In the first national TV interview of her three-month-old campaign, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday blamed voters’ increasing distrust of her on Republicans, who she said relentlessly assail her with “unsubstantiated attacks.”
She offered up the defense of her character after refusing for three months to take questions from reporters, acquiescing to an interview by CNN while stumping in Iowa after her campaign admitted having concerns about the surge of grass-roots support for Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, a liberal rival for the nomination.
“This has been the theme that has been used against me and my husband for many, many years and, at the end of the day, I think voters sort it all out,” Mrs. Clinton said of GOP attacks. “I trust the American voter 100 percent.”
Her remarks were reminiscent of her claim as first lady in 1998 that her husband, President Bill Clinton, was the victim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” when he faced accusations that included an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Mrs. Clinton’s credibility has taken a beating from recent controversies involving her exclusive use of a private email account and private email server for official business while secretary of state, as well as potential conflicts of interest from foreign donations to the family’s Clinton Foundation when she was America’s top diplomat.
A CNN/ORC poll last month found 57 percent of Americans don’t consider Mrs. Clinton honest and trustworthy.
“It is understandable that when questions are raised, people are thinking about them and wondering about them,” she said. “But I have every confidence that during the course of this campaign, people are going to know who will fight for them, who will be there when they need them, and that’s the kind of person I am, and that’s what I will do, not only in a campaign but as president.”
Mrs. Clinton refused to concede that her own actions played a role in rising numbers of voters losing trust in her.
“People should and do trust me,” she insisted. “And I have every confidence that will be the outcome of this election.”
In the 18-minute interview, Mrs. Clinton touched on a number of subjects, saying she was “disappointed” in GOP candidate Donald Trump’s recent comments on Mexican illegal immigrants; issued a blanket condemnation of her Republican challengers for being anti-immigrant; refused to say if her economic plan included raising taxes; dodged questions about the building challenge from Mr. Sanders; and even weighed in on the recent debate over putting a woman on the $10 bill.
Mrs. Clinton said that she did nothing wrong involving her email setup as secretary of state, nor was it wrong for her to wipe clean the server in April and delete more than 33,000 emails after independently deciding which emails to turn over to the State Department.
“Everything I did was permitted by law and regulation,” she said. “When I mailed anybody in the government, it would go into the government system. Now I didn’t have to turn over anything. I chose to turn over 55,000 pages because I wanted to go above and beyond what was expected of me — because I knew the vast majority of everything that was official already was in the State Department system.”
She said that after she turned the emails over to the agency, she simply decided to delete the rest and “move on.”
However, questions have persisted about whether her actions violated federal record-keeping laws, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs a House special investigation committee looking into the Benghazi controversy, issued a quick and sharp rebuttal of her email narrative.
“Secretary Clinton had a statutory duty to preserve records from her time in office, she had a legal duty to cooperate and tell the truth with congressional investigators requesting her records, and she was personally subpoenaed the moment the Benghazi Committee became aware of her exclusive use of personal email and a server,” Mr. Gowdy said.
“For more than two years, Clinton never availed herself of the opportunity, even in response to a direct congressional inquiry, to inform the public of her unusual email arrangement designed to evade public transparency.”
Clinton Foundation questions
On the questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation, which pocketed donations from foreign entities with dealings with the State Department, Mrs. Clinton boasted about its charitable work, including fighting AIDS in Africa. She said she would not shut it down if she were elected president.
“I think, for the good of the world, its work should continue,” she said.
On immigration, Mrs. Clinton said that all the Republican presidential candidates are “in the same general area” with Mr. Trump, who has come under fire for saying that Mexican immigrants are rapists, drug users and criminals who are sneaking into the country.
Mrs. Clinton said that she was disappointed in the comments by Mr. Trump, who has supported her in the past and contributed to her Senate campaigns. She added that she was also disappointed in the Republican Party as a whole for not immediately condemning Mr. Trump’s remarks.
“They are all in the same general area on immigration,” said Mrs. Clinton, who has made courting Hispanic voters a cornerstone of her campaign. “They don’t want to provide a path to citizenship. They range across the spectrum of being either begrudgingly welcoming or hostile toward immigrants.”
Mrs. Clinton has endorsed a far-reaching pro-immigration activist agenda, including eventual citizenship for the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. She also promised that, as president, she would expand President Obama’s executive amnesty, though the move would further test the limits of presidential power.
She lumped former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in with the rest of the crowded field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination that she considered anti-immigrant, though Mr. Bush’s wife, Columba, legally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.
“They’re pretty much, as I said, they’re on a spectrum of hostility — which I think is really regrettable in a nation of immigrants like ours — all the way to a kind of grudging acceptance but a refusal to go with a pathway to citizenship,” she said.
Asked about Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent and avowed socialist who has emerged as her chief rival for the nomination, Mrs. Clinton said she always expected that it would be a competitive race.
“I couldn’t be happier about my campaign,” she said, declining to address the huge crowds Mr. Sanders has been drawing to his events.
He had about 7,500 people show up for an event Monday in Portland, Maine. Last week, 10,000 turned out for a Sanders rally in Madison, Wisconsin.
Mr. Sanders has also cut into Mrs. Clinton’s lead in the polls in early-voting states. A CNN poll last month showed Mr. Sanders just 8 points behind Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire, 43 percent to 35 percent. In Iowa, Mrs. Clinton’s lead was 55 percent to 33 percent in a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
“We are worried about him, sure. He will be a serious force for the campaign,” Clinton campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Democratic campaign strategist Craig Veroga said that he believed it.
“With relatively little spending, Sanders has become a factor in the Democratic nominating process,” he said. “Whether [Mrs. Clinton’s] media strategy is a response or part of her campaign’s long-term plan, it’s a good idea for her to do interviews and actively engage both voters and reporters. Voters, especially in the Iowa caucus, expect candidates to sweat and work for their support.”
Carly Fiorina, the GOP presidential hopeful who has taken the sharpest line in attacking the Democratic front-runner, called Mrs. Clinton’s CNN interview “stunning and yet completely unsurprising.”
“Hillary Clinton managed not to answer any substantive questions during that interview,” Ms. Fiorina said. “And she wasn’t even asked about her track record as secretary of state.”