Hillary Clinton’s claim at a fundraiser that half of Donald Trump’s supporters fit into a “basket of deplorables” prompted a swift and negative reaction Saturday from Republicans, including denunciations and calls for her to apologize.
The comments echoed an accusation that Clinton had levied previously – that Trump appeals to and amplifies racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic viewpoints. But Clinton triggered a fresh controversy by claiming that “half” of Trump’s supporters fit that description.
At a key moment in the campaign, when both candidates are trying to sharpen their focus for the final, post-Labor Day sprint, Clinton’s remarks took attention from Trump’s spate of gaffes last week and also from her own effort to turn the public’s attention to her qualifications for office and vision for the nation.
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right?” Clinton said to applause and laughter from supporters at the LGBT for Hillary fundraiser Friday night in New York that also featured a performance by Barbra Streisand. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”
She continued: “He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.
“Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”
Condemnation came swiftly from Trump’s allies and from the candidate himself, who on Twitter called the remarks “so insulting” and predicted that Clinton would pay a price in the polls.
In a statement issued later Saturday, Trump said that Clinton’s “true feelings” had come out. “How can she be President of our country when she has such contempt and disdain for so many great Americans?” Trump said. “Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of herself.”
Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, called for Clinton to apologize, something that Trump himself has never done in the face of controversy.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, also weighed in, comparing Clinton’s remarks to President Barack Obama’s controversial 2008 comments about people who “cling to guns or religion.” Pence said that such statements should preclude her from being elected president.
Others compared the remark to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. Even if the comparison was imprecise – at most, Clinton’s comments referred to about one-quarter of the electorate – the Trump campaign has already sought to use the comparison to further define Clinton in the remaining months of the campaign.
Pointing out the similarities, Trump retweeted a September 2012 post from the Obama campaign’s Twitter account in response to Romney’s comment: “RT if you agree: We need a President who is fighting for all Americans, not one who writes off nearly half the country.”
In 2012, Trump defended Romney’s “47 percent” comments, counseling the then-Republican nominee not to apologize for them.
In his remarks, recorded at a private fundraiser, Romney asserted that 47 percent of voters “will vote for the president no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims” and “pay no income tax.” The Republican was widely criticized for giving the impression that he was writing off half the country because of their economic status.
Clinton issued a statement Saturday afternoon saying that she regretted using the word “half” to describe the Trump supporters she was referring to.
“That was wrong,” Clinton said. “But let’s be clear, what’s really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump hired a major advocate for the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement to run his campaign and that David Duke and other white supremacists see him as a champion of their values.”
In the statement, Clinton blasted Trump specifically for his feud with the family of a Muslim American Army officer who died in Iraq, his attacks against a Hispanic federal judge hearing two cases against him and his prominent role in the “birther” movement promoting the idea that Obama was not born in the United States.
In her remarks at the fundraiser, Clinton also called for empathy for the other “half” of Trump’s supporters.
“That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change,” Clinton said on Friday night. “It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from.
“Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well,” she added.
Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (Virginia), said Saturday in an interview with The Washington Post that Clinton had nothing to apologize for.
“She was generalizing and saying there are some of his supporters we’ll never get because they’re motivated by some dark motives, but there are other supporters that have legitimate concerns and questions about the economy, and we’ve got to speak to them in the campaign,” he said. “And even to the extent that they vote against us, we still have to respond to their concerns if we have the opportunity to govern.”
In an election cycle that has been more characterized by Trump’s controversies, Clinton’s comments represent a reversal of fortune and a rare moment when she stepped on a news cycle that had not been favorable to Trump. The flap also comes as polls show Trump narrowing Clinton’s lead nationally and in battleground states.
Ever since he installed new campaign leadership about three weeks ago, Trump has softened his tone on the campaign trail and mostly stuck to prepared rally speeches loaded onto teleprompters. That level of discipline seemed to fade Friday night during a rally in a packed arena in the Florida Panhandle.
Trump said that as president, he would shoot Iranian boats out of the water if they make improper “gestures” toward American vessels, that Clinton is so protected from having to face consequences that she could murder someone in front of 20,000 witnesses and not face prosecution, and that voters need to be “very, very vigilant” on Election Day.
Hours before Clinton’s remarks at the fundraiser, Trump was facing new criticism for appearing on a state-owned Russian television network to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin and disparage U.S. foreign policy. Clinton had seized on those comments at a news conference earlier in the day.
“I’m not sure anything surprises us anymore,” Clinton said. “But I was certainly disappointed that someone running for president of the United States would continue this unseemly identification with and praise of the Russian president, including on Russian television.”
After news broke of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment, Trump’s allies seized on the moment to paint Clinton as dismissive of a large portion of voters.
It wasn’t the first time Clinton had used that language.
In an interview this past week with Israeli TV, she said something similar – but without quantifying the amount of Trump’s support that qualified for the label “deplorable.”
Clinton also delivered a major speech weeks ago devoted to Trump’s association with the alt-right, the name used by a movement of white nationalist ideology.
She accused Trump of irresponsibly highlighting that movement by amplifying its messages on Twitter. The speech was aimed at moderate Republicans and independent voters, whom the campaign is encouraging to break from Trump in part because of the alt-right figures who support him.
Clinton reprised that part of her case against Trump at the fundraising event Friday night. But the furor over “deplorables” put her aides and supporters on the defensive, and they attempted to refocus attention on the parts of Clinton’s remarks that called for mutual understanding.
Others pointed out recent polling showing that 7 percent of Trump’s own supporters think he is racist. According to a PRRI poll conducted over the summer, 77 percent of Trump supporters say they are bothered when they come in contact with immigrants who speak little or no English, compared with half of Americans overall. And 83 percent of Trump supporters say that Islam is contradictory to American values, compared with 57 percent of Americans overall.
Some Clinton allies acknowledged the perils of painting voters with too broad a brush, but they insisted that Clinton was right to denounce hatred.
“I think it’s a bad idea for any candidate to make generalizations about voters like an amateur pollster or sociologist would,” former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wrote on Twitter. “But Trump does it every single day, and it’s always worse.
“Why weren’t there comparisons to 47% when Trump said that all black lives were a ‘disaster?’ Or when he said that all Muslims are helping terrorists hide among us?” he tweeted.
Trump’s aides – who see their candidate as an “outsider” fighting against Washington elites – see an opportunity to suggest not only that Clinton doesn’t understand struggling Americans, but that she also has disdain for them. The Republican National Committee held a conference call Saturday afternoon with campaign aides and surrogates, tearing into Clinton’s remarks and saying that Trump, in contrast, would be “a president for all people.”
“Mr. Trump is running to be president for all Americans; black, white, Latino, men, women, everybody,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said on the call, which also included Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Pastor Darrell Scott.
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Jenna Johnson and John Wagner in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.