Only one Democrat other than Joe Biden has experience running for president against Donald Trump, and she’s not quite over 2016, or confident that Biden will be able to do what she couldn’t.
Hillary Clinton has been in lockdown like everyone else. It feels like Groundhog Day, she told me Wednesday afternoon. But existential exhaustion looks different for a woman who has spent the past four years thinking about the final month of the 2016 election—and who worries that Vladimir Putin, disinformation, and our deep political divides will still threaten American democracy even if Biden wins.
In many ways, Clinton feels vindicated by how the Trump presidency has played out, and by what Americans have learned about him over the past four years—including the recent revelation that he paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2017. That “was even worse than I thought it was,” she said. But being right is a small solace. She was sitting in her home in New York, speaking with me over Zoom for a conversation you can hear in full on the latest episode of The Ticket. Chappaqua is not Washington, D.C. She’s not in the middle of the reelection campaign she’d like to be running right now. She pointed out more than once that she won the popular vote in 2016, even if she didn’t win the Electoral College, and she mentioned former FBI Director James Comey’s letter in the final week of the race seeming to reopen the investigation into her (and then Comey’s announcement that nothing had come of it). And to those who wish she would just go away? She thinks they feel a bit guilty, she told me: They don’t want to admit that she was right about Trump.
What she’s hoping for over the next four years: Biden wins and gets rid of Trump, Vice President Kamala Harris helps reset some of the American political expectations for women, and Mark Zuckerberg—whom she compared to the sorcerer’s apprentice, losing control of his creation in a way that has done grave damage around the world—ends up facing new restrictions. She’s also hoping that she can step back from politics a bit more.
Listen to our conversation here:
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: In the 2016 campaign, you collapsed at an event. Conspiracies sprouted up. When you see President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, what do you make of it and the reaction to it?
Hillary Clinton: It’s apples and oranges, completely. When I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, I was immediately put on antibiotics. I was told that I was not contagious, and I tried to go on with my schedule. Which proved to be problematic, because I got overheated at the 9/11 ceremony and knew that I was going to have to leave. And so I left and went to my daughter’s apartment—rested for, I don’t know, an hour or so. I don’t even think it’s comparable. We have an infectious, contagious disease that has already killed more than 210,000 Americans, and the contrast between what one would expect a leader to try to model between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is literally night and day. And it’s heartbreaking to me. I don’t wish ill on anybody. I don’t want anybody to get this virus, because even though millions have, some people have lingering effects. Obviously, a lot of people die. It looks like many more will if we don’t get it under control. I don’t even know how to evaluate it, because I can’t imagine the depth of irresponsibility and disregard for other people that Trump exhibits in this and so many other ways. I don’t really have anything to contribute to the ongoing saga of why he behaves the way he does, and why he treats people the way he does, and why he won’t listen to people who actually know something. It’s pretty distressing on all fronts.
Dovere: The slogan of your 2016 campaign was “Stronger Together.” Is it weird to see that adapted now as a call to action against the pandemic?
Clinton: It was really descriptive for me about how I felt and what I wanted to represent. But look—it was no competition for the 24-7, unbelievable entertainment coming from the other side. And I understand that. It was frustrating, obviously, but it was hard to compete with the show going on. But now I see it in all kinds of settings. I see advertisers using it to sell products. I see it as an appeal to bring people together and to support our frontline health-care workers and our first responders and so much else. And so it really now represents what I hoped it would back then.
Dovere: Have you been surprised at how weak many institutions and norms proved to be in holding up against Trump’s efforts to change them?
Clinton: Well, I certainly feared for the country under Trump’s leadership, and his inauguration speech was a really dire warning about what to expect. I didn’t really anticipate how totally craven the Republican Party had become, or was willing to be used by Trump. I’ve served with some of the people who are still there in the Senate. I always thought of them maybe on the opposite side of the aisle, but people with minds of their own and a sense of duty and responsibility. I just could not believe my eyes and ears as I watched them basically be totally undermined and subordinated to Trump’s whims. We can talk about institutions—but we are a government of institutions and of norms, but also separation of powers and balance amongst our institutions, which he has demolished because so few Republicans have stood up to him.
Dovere: There’s a cottage debate about whether 2016 was the most important election, or 2020. America’s decision to take the path that Trump represented or to continue on it. Which do you think?
Clinton: 2016 was such an unprecedented election because of foreign interference, which was quite effective. And also a lot of use of the Internet and social media to spread misinformation, disinformation, outright lies. With the 2020 election, we know—from all the reporting that’s been done, and lots of external comments from people who have seen classified information—that the Russians are at it again, disinformation is at it again. Voter suppression is obviously added again. But now we have much more information on which to make an informed choice. People have been exposed to four years of Trump. But they’ve also been exposed in a very intense way over the last weeks to Trump on the debate stage, Trump getting COVID, Trump leaving Walter Reed to drive around—things that, before, people were either okay with or rolled their eyes at, but didn’t really think of as being definitive of their government. [Those events] have really opened eyes. I think people in this election understand more than they did in 2016 what the stakes for the democracy are. And they’re going to vote accordingly, I believe.
Dovere: You mention disinformation. You’ve been critical of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. How much responsibility does he bear?
Clinton: I think of Mark kind of like the sorcerer’s apprentice: He thought he’d created a great way to connect people and make a lot of money—and he understood that if he was going to keep growing his company, growing his reach, having the dominance that he sought, he was going to have to live with algorithms that rewarded disinformation, rewarded the kind of conspiracy-clickbait stuff that addicted people to Facebook and other social-media platforms. If I had won—the Electoral College—and been inaugurated, I think we would have had to have a reckoning, which we’re going to have to have, hopefully, in a Biden administration. Excuses are just no longer adequate. Like, “Oh, my God, we didn’t know that Russians were buying ads. They were paying in rubles, but we never connected it!” It’s just—okay, we’ve heard this before, and we’re not buying it anymore.
Dovere: You long had a darker view of Vladimir Putin than many, including Barack Obama. What do you think people should think about what his goals are?
Clinton: I think we should understand that his goals are the same as they’ve always been. This is a man who said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of history. He is an unreconstructed nationalist who believes that Russia should be considered a great country, even though it has a minor-league economy and can’t even care for a lot of the basic needs of many of its people outside of its major cities. And he wants to prove that democracy doesn’t work—that the Atlantic alliance doesn’t work anymore and shouldn’t be allowed to continue into the future. That he has allied himself with a lot of conservatives in our country who believe in strong leaders, who believe in his social agenda. One of the things I used to raise with him and his top advisers when I was secretary of state was the way that he was using anti-gay rhetoric to ally himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and with very conservative elements within Russia. For him, it was a game. Power is a game to be played as hard as possible—like Lenin advised, you take the scalpel, and you keep pushing until you hit bone. Go as far as you possibly can go. I think I had a very realistic view of him and what his goals were, because I’d been watching him for longer than a lot of other people who were just new to having to deal with him. And I think that it’s almost hard to overstate how much of a promoter of the Putin agenda [Trump has been]—not just the strongman persona and autocracy and all that Trump yearns for, but his actual agenda to do away with the EU, to do away with NATO, to divide America. .
Dovere: You wrote a story in The Atlantic last month about the 25th anniversary of your speech in Beijing at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. In it, you write about how America has trouble seeing women as leaders. How much do you think the difference between your candidacy and Biden’s is because he’s a man? And how much of that do you think is going to be a factor with Harris on the ticket?
Clinton: I just think that there still is a significant percentage of men and women who are not comfortable with the idea of a woman president. It is something I saw; it is something I experienced. But I’m very proud of the campaign that I ran. I’m very proud to be the first woman in American history to win a caucus or a primary or, frankly, the popular vote. So it’s something that can be overcome. But the margin is really narrow, and you have to be very clear going into it as a woman candidate that it is a burden you bear and have to overcome. I do think that it will remain a problem at the presidential level. Hopefully, we’re going to see our first woman vice president. That will help to create more space in people’s heads to think about presidential leadership inhabiting a woman. I think it helped to have more than one woman on the stage in the Democratic primary this year. Women come in all sizes and shapes and hairstyles, and all that is helping to normalize women seeking the presidency. So we’re just going to have to keep plugging away at it and making as much progress at every turn that we possibly can.
Dovere: Your fans have a habit of pointing out that some of what you were attacking Trump for in 2016 has since borne out to have some truth to it—the most recent example being what you said about his not paying income tax in one of the debates, which we now can see to be the case based on The New York Times’ exposé of his tax returns.
Clinton: I really did feel sometimes like the tree falling in the forest. I believed he was a puppet of Putin. I believed that there was relevant, important information in his tax returns. I believed he did not have the temperament to be president, he was unfit—not a partisan comment, but an assessment of him. And it was just really difficult to get the press to take any of that seriously. I can’t even imagine what would have been done to me if I’d never revealed my income-tax returns. I would have been hounded mercilessly. I can’t turn the clock back and really totally understand why none of it caught on. But I felt like I had a duty, and I kept raising it and pointing out what I thought of as his real dangers to our country. But even I didn’t know everything that was going on. And so it was kind of a revelation even to me to learn that, yeah—I was kind of picking up the signals. I had information—like any person who’s lived as long as I had—that if you don’t reveal your taxes, there’s got to be something you’re trying to hide, don’t you think? It was even worse than I thought it was.
Dovere: There are also those who, every time you speak up, say some version of, “Why won’t she just go away?” What would you say to them?
Clinton: Well, look—I think some of it is guilt on the part of people who are promoting that. It’s like, “Oh God, he really did turn out to be Putin’s puppet. Get her off the stage before anybody remembers that I ridiculed her about that.” I get all that. I mean, that’s human nature. I understand that. But it has no impact whatsoever on me. I’m looking forward to relaxing and not worrying every day when Biden is president. I can go back to kind of having a normal life. But for these last four years—that’s why I wrote my book What Happened. It’s why even in the face of a lot of pushback, I spoke out about Russia. I spoke out about the real dangerous things [Trump] was doing, starting with alternative facts on Inauguration Day going forward. Because I feel like I had maybe more of an insight into this guy as president than most people could, until enough time had passed that there was enough clear evidence about what he was doing and what kind of person he was. But that we couldn’t let that go on too long, because the stakes were so high.
Dovere: If Biden does win, why shouldn’t Republicans and Trump supporters spend the next four years the same way that many Democrats have: talking about resistance, marching in the streets, saying Trump is not a legitimate president?
Clinton: You didn’t see that after [George W. Bush] was elected, even though it was contentious and decided by the Supreme Court. No, there was a widespread understanding that this election [in 2016] was not on the level. We still don’t know what really happened. I mean, there’s just a lot that I think will be revealed. History will discover. But you don’t win by 3 million votes and have all this other shenanigans and stuff going on and not come away with an idea like, “Whoa, something’s not right here.” That was a deep sense of unease. From the get-go, Trump didn’t want to be the president of all Americans. He had every opportunity in his inaugural address to reach out to the entire country. And he chose not to. So the unease, the worry, the fear even about what’s going to happen, unfortunately was validated from day one.