.  But Andy Card, who lasted longer than—the second-longest tenure White House chief of staff in history told me that the staff secretary, in many ways, is the most important person in the West Wing, outside the chief of staff, because he or she controls every bit of paper that goes into the Oval.  It’s really that you’ve got to make sure that the information that’s getting to the president is what he needs to see and when he needs to see it.

Donald Trump—and certainly Bill Clinton—you know, was a voracious consumer, had a huge—

Podesta:          Right.

Tumulty:          —network of friends that were always sort of—the claque was always talking to him.  But Donald Trump, I mean, how do you fight sort of the way he consumes information?  Which apparently, you know, a good amount of it is just sort of watching cable TV.

Podesta:          Watching TV.

Tumulty:          So how do you fight this war of sort of keeping him on message, on policy?

Podesta:          Well, the person who is currently the staff secretary over there is an accomplished lawyer, Rob Porter, who had been chief of staff to Orrin Hatch and worked for Rob Portman and Mike Lee in the Senate, had been in private practice.  I think it’s a particularly—I don’t think it makes the job easier if you’re managing the paper flow to and from the president, that the president doesn’t really like to read.

Tumulty:          Right.

Podesta:          I think that makes your job a lot harder, to try to contain and narrow the focus of what he needs to attend to.  But the decisions that come up through that process and it’s, you know, I think Andy put his finger on it—if you don’t have a fair process that’s providing input that’s coming in from a variety of sources, reaching the president, if you put your thumb on the scale in one direction—I think President Bush got in trouble in that regard by listening to Vice President Cheney, on occasion, in the early days.  I think that got fixed later in the Bush presidency.  But listening to Vice President Cheney without getting a full range of views from other people.  Then you can make disastrous decisions.

So that’s an important traffic cop role, and you have to maintain discipline there and make sure everything is not end-running [ph] the process.  So that if he’s appointed people that he trusts—Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson, and others—that the information coming to him reflects their perspective, their views.  And if you’re constantly shooting from the hip and reacting to whatever is being said on Fox News, that’s a difficult job.  And I’m sure Mr. Porter is probably struggling with that right now.  But it is essential that you have ways in which the best advice can come to the president, or just like any person, you know, walking the planet, they’re going to make mistakes of judgment if they don’t have a full range of the consequence, and the only way to get that is to have people be able to anticipate what’s going on.

Trump, in some ways, has delegated more.  For example, you know, we’re seeing this play out in the trip in the Middle East.

Tumulty:          How do you think he’s doing?

Podesta:          He’s delegated much more to his combat commanders in the region.  How is he doing on the trip?

Tumulty:          Yeah.

Podesta:          Well, you know, I think he’s doing okay.  I mentioned the gaff with respect to him standing next to Prime Minister Netanyahu and talking about the Israeli intelligence.  I think he’s doing okay, but I think it’s pretty scripted.  It’s a pretty scripted trip.  So he’s basically not interacting with the press.  He’s reading words off of the teleprompter, and he’s in very friendly audiences because, I think, quite frankly, most of the people he’s interacting with think they’ve got his number and he’s doing what they want him to do.  He’s not challenging them really, on anything.

I think when he goes to Europe, that’ll be a little bit of a different story—when he goes to NATO, when he goes to the G7, where people are questioning his direction where he’s trying to take the country.  His denigration of the tools of diplomacy and development in favor of only beefing up U.S. military hard-power commitments in the Middle East.  I think he’ll face a little bit of a tougher audience, and we’ll see how he does there.

Tumulty:          What do you think of his decision to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign stop as president?  Usually presidents go to Mexico or Canada.

Podesta:          Well, I don’t think it probably would have been Secretary Clinton’s first stop if she had been elected president.  You know, I think it kind of reflects a worldview where it’s kind of all in the family, you know?  And based on, to some extent, the thing he was touting there were the commercial relationships with the Saudis.  But he’s making a big bet, I think, in the Middle East, in his—and I think this is more consistent with conservative thought right now; that we can slowly escalate military presence again in the Middle East, and take a very kind of one-sided approach to the worldview that the Gulf states have, particularly with respect to how to manage problems in Iraq and Syria.  And the opposition to the Iranian regime, he’s kind of all in with the Saudi view of that, rather than reflecting, I think, what had been a somewhat more view that you needed to ensure that U.S. interests were front and center, not Saudi interests.  And so, you know, it was only a year ago that Congress passed the bill to permit the 9/11 survivors to be able to bring the Saudis to court for fundraising, and all of the sudden we’re their chief military backer in the Gulf again.

So, I think that the real question is, will the U.S. debate that slowly escalating strategy of more U.S. involvement rather than a measured presence to try to ensure that you could have somewhat positive outcomes.  And I’m not sure the American people really understand the stakes of entering another full-scale kind of ground combat war in western Iraq and in Syria.  But we seem to be kind of slowly headed into that.

Tumulty:          So if we can change and talk a little bit about the Democratic Party.  I know you’ve done a lot of thinking about the future of it.  We do have a question about the recent past.  Sam [ph] on Twitter asks, “How much did the split among the Democrats hurt Hillary Clinton?  And how are Democrats going to win elections in 2020 without alienating independent voters?”

Podesta:          Well, look, I think that we had a vigorous primary, obviously.  I think that we had a substantive base, respectful primary.  We had a series of debates in which we didn’t just yell at each other and call each other names, but actually debated policy.  I think Hillary ran on a very progressive platform.  That made it possible to have a convention where people did come together.  There were Bernie supporters, Senator Sanders supporters who kind of never felt comfortable with Hillary, but for the most part, they came over, Senator Sanders’s campaign, for her, most of his—you know, people like Keith Ellison were out and campaigning hard for her.

I think our convention was a sign of unification.  The platform was a solidly progressive platform.  And I think that’s probably what we need to do again in 2018 and 2020, rather than trying to divide the party into the true believers and the non-true believers.  I think we have to find a way to support candidates who can be successful in their districts.  Running on the things that we’ve talked about, which is universal health coverage and raising people’s wages, making sure the economy is fair, trying to repel what is going to be the most regressive budget and tax policy that we’ve seen in the history of our country—even more regressive than what President Reagan proposed in 1981, with a $5.5 trillion tax bill while cutting $800 billion out of Medicaid and taking food out of the mouths of kids.

I think that there’s a lot that Democrats from the center to the left agree on.  There’s a lot of energy on the street that can be harnessed.  There are a lot of people standing up to want to run.  And I think that what we need to do is to harness that energy in support of getting people involved in politics.

I think if there was one kind of hangover from the primaries, it was that some people decided that—and maybe because they thought the election wasn’t truly at stake, felt like that they would either stay home or there was a little bit of an increase in the third-party vote as opposed to past elections.

Tumulty:          With young people in particular.  Is that correct?

Podesta:          Yeah, you know, look, I think we won young people resoundingly.  But I think that the core, particularly of the Green Party vote, was amongst young people.  And that was—Jill Stein got more votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania than our margin of loss in those three states, which proved critical.  So, you know, that’s not—she was out and doing what she was doing.  We need to convince those people that was a mistake and the country would go in a terrible direction from their perspective.  And you know, we either failed to do that or we were unable to, in the end of the day, with clarity, say that this election really has consequence and you better get involved.

I think, subsequent to the election, there are probably a lot of people who wish they had thought about it differently.  But that’s the way they thought about it, and it was our job to convince them that—whether it was climate change or reproductive choice or LGBT rights or civil rights or the basic fairness and equity in the election, that Donald Trump would be disastrous for their future.  And at least with that, you know, it was a small number, but it was the margin of victory in those states.

Tumulty:          You’ve gotten involved—there’s a little bit of an echo of this family fight playing out in Virginia right now in the governor’s race.  You’ve gotten involved as supporting Tom Perriello, who’s challenging the establishment favor, the lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, who, interestingly, is supported by Terry McAuliffe and just about every single—

Podesta:          Elected official.

Tumulty:          Yes.  What’s the significance of this race?

Podesta:          You know, look, I think it’s a highly competitive primary.  The Post just had a poll that had Tom, I think, two points up; other polls have him a little bit behind.  So it’s a highly competitive primary.  June 13th, I think, is the primary date.  And I have known and worked with Tom for a long time.  I first met him during the course of the Kerry campaign, when he left work he was doing in Africa to stop the flood of blood diamonds coming out of Sierra Leone.  He came back to try to organize the faith community in the United States, in support of Secretary Kerry.  I’ve worked with him at CAP.  After he was elected the House from the district in Charlottesville and then came up and served in the first Congress with President Obama, he came and ran the CAP Action Fund for a while before going to work for Secretary Kerry at the State Department.

I know him.  I like him.  I think he’d be a great governor.  But more importantly, I think he captures the moment, the times, the fight and the struggle, the passion that people have out on the street, the fight that people saw—you know, in the wake of the inauguration, at the Women’s March, at the Climate March, et cetera.  What we’re seeing in town halls, with people standing up to oppose the Republicans’ decision to try to throw 24 million people off of healthcare by the replacement bill that they’ve come up with, which is mostly a big tax cut for the wealthy.  That passion is out there.  I think Tom exemplifies it.  I think he’s shown himself to be an effective public servant in Congress, in the executive branch.

And that doesn’t take anything away from the lieutenant governor.  I think he’s been a fine public servant.  But I think that by personality, by the moment, I think Tom is the better choice and I’m proud to support him.

Tumulty:          Vice President Biden made a bit of a stir last week when he didn’t rule out a 2020 run.  And he also said that he would have been a better candidate than Hillary Clinton.  What do you make of that?

Podesta:          I think he’s thinking about a 2020 run [LAUGHS].  And I think he was asked—I think the question sort of prompted the second part of the answer, which was—

Tumulty:          So do you think he had a better way to get to 270?

Podesta:          What?

Tumulty:          Do you think he had a better way to get to 270 electoral votes?

Podesta:          You know, look, I think he made the right choice for himself at the time.  I think if he had joined the race, I still think we would have won, and I think we would have been successful in the primary.  But you know, I love him.  He’s a great guy.  And I think that he had what are perceived to be strengths in the places where Trump did better, in those states that I mentioned, amongst working-class white voters.  But whether they would have stuck with him in this cycle or not is unclear.  He obviously campaigned hard for the secretary and we really respect that and admire that.  And he went to those very places, and that wasn’t—I’m not suggesting that’s on him, but I think that those communities had felt like they had been left behind.  I think we tried to respond to that and react to that.  We certainly had an argument about what we would do for the economy that I think would have been more beneficial to those communities, particularly as you look at as the budget is going to roll out tomorrow, you see the massive cuts that Trump is making to the basic support structures of rural and exurban communities in the healthcare systems and the infrastructure systems.

I think we had the better part of the argument, but we didn’t convince people of that.  Whether he could have done it or not, I don’t know.  I mean, I think the secretary had other strengths with suburban women, with African American voters.  So when you put all the puts and takes together, you know, anybody could guess about what the outcome would have been.

Tumulty:          And as Democrats run in the next year, in two-and-a-half years from now, how do you make the case against Trump?  You guys certainly were very vocal, very aggressive in making the case last year that he was unfit for office, that he didn’t have the right temperament to be president.

Podesta:          And he proves we were right every day.

Tumulty:          And yet, you know, his supporters are still pretty much with him.  Do you think Democrats need to make a different kind of argument against him in that it needs to be more about this sort of larger Republican agenda?

Podesta:          Well, I’ll give you a couple points to answer to that question.  I think for the candidates who are in the non-ballot races, they should leave the investigation to the group of people—they shouldn’t obsess over Comey, Mueller, or Russia, et cetera.  They should leave that to the people who are charged with doing that on the Democratic side—Adam Schiff, Mark Warner, the people on the intelligence committees, on judiciary committees—who can bore in, try to force as much as they can to make those investigations legitimate and serious.  And they should spend their time out campaigning about what the Trump policies are doing.  The fact that he promised one thing and he’s delivering something really different.  The fact that he said he was on their side and in fact he’s populated his administration with the biggest bunch of fat cats in history, and he’s governing that way, with a healthcare bill, as I said, that is raising costs by 20% by the CBO analysis, that’s going to throw 24 million people off of healthcare, that’s going to shrink Medicaid.  All in service of a massive tax cut.  That’s the hidden issue in the healthcare bill, is that he’s really just massively cutting taxes for the wealthy.  He’s going to do it again when it comes to corporate and individual tax returns.

And he’s not delivering.  He’s not delivering infrastructure.  He’s not delivering the things he said he would do.  He’s burdening workers.  He’s taking away their power.  He’s cutting back on their ability to get overtime pay, to have a fair workplace.  And I think people need to make a strong economic case against him, and I think that’s the way you win the middle.

He’s got a core of voters that are never going to abandon him.  You know, when Nixon got on the helicopter, 25% of the American public still supported him.  I mean, maybe Trump is a little higher than that, but probably not.  He’s got a core that is never going to abandon him.  If they were taking him out of the White House in handcuffs.  But I think that there’s a group that is the difference of success or not success for Democrats, who can be convinced that the way he’s governing is not only chaotic, but it’s really not in their interest.

And I think that’s where Democrats kind of really need to live.  That’s why I think in these special election cases, I mean, these are races that the Republicans—these are seats that the Republicans won by 15-20 points.  Even the fact that they’re narrow is significant.  But, you know, we’ll see that play out in a little bit in Montana on Thursday, and then in the Ossoff race in Georgia.

Tumulty:          So what’s next for you?  There’s nothing you haven’t already done.

Podesta:          Other than opening a restaurant [LAUGHS].

Tumulty:          I mean, do you see more campaigns in your future?

Podesta:          I don’t know.  You know, I came back, I’ve continued actually through my public career to teach part-time at Georgetown Law School.  So I went back and I taught last semester at Georgetown Law School.  I’ve got an office at the Center for American Progress, which I founded, and is being tremendously led by Neera Tanden.  I’m trying to help her as she leads the organization to new heights.  I’m trying to be an asset and try to talk to people who want to know what they can do to help resist the general direction of Donald Trump.  I’m trying to keep myself busy.

Tumulty:          Who is the breakout star of the Big Ideas Conference that you guys had last week?

Podesta:          You know, I thought it was really a tremendous display of talent at the state and local as well as at the national level.  So, you know, the conference started with Eric Garcetti.  Steve Bullock was terrific, I thought.  You know, I met him briefly in Montana a long time ago.  But he was really good, really appealing.  I thought that what he’s been saying around the country is very strong.  He had that whole phalanx of terrific senators who were not just criticizing Trump, but also putting on ideas on criminal justice reform from Kamala Harris.  Cory Booker ended it with his inspirational speech about what the country’s values are.  Elizabeth Warren was tremendous as usual.  So I don’t know that I—what I think the one thing I would say is you got to see some new people, some people probably most people hadn’t seen that much of unless they were really living in their own places, like Mayor Garcetti and Governor Bullock, that were extremely effective, I thought.

So there’s a lot of talent, I think, out there in the Democratic Party, and we need to crawl back in these state legislative races and local races.  And there’s a lot of work to do to invest in the needs and the structures to make that happen.

Tumulty:          It looks like we have run out of time, unfortunately.  This has been fascinating.  And John, thank you so much for being with us this morning.  And thank all of you, as well, for joining us this morning.

[APPLAUSE]