A Conversation With Jennifer Palmieri - Pacific Standard

'We Proved She Could Do the Job the Same as a Man Could': A Conversation With Jennifer Palmieri

The director of communications on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign talks #MeToo, Stormy Daniels, and post-election America.
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Jennifer Palmieri, pictured here in 2016.

Jennifer Palmieri, pictured here in 2016.

For more than two decades, Jennifer Palmieri has been a mainstay of the Democratic Party. An alumnus of both the Clinton and Obama administrations, her resume also includes a stint as president of Center for American Progress and press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. But it was Palmieri's most recent undertaking, as director of communications for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, that made her a household name.

Pacific Standard caught up with Palmieri in early May, shortly after the release of her new book Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World, where we discussed everything from Stormy Daniels to #MeToo to the questionable circumstances surrounding former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey's decision to publicly decry the Clinton email scandal.

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In my mind, you were the Josh Lyman of the Obama administration: While everyone did all the fun things one gets to do during the last year of an administration, you left the Obama White House to focus on what was next for the Democratic Party: the 2016 election.

I know, it was rough. I would be in Brooklyn, or somewhere in Iowa, and be watching the president go to the Arctic. But I thought it was really important for [Clinton] to win the election. I knew it was going to be hard, and, at the time, in March of 2015, everyone was referring to her as the next president, as if it was just going to happen without any effort. And yet, even though I knew it was going to be hard, it was way harder than even I expected.

I had worked for the Clintons before and been through some tough times, so I was well suited for that, it was the best piece of me. But it was not fun. I'm really glad I did the Clinton campaign; I learned so much about the country from it, but it was not fun. I can laugh at a lot of things, so I can keep good spirits. But man, that was a harrowing adventure. It was tough.

You talk a lot about the whole idea of Hillary's supposed unlikeability. Do you think that sentiment came out of her being a woman, or her history and her associations?

I think it all stems from her being a woman, and it accrued over time. The fact that she was around for a long time gave people more examples of things that made them uncomfortable. But at the root of all of those things, those examples that people point out to explain what they don't like about her—Whitewater, Travelgate, emails, Benghazi—at the root of it all is the suspicion that a woman is hiding something, and what her motivations for needing to hide something might be. Like with the emails. We just could never move on.

Labor Day weekend in 2015 was the worst weekend of the entire campaign. [Hillary] was doing all these interviews and everyone kept saying she needed to apologize [for the emails]. And I was like, "You're not looking for an apology, you're looking for a confession." It just made me ill, that they wanted her to confess to something. I really believe that history is going to look back on these examples, that there will be classes taught in college about it. This will be part of the American canon, the crucifixion of Hillary Clinton.

I imagine part of that is based on public perception as well.

Well, the other big piece of it was her ambition. When you're running for president, you have to say, "I want the most important job on the planet." And we hate that coming from a woman. It's really hard for women to express that, and I think it's hard for us to hear that. The thing that people liked most about Hillary was that she worked for the man that had defeated her in the presidential election, that she had been willing to do that.

Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World.

Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World.

It seems we're still wrapping our heads around women with ambition. You can't be ambitious and passionate—even if your ambition is about helping people. Either you're compassionate and nurturing or you're ambitious. A woman with ambition is a one-dimensional figure.

Even though ambition and attacks on your opponent are par for the course, Donald Trump seemed unable to get past that her candidacy was an affront to him as a person. And I think that was greatly amplified by the fact that she was a woman and he was a man. But do you think that it would have been any different, that the attacks would have been more policy-based and on actions that she, personally, had taken–had her opponent been someone who wasn't Trump?

I think it would it have been the same kind of issues. It was with Bernie [Sanders], her Senate race, with [Barack] Obama. But what I did often wonder about is the collision course that the three of them—our first black president, our first woman nominee, and our racist, misogynist president—were on, and I think back decades, how it was all leading to this moment. I wonder if it was fated, if this had to happen—did it have to be someone from a minority population of the United States, a woman, and the white man? At times, I wondered if it was going to take a misogynist to elect the first woman president. That you had to see how ugly it could be, how ugly he could be toward a woman in order to get a woman elected. But then he won.

What's amazing is that women didn't feel cowered by that; it seemed to prove to a lot of us: "Oh, right, the little doubts I had in the back of my head are real. This still exists in the world." But I think Hillary's generation was the one that proved that they can succeed in a man's world, and the women in America now get to make it not a man's world. We proved she could do the job the same as a man could. I've said I could do a man's job, but I wouldn't want to—I would want to do it the way that I want.

It's hard not to consider the timing of the election as a trigger for things like the rise of mass protests and rallies and even the emergence of the ability to create a movement like #MeToo.

If we look back, I suspect that, in some way, America was on a course for a reckoning across the board. Like with young black activists whose parents were like, "I'm just trying to fight for the right to vote, I'm not worried about making right of the wrongs of slavery." But now it's like, "No, I want slavery dealt with, because this country was founded on a lie, and I want that dealt with." And women are like, "I'm not OK just showing how tough I am, just soldiering on amid the harassment—and I no longer think that the test that I just passed is that I have to prove it doesn't bother me, now it's about stopping it." And the Dreamers are like, "I feel more American than the people who voted for Trump, so...."

In some way the country was always on this path, and [Trump's] election made it even more important for people to go out and show that they want things to be different, that we won't accept the things that threaten our well-being and our safety and even, on some level, our sanity. To prove for the health and strength of everyone around us, that we're doing this different. Now you look back at Hillary and it feels like she was the vanguard. That's not how we saw her at the time, but she was the one who was showing us how you stand up to this guy.

I think we're seeing that same dynamic play out again with Stormy Daniels. Hillary wasn't afraid to stand up to candidate Trump, and Stormy isn't afraid to stand up to Trump. But the stakes, of course, are dramatically different now.

There's something remarkably powerful about Stormy Daniels and the threat she poses to his presidency. You become your most powerful when you are willing to reveal all of yourself and not hold back. That's when you have nothing to lose, when you can't be defeated. And that's who she is—she's not playing by anybody else's rules, doesn't try to be something that she's not. She decided that she was going to walk away from that agreement, and that she was going to tell her own story. And there isn't anything that he can do to her; he can't undermine her credibility, because she's been very clear about everything that has happened and has owned all of it. And these legal proceedings can take wacky paths, as I certainly have seen before, and ultimately could be very damaging to him.

But to the question of whether he gets removed from office because of Stormy Daniels: What ultimately has to happen is the will of the American people via the Republicans in Congress. I don't know if Stormy's leading to that, but there is something remarkable about a woman coming back around and, by putting Trump's own personal legal situation in jeopardy, being the most powerful foe he's faced yet.

I also think there's something to be said about having a female voice in the conversation after more than a year of nothing but Trump coverage.

After all this, it's pretty remarkable. I didn't really appreciate the timing of the payment being the 27th and the Comey letter being the 28th—and then [Rudy] Giuliani, he said something a few days before the Comey letter coming out. The assumption at the time was that the letter was what he was talking about, that he got some sort of heads up from the New York FBI office, the guy who ran the mafia unit for New York that Rudy would've worked with, both as U.S. attorney and then there. He was the No. 2 to the head of the email investigation. Not the No. 2 guy, but the head guy—he's the one that got fired, Andrew McCabe. So much wreckage. So. Much. Wreckage.

Even Giuliani and Comey have a long, long history going back to the Southern District Court. It's not private history, either. It's public record.

Which I didn't know until I read Comey's book! But can I tell you—OK, so the "deep state" attack is meant to undermine the government, it's like a scary, inverse Libertarian argument, and it's mostly bullshit. But they're not wrong about senior career law enforcement and senior career intelligence [in the FBI and Department of Justice]—those folks play the long game. They play press, politics, and the long game better than any political person that has ever lived. And I only know that because I worked in the White House for 12 years. It took me that long to appreciate how strategic they are in playing the press and playing politics.

These individuals have a belief in themselves—that they are truly neutral, politically, while in the interest of preserving their own power (or the power of their departments) are acting in very inappropriate ways. That's my big beef with Comey: He thinks that so long as you don't have a political bias you are free to do whatever is in your best judgment. But for someone like him, his job is to investigate and it's the Department of Justice's job to worry about the reputation and if it's going to be considered political or not. It's the Obama White House's job to worry about the politics.

I think spinning the press has become a much bigger deal in the wake of everything that has happened, especially with the current communications team in the White House. Do you think they're making these tensions worse, by fighting on behalf of so many false narratives?

Look, should Sarah Huckabee Sanders resign? Absolutely. But is she the problem? Could anybody else do the job with credibility? No. The question is, what does the press do about this guy? What do they do about the fact that the person standing at the podium is lying or at least ill-informed or is put up there to lie.

The White House takes on the personality of the president—it's one of the truisms that exists, even in today's world. Being somebody who lies, I don't think that [Trump's] communications team can do anything aside from try to manage what he does and says. They can try to lift up the things that are positive in the world, try and get attention for them. There's a segment of the population, one that's not insignificant, that want to hear things outside of what the president says with regards to what's happening in this administration.

What one piece of advice would you give women toward fixing the broken parts of our country, for moving forward as a united front?

You have to change what's in your own mind. It changes your perspective on the world, you interact with people differently, people respond to you differently—and that can radically change lives. You need to understand that your perspective matters, your voice has value, and—this makes some people nervous—assume good intentions in the world. I've always tried to assume good intentions from my male colleagues. Even when things happen. During the Clinton campaign, I would have an idea that nobody responded to, then three minutes later a guy would say it, and everyone would go "That's a great idea!" And I'd be like, "Yeah, guys, I said that three minutes ago." And of course they'd be like: "Oh, wow, yeah—that's right, you did! I can't believe we did that."

But you have to assume good intentions. I understand that comes with risk, but we all inherited this world—we didn't create it. So assume good intentions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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