1. Florida Politics

Clinton says she regrets labeling 'half' of Trump supporters 'deplorable'

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the LGBT for Hillary Gala at Cipriani Club on Friday in New York City. [Justin Sullivan | Getty Images]
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the LGBT for Hillary Gala at Cipriani Club on Friday in New York City. [Justin Sullivan | Getty Images]
Published Sep. 10, 2016

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 has 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 this 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 an "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 for the first portion of her remarks 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. 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: "Hillary Clinton's low opinion of the people who support this campaign should be denounced in the strongest possible terms. The truth of the matter is that the men and women who support Donald Trump's campaign are hard-working Americans. Let me say from the bottom of my heart: Hillary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans, and they deserve your respect."

Pence directly compared Clinton's remarks to President Barack Obama's controversial 2008 comments about people who "cling to guns or religion." He said that such statements should preclude her from being elected president.

Others compared the controversy to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" comment. Even if the comparison was imprecise — at the most, Clinton's comments referred to about a quarter of the electorate — the Trump campaign will seek to use them to further define Clinton in the remaining months of the election.

In Romney's case, he was recorded at a private fundraiser claiming 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.

Romney and Obama both made their remarks at private events, while Clinton knew she was on the record. Clinton's aides defended her efforts to define a significant chunk of Trump's supporters as out of step with American values, and the candidate issued a statement Saturday afternoon saying she regretted using the word "half" to describe those supporters.

"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 a Muslim Gold Star family, 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.

Trump, in a tweet sent after Clinton's statement, said that he would not have attacked her supporters directly.

"While Hillary said horrible things about my supporters, and while many of her supporters will never vote for me, I still respect them all!" Trump wrote.

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. "It doesn't really even matter where it comes from.

"They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different — they won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead end," she continued. "Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."

Clinton's spokesman, Nick Merrill, said on Twitter that "supporters" referred only to the people at Trump's rallies.

"She gave an entire speech about how the alt-right movement is using his campaign to advance its hate movement," Merrill wrote. "Obviously not everyone supporting Trump is part of the alt-right, but alt-right leaders are with Trump."

"And their supporters appear to make up half his crowd when you observe the tone of his events," he added.

Clinton's running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), said Saturday in an interview with the Washington Post that Clinton has 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. 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 fortunes 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 both nationally and in battleground states.

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 herself 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."

And in a wide-ranging speech Friday night, 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.

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.

However, hours later, Trump's allies seized on the "deplorables" comment to paint Clinton as dismissive of a large portion of voters.

Although it wasn't the first time that Clinton used such language to describe an element of Trump's support, there have been no public reports in which she quantified the number or proportions.

And in an interview this week with Israeli TV, she used similar language — again without quantifying the amount of Trump's support that she would call "the deplorables."

Weeks ago, Clinton also delivered a major speech devoted to Trump's association with the alt-right, the name for a movement of white nationalist ideology.

She accused Trump of irresponsibly highlighting those voices by amplifying their messages on Twitter. The speech was part of a broader case 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. And 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.

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.

This "was Clinton, as a defender of Washington's rigged system —- telling the American public that she could care less about them," Trump spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement. "And what's truly deplorable isn't just that Hillary Clinton made an inexcusable mistake in front of wealthy donors and reporters happened to be around to catch it, it's that Clinton revealed just how little she thinks of the hard-working men and women of America."