Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stepped out of the Democratic mainstream when she said former President Bill Clinton should have, in hindsight, resigned over sexual harassment allegations, sparking questions about the issue as well as the direction of the party and New York’s junior senator.
Some called it a break with her political patrons and a way for Gillibrand to distinguish herself on a timely issue that is getting a new focus that started with the Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore scandals. Others called her a traitor and an opportunist who is trying to position herself as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
At issue are remarks Gillibrand — who succeeded Hillary Clinton as a New York senator in 2009 and is up for re-election next year — gave The New York Times when asked if she believed Bill Clinton should have stepped down in light of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“Yes, I think that is the appropriate response,” Gillibrand said after a long pause.
But she went on to say the issue of sexual harassment is viewed differently today and noted that President Donald Trump, too, has been the target of numerous accusations, which he has denied.
“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances there should be a very different reaction,” Gillibrand said. “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.”
A spokeswoman later told the newspaper that Gillibrand’s remarks were meant to emphasize that if Clinton’s actions had happened in the current era, it would have compelled him to resign.
The reactions were fast and sharp.
“Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite,” former Clinton aide Phillipe Reines wrote on Twitter. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
“Outrageous. Traitorous. She is a political opportunist and disloyal,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime political strategist who has worked for many New York Democrats. “She is attacking a very popular Democratic president so she can take advantage of the moment.”
“I think you saw the first opening shot of the 2020 primary with Gillibrand, who clearly has presidential aspirations,” said Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist, in a radio interview. “She put a shot right across the bow of the Clintons.”
Not so, countered Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic chairman, former state party chairman and ally of both Gillibrand and Clinton.
“None of the above,” Jacobs said.
“She has always been committed to things like cleaning up the workplace across the board. She’s been a champion of that issue long before it” came to the forefront in recent weeks.
“She gave an answer to a question asked,” Jacobs continued. “She did not bring it up independently. I don’t think there was anything behind it. I don’t think she was looking to offend anybody and not looking to score points.”
For her part, Gillibrand went on MSNBC three days later and sought to pivot away from directly criticizing the former president.
“My point is that the tolerance that we had 25 years ago, what was allowed 25 years ago, will not be tolerated today, is not allowed today,” Gillibrand said. “And that we have to have the kind of oversight and accountability that society needs so that we can protect people in the workplace.”
The next day, at an unrelated event in Binghamton, Gillibrand told reporters, “Bill Clinton did very important things for our country and I think [Reines’] comments are wrong.”
“I’m very focused on what’s happening today. We have allegations against a sitting U.S. senator. We have a Senate candidate who has alleged to have been harassing high school students,” Gillibrand said, referring, respectively, to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Republican Roy Moore, an Alabama Senate candidate. “We have a president who’s been alleged to have harassed and assaulted a dozen women, with President Trump.
“So I’m trying to change what’s happening right now — that we are having a really important national conversation about how we can listen to survivors, hear their stories, create space for them to tell their stories and then to have processes for when we can get justice.”
Gillibrand has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, even this far out from the campaign. She has said she’s focused only on re-election, but she’s been gaining increasing notice. She has been vocal in opposing Trump policies, especially the Muslim travel ban, and reportedly cast more “no” votes against Trump administration nominees than any other senator. She addressed The Women’s Convention in Detroit in October, stressing the value of getting more women in government positions, according to reports.
That said, not all analysts saw her criticism of Bill Clinton as a way of distancing herself from the Clintons in anticipation of a next move.
“She came back and covered by saying good things about Hillary Clinton. So are you distancing yourself or not distancing?” said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff. “The issue of sexual harassment is one that she, of course, has been talking about for some time, especially in the military setting. That gives her some standing on the issue . . . I think she was saying, ‘That was last century. This is this century.’”