WASHINGTON– Hillary Clinton’s former campaign aides are angry about revelations that top advisers close to now-President Donald Trump’s campaign were in constant communication with Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 contest.
Now, they are weighing how to hold Trump’s feet to the fire without making it look like they are questioning the legitimacy of his 2016 win.
“There needs to be an independent, thorough review to get to the bottom of Trump’s connections with Russia,” Brian Fallon, Clinton’s former press secretary, told CNN in an interview. “It should not be about relitigating the campaign. The campaign is over. Donald Trump won. Period. Full stop.”
Fallon added that “dwelling on” the loss wouldn’t be productive for Clinton’s former aides, despite the fact it could be soothing.
The news that Russian nationals were regularly communicating with then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and then-adviser Michael Flynn comes as no surprise to the upper echelon of Clinton’s campaign. For months before Election Day, Clinton and her aides made the case that Trump was being used by Russia, regularly detailing how Russian President Vladimir Putin was looking to help Trump in an attempt to thwart Clinton.
Clinton’s top aides continue to communicate with one another in a semi-coordinated effort to talk about Trump and discuss news relating to their 2016 campaign. There is no universal consensus from Clinton aides on how to move forward. Some seem more interested in looking backwards at Trump’s campaign, while others want to hone current interest into action against Trump’s administration.
One person not on those calls: Hillary Clinton.
The former secretary of state is not weighing in on the recent spate of Trump news, remaining mum on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Aides say she is still following the news closely and speaking with a host of current and former advisers about the topic, but that she doesn’t find it necessary — or helpful — to engage on the issue.
“I think that she is going to engage when this is a matter of our core values, so the ban, the march, things like that,” said an aide. “But this issue has become about a need for fact-finding and it shouldn’t have to exist in the political realm.”
Clinton weighing in, some Democrats focused on combating Trump say, could prove counterproductive because it would give Trump an easy out in dismissing the Russia charges as nothing more than an attempt by Democrats to get a mulligan on the 2016 campaign.
Trump tried to make that case on Wednesday, tweeting, “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”
But Clinton staying out of the fray has not stopped her former aides from gaming out the best way to combat Trump.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told CNN Wednesday that while “what matters is the future and protecting our democratic process,” he believes anyone “found to have aided or encouraged foreign powers to disrupt the election” should be “held accountable for treason.”
“This should never happen again,” Mook said in an interview. “I hope the President will tell the truth about what he knew and when he knew it. I hope there will be an independent commission, like we had for 9/11, to find out what really happened.”
Jim Margolis, a top Clinton strategist and ad maker, echoed Mook, joking that while it is usually common for people like him to be accused “of exaggeration and unfair attacks, in the case of Donald Trump, it now seems we understated the threat he posed.”
“We need an independent investigation, embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike,” Margolis said.
And Zac Petkanas, a former Clinton aide and now a top communications strategist at the Democratic National Committee, called the growing story about Trump and Russia “bigger than Watergate” on Wednesday. But he also told CNN that now is not a time for an “I-told-ya-so moment” from former Clinton aides.
“It’s gratifying that people finally understand that Donald Trump’s electoral college win has a huge asterisk next to it,” Petkanas said. “We should take advantage of everyone’s sudden interest to continue exposing this Russian puppet and reclaim our democracy.”
Former aides offered plenty of expletives when asked about the recent Trump-Russia connections, with one saying it has been physically painful to watch Trump operate inside the White House.
“There are days that you wake up and can’t believe this is actually going on,” said one former aide.
The urge to say “I told you so” remains strong for most Clinton’s former aides. They view the media as complicit in Trump’s rise, arguing reporters did not delve deep enough into his ties to Putin at the time and gave too much play to the stream of leaked emails that US officials say were hacked by Russian operatives.
“It feels like you screamed at the top of your lungs about a hurricane that was coming,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former campaign aide, “but no one heard you until it was too late.”