On Friday, Philippe Reines, a Democratic strategist who worked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 election, posted a short video on Twitter. The video, filmed on Sept. 24, 2016, just two days before the first presidential debate, shows Clinton practicing for her meeting with then-candidate Donald Trump, facing off against a staffer standing in for her opponent.
A voice calls out from the background: “Ladies and gentlemen, the two major party candidates for president: Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Donald J. Trump!”
Clinton and the aide portraying Trump walk to the middle of the mock-stage, and Clinton extends her hand. But instead of going for a handshake, the man portraying Trump opens his arms wide, inviting a hug. The room bursts out laughing as Clinton awkwardly struggles to avoid the embrace.
Sound familiar? Just last night, the New York Times published a story with remarkable details about former FBI Director James B. Comey’s interactions with President Trump. In the story, a Comey associate, Benjamin Wittes, describes Comey’s first interaction with Trump, and his desire to maintain distance between the FBI and the White House.
Did the Clinton campaign actually think Trump might go for a hug? In an interview conducted via email on Friday, Reines said Clinton strategists didn’t necessarily think Trump would try to hug Clinton, per se, but might attempt to differentiate himself from Clinton visually.
“Going overboard was just to make a point, and have some fun,” Reines said. “But we thought it was very likely he’d try to use his height and size to present an image that you wouldn’t see between, say, President Obama and Governor Romney. But any debate team worth its salt — and Ron Klain & Karen Dunn are the best in the business — know that very first moment, when the two candidates are physically closer to each other than they will be at any other time over the following 90 minutes, when they first touch gloves, is an important one.”
And the comparisons to Comey’s non-hug with Trump in the Oval Office ring true, too.
From the Times’ story, by Michael S. Schmidt:
“Comey said that as he was walking across the room he was determined that there wasn’t going to be a hug,” Mr. Wittes said. “It was bad enough there was going to be a handshake. And Comey has long arms so Comey said he pre-emptively reached out for a handshake and grabbed the president’s hand. But Trump pulled him into an embrace and Comey didn’t reciprocate. If you look at the video, it’s one person shaking hands and another hugging.”
The video backs that assertion up.
Reines said Comey could have done more to avoid Trump’s attempted hug in the first place.
“A very simple immediate reaction: If you don’t want to hug someone, don’t hug them,” Reines said. “This wasn’t a 7 year old unable to escape the clutches of his crazy great aunt squeezing his punim. This is someone who didn’t think he should have been in that setting. So not being in that setting would have been a good start.”
Trump’s weird greetings have been extensively chronicled before. But in the middle of a discussion about Comey’s desire to maintain distance between himself and the president, and on a day when Trump is beginning the first foreign trip of his presidency, it’s hard to see Reines’s tweet as anything other than a well-timed troll of the president — and perhaps Comey, too.