Gillibrand remark on Clinton sends shockwaves through Democratic Party
NEW YORK — Kirsten Gillibrand is having a moment, whether she meant to or not.
Going where no other prominent Democrat had before on Thursday evening by declaring that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York senator and potential 2020 presidential contender yet again found herself the face of a national conversation with the potential to dominate headlines and divide her party.
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At a time Democrats are desperate to keep the focus on accusations against President Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Gillibrand’s stand shocked even some of her close allies. They had no inkling that she was planning to make news — let alone news that would invite questions about her own ties to a political power family that has dominated her party’s consciousness for nearly three decades.
The comment also put new, awkward distance between two women whose careers have been politically intertwined since Gillibrand — then a second-term House member — took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat upon her ascension to the State Department in 2009.
Yet it allowed Gillibrand to act as the tip of the spear on a position that many Democrats suspect will slowly become more popular in the party.
The longtime Clinton ally’s answer to The New York Times’ question neatly encapsulated how Gillibrand has placed herself front and center on the dominant issue of the day, even if it forces a debate her own party is uncomfortable confronting. And it highlighted the political dexterity that her critics and rivals often deride as opportunism: A former conservative Blue Dog House member, Gillibrand has reinvented herself as a leading progressive and face of the Trump resistance ahead of a potential presidential run.
“I admire her for speaking out and for being really honest and blunt and brutal about it, even when it comes to Democrats and even when it comes to President Clinton,” said longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a former Hillary Clinton aide.
But, Cardona said, Gillibrand’s fight is far from a straightforward one even within the party: “President Clinton is beloved.”
Gillibrand’s comments in a New York Times podcast interview came as a surprise even to people close to her, according to multiple Democrats in her tight political circles. Asked whether Clinton should have stepped down, the senator paused and responded, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.”
However, she then pointed to the difference between the late 1990s and now, highlighting the dramatically changed social and political environments.
“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances, there should be a very different reaction. And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him,” she said.
Gillibrand tried to pivot to safer ground, pointing to the many accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Trump. But Clinton’s allies were unimpressed. Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton’s spokesmen had any response, but much of their political circles were buzzing with confusion over Gillibrand’s statement. They speculated about whether her intention was to distance herself from the Clintons ahead of a 2020 presidential run, or whether she had misspoken.
A handful of aides to both Clintons declined to comment for this story, citing the political danger of weighing in on such a delicate matter between influential figures in the party. But Philippe Reines — a longtime aide to the former secretary of state — lashed out at Gillibrand on Twitter.
“Ken Starr spent $70 million on a consensual blowjob,” he wrote, referring to the investigation into Bill Clinton. “Senate voted to keep [President Clinton]. But not enough for you @SenGillibrand? Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
The message was later retweeted by former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala after a reporter pointed it out.
“The problem with adding Bill Clinton to these things is you were implying that there was no consequence, that nothing happened — there’s arguably no one in American political history who has gone through a greater scrutiny of their personal life when they were in office,” Reines subsequently told POLITICO on Friday.
“You might not like what [Clinton] did, but the idea that he got away with something in the context of what’s being discussed now is a little absurd, and I don’t think [Gillibrand] was trying to do anything, but for her to allow it to be put in the context of a Roy Moore is not right,” he added
Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate, was accused of pursuing — and in two cases assaulting — minors.