WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.—Hillary Clinton verbally banished half of Donald Trump’s backers to a “basket of deplorables,” and the Republican presidential nominee quickly pounced, saying Saturday she had smeared many Americans and would pay a heavy political price.
“Wow, Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard-working people. I think it will cost her at the polls!” Trump said in a tweet.
Running mate Mike Pence drew loud applause when he told social conservatives: “Hillary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans and they deserve your respect.”
Clinton, who has said she is the candidate to unify a divided country, made the comment at an LGBT fundraiser Friday night at a New York City restaurant, with about 1,000 people in attendance.
“To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it,” she said, before stressing that other Trump supporters are frustrated and need sympathy.
Pence, in remarks at the Values Voter conference in Washington, shot back: “The truth of the matter is that the men and women who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hard-working Americans, farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community, members of every class of this country who know that we can make America great again.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also weighed in, saying Saturday that “insulting everyday Americans to a group of wealthy donors shows whose priorities Clinton really has in mind.”
The rhetorical scuffle comes as the candidates head into the final two months of the campaign, with Trump trying to make up ground on Clinton before the Nov. 8 election.
While Clinton is taking heat for her comment, Trump’s brand is controversy. At a rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday, he said Clinton is “so protected” that “she could walk into this arena right now and shoot somebody with 20,000 people watching, right smack in the middle of the heart. And she wouldn’t be prosecuted.”
Trump has lamented the Obama administration’s decision not to prosecute Clinton on criminal charges over her handling of classified emails while secretary of state.
The comment was reminiscent of Trump’s January description of the loyalty of his supporters. “They say I have the most loyal people … where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible,” he said.
At the fundraiser, Clinton bemoaned the people she described as “deplorables,” saying “unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 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,” said the Democratic nominee, who was the country’s top diplomat during President Barack Obama’s first term.
Clinton then pivoted and tried to characterize the other half of Trump’s supporters, putting them in “that other basket” and saying they need understanding and empathy.
She described them as “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.”
It could prove a stumble for a seasoned — and polarizing — politician who wants to lead a country that includes many who have embraced Trump’s exhortations to “lock her up.”
Clinton has made similar comments in the past. In an interview with Israeli TV this week, Clinton said that Trump supporters are, “what I call the deplorables; you know, the racists and the, you know, the haters, and the people who are drawn because they think somehow he’s going to restore an America that no longer exists.”
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said in a series of tweets after the remarks that Clinton has been talking about the “alternative right,” or “alt-right” movement, which often is associated with efforts on the far right to preserve “white identity,” oppose multiculturalism and defend “Western values.” Merrill argued that “alt-right” leaders are supporting Trump and “their supporters appear to make up half his crowd when you observe the tone of his events.”
Democratic strategist Lis Smith said Clinton should clarify her “tone deaf, momentary gaffe.”
“It’s one thing to attack your opponent. It’s another to attack the people who support him,” said Smith, who worked for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s presidential bid. “It sounds out of touch and condescending… trying to explain away Trump’s supporters to a New York money crowd.”
On Saturday, Clinton’s staff said she attended another fundraiser at the Armonk, New York home of attorney David Boies. But reporters traveling with her campaign were not allowed in and did not see the Democratic nominee.
Comments about voters — especially at private fundraisers — have tripped up presidential hopefuls in the past.
Weeks before the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney landed in hot water for saying that 47 percent of the public would vote for President Barack Obama “no matter what” because they depended on government benefits and his job was “not to worry about those people.”
During the 2008 Democratic primary, then-Sen. Obama said that small-town voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Those remarks were seized on by Clinton, his primary opponent, as evidence that he was disconnected from many Americans.