AMES, Iowa — Hillary Clinton and her campaign team were on the defensive on Sunday after she cited the September 11 attacks and her ties to rebuilding lower Manhattan in response to criticism of her record with Wall Street donors. Her remarks came during the Saturday evening Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, which focused heavily on foreign policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Clinton’s comments provoked immediate reactions ranging from bewilderment to outrage from an array of rival campaigns, political opponents, reporters and debate viewers using social media.
Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer called what Clinton said “stupid and offensive.” Mark Longabaugh, a top strategist on the Bernie Sanders campaign, said the comments were not “a legitimate defense.” Glenn Thrush, the chief political correspondent at Politico, called Clinton’s remarks “nuts and indefensible.”
The following day, at the Central Iowa Democrats fall barbecue, Clinton and her team sought to fend off attacks and questions about what she’d said on stage at the debate.
Hillary Clinton greets Iowans during the Central Iowa Democrats fall barbecue in Ames. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The remark came after Clinton’s opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., questioned whether she could effectively regulate the financial industry despite having taken millions in donations from Wall Street. Clinton turned to moderator John Dickerson.
“Well, John, wait a minute. Wait a minute, he has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity. Let’s be frank here,” she said.
She went on to cite her experience representing New York in the U.S. Senate from January 2001 until early 2009.
“I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11, when we were attacked,” she said, adding, “Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is. … I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”
Later in the debate, when the moderators took questions from Twitter, Clinton was asked to respond to a message that suggested it was inappropriate for her to invoke September 11 in connection with a Wall Street fundraising question.
“I am sorry if whoever tweeted that had that impression,” Clinton said.
At the barbecue on Sunday, reporters surrounded Clinton’s top aides ahead of her speech and peppered them with questions about the remark. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, pointed to Clinton’s record pushing for increased financial regulatory reform during her time in Congress and on the campaign trail.
“I think she’s got a strong record on Wall Street reform. She’s put forward the strongest policies on Wall Street reform,” Podesta said.
Podesta, who was wearing a fleece jacket that bore the logo of Equilibrium Capital, a $1 billion financial and investment company, also pointed out that Clinton met with union leaders who represented Wall Street-area workers in the aftermath of 9/11.
“It’s just an unfair attack,” Podesta said.
Yahoo News asked Podesta whether Clinton planned the strategy of pointing to 9/11 to defend her Wall Street donations ahead of the debate. He suggested the remark was a spontaneous response to Sanders.
“I think that she was feeling that unfair charges were made and she pushed back,” Podesta explained, later adding, “She was reacting to what was being thrown.”
According the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton has taken nearly $13 million in campaign contributions from “securities and investment” donors since 1999. Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” has made pushing for Wall Street regulation and campaign finance reform central parts of his campaign. He also has increasingly launched direct attacks on Clinton.
At the barbecue Sunday, Clinton again mentioned 9/11, this time in the context of the tax policies of Republican former president George W. Bush and her own opposition to his tax cuts for the wealthy.
“I voted against those big tax cuts. Democrats put up alternatives. We said, ‘OK, let’s have a more moderate view, but let’s not tilt it. Let’s not get the deck stacked again in favor of those who are at the top,’” Clinton said. “But no, that wasn’t the ideology that governed that administration and we were attacked on 9/11 — a searing, horrible experience for our country — and then two wars.”
Clinton was accompanied by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, at the event. Following her speech, both Clintons ignored multiple questions from Yahoo News about whether her comment about 9/11 in the debate was “exploitative” as she greeted members of the audience. Bill Clinton later told reporters the attacks on his wife for her relationship to Wall Street are not fair.
“It is a stretch. Those of us who were there know that,” Clinton said.
One of Hillary Clinton’s primary contest rivals, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, also spoke at the barbecue, calling her comment about 9/11 an attempt to “mask” her Wall Street ties.
O’Malley, who has made Wall Street reform a cornerstone of his long-shot campaign, began his speech to the crowd sitting at tables in a dirt-floored arena by noting what he sees as differences with Clinton and Sanders on the issue. He described himself as an advocate of “fair market capitalism” with a desire to “protect the main street economy from the excesses of Wall Street.”
“Our economy is the product of the choices we make and in constructing our economy. … Look, there are profound differences on this stage between the candidates that present to you,” O’Malley said. “I don’t believe that we need to scrap American capitalism and replace it with socialism, nor do I believe that we should be taking our orders from Wall Street in terms of how to construct an economy, which has been proven to work best and really sometimes only work for the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, and at the behest of the 1 percent.”
O’Malley then pivoted to Clinton’s remarks. He argued that Clinton is trying to hide her links to the financial industry.
“Last night in the debate, Secretary Clinton — to try to mask her proximity to Wall Street, the huge amount of contributions and the dollars she has received personally from the major banks of Wall Street — sadly invoked 9/11 to try to mask that,” O’Malley said. “Look she doesn’t have to mask it. It is what it is. That is the sort of economy, that is the sort of economic advice that she would follow.”
Speaking to reporters afterward, O'Malley doubled down on the criticism. He described Clinton’s comment as a "gaffe” that was particularly insensitive in light of the terror attacks in Paris that left over 100 people dead on Friday night.
She was, “in a very, very distasteful way, trying to pump out a smoke screen for her coziness with the big banks of Wall Street, by invoking the tragedy of 9/11 and those attacks. Especially so fresh after so many were murdered in Paris,” O'Malley said of Clinton.