Hillary Clinton's shocking loss in the presidential race rattled the political world and shattered the dreams of thousands of longtime Clinton aides and supporters who hoped to follow her to the White House.
Perhaps more than any politician in American history, legions of politicos—from her husband’s administration to her second presidential campaign— had hitched on to the Clinton train.
This week, the Clintonworld train went off the rails — this time, seemingly for good.
In interviews with more than a dozen former Clinton aides, they expressed a grief and pain akin to losing a member of the family.
“I think she'll continue on as a public figure but there was a finality to her concession speech that had me thinking back and realizing that most of my last 10 years had been somewhere in her orbit,” said one former aide. “I spent so long thinking about ‘What if?’ and ‘What happens if she becomes president?’ and I think there's a little part of you that dies when you realize it's not going to happen.”
Another campaign aide, who had been in Clinton’s orbit since her 2008 campaign, summed it up this way: “It’s a difficult thing for a lot of us because there’s no longer a next time with her. That’s tough. She was weaved into our lives.”
When Clinton lost the Democratic primary in 2008, those in her world mourned the loss for weeks and months and long after President Obama was sworn in. But because Clinton had a Phoenix-like narrative, they expected her to once again rise from the ashes.
During her tenure as Secretary of State, they looked ahead to 2016. A superPAC called Ready for Hillary— comprised of Clinton diehards— even sprouted up in 2013 to help lure her into running for president again.
And there was always the lingering thought that she would once again be “in it to win” even as she wouldn’t commit.
This time, the loss blindsided Clintonites. Even through a bumpy primary against a relatively unknown challenger in Sen. Bernie Sanders and then an ugly and raucous general election against Donald Trump, they thought they had this. They filed into the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with its enveloping glass structure on Tuesday night thinking they would finally break it.
One former aide left a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge on Tuesday. Another scoured real estate listings in Washington. They posted pictures on Facebook of themselves with a woman who became more than just their boss.
“For many people Clintonworld is life,” said one former aide.
“They don’t know anything else. There was a lot of measuring the drapes and not just now, it’s been that way for a long time,” another former aide said.
Those in her orbit didn't just expect Clinton to win. They expected her to win big with the campaign telegraphing that states like Arizona were in play.
“And people thought she was going to win with 300 electoral votes. Everyone was thinking about their own lives in another Clinton administration. It seemed like it was finally happening.”
Weeks and months before the election, many aides, former staffers, surrogates and anyone who had ever worked for either Clinton had been lining up for jobs in what they thought would be a return of the Clintons to the White House.
Since the summer, people have been pushing resumes and collecting names. They discussed who might be the chief of staff in a Clinton White House. (Jake Sullivan and Ron Klain got the most buzz.) And for the better part of October, as things were looking good for Clinton, campaign manager Robby Mook told allies that he would be interested in being chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Now, many expect he’ll go into the private sector.
Some of her campaign aides had been promised jobs on the transition and PIC, the presidential inaugural committee.
“Looking out from the Clinton bubble, the outcome always looked good for Hillary,” said one Clinton surrogate. “Inside that bubble, she’s infallible. Many in that bubble have also privately admitted being there was the ticket to a gilded future.”
Now, just three days after the loss they never saw coming, they're still trying to figure out what happened. They tune into daily calls held by the campaign that have turned into post-mortem sessions.
On Thursday, surrogates had a final call with campaign chairman John Podesta and communications director Jennifer Palmieri. On Friday, they called into a final “women's call” with speakers including Gloria Steinem.
And they’re trying to mourn while sketching out other plans.
Some say they will follow former Obama aides that left the political world for the tech world in Silicon Valley. Others say they'll stay in New York. Many say they'll leave Washington for good because as one said, “What's left? How can I stay?”
“For me, I’m still with Hillary and my heart will always be with Hillary but now my head has to focus on other things,” said the aide who has been in Clinton’s orbit since the 2008 campaign. “But now it’s time to be selfish. So many people put so much on hold for so long because they believed in the greater good.
“But that final chapter ended and it ended early,” the aide said.