Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton may be strongly positioned to win her party’s nomination for president, but she came out swinging in our exclusive interview on Thursday. We sat down with Clinton after she finished a rally with students at Purchase College, just north of New York City, where she had been greeted by legions of supporters as well as hecklers and backers of her Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders. Clinton leads in the polls in her adopted home state, but she is still aggressively campaigning ahead of the April 19 primary. Our conversation came a week after the terrorist attacks in Brussels. It was also a day after Donald Trump’s controversial comments on abortion, a catalyst for what became a rocky week for the Republican frontrunner, whose momentum has shown signs of waning. Meanwhile, Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, continues to give her a fight in states such as Wisconsin, which holds its primary on Tuesday. Our conversation spanned the threat of ISIS, her thoughts on Trump’s suitability to be commander-in-chief, the anger felt by American voters, and the good and bad of Wall Street. Edited for clarity and length.
Henry Blodget: Another horrific attack in Brussels last week. Republicans keep hammering on the Democrats not being aggressive enough. President Obama seems to be saying we shouldn’t worry that much. We’re making progress. Are Americans too worried about ISIS?
Hillary Clinton: I think Americans have every reason to be worried about ISIS and the network of terrorist groups, because they have proven to be sophisticated and effective in wreaking violence and murder in many parts of the world, including in San Bernardino with their somehow connected radicalization of that couple there. But what I don’t think we should do is panic, and I don’t think we should advocate for ideas and plans that will make things worse.
I think it was said just this week that the way Donald Trump talks about terrorism and his very insulting language towards Muslims is making him the recruiting sergeant for ISIS. So you do have to walk a fine line here. And what I have said is that I will take a backseat to no one in keeping America safe. I have a very clear set of proposals about how we defeat ISIS. And I think it’s important that we do it in concert with other nations in Europe, the Middle East, elsewhere if necessary. And that means you’ve got to work with people. You don’t insult them. You don’t insult their religion. And it means we have to see our entire country, all of the people in it, as part of our first line of defence. So that means you don’t insult American Muslims and religiously profile them the way that has been suggested by Ted Cruz.
‘People sometimes ask me, You’re still in a primary — why are you criticising Trump?’
Blodget: And Donald Trump’s approach to ISIS: He talks about waterboarding, he talks about going after their families, he talks about bombing the hell out of them. Do you trust Donald Trump with our military?
Clinton: Of course not. No, of course not. His suggestions are not only offensive but, in certain cases, dangerous and sometimes even illegal, like his dismissal of the laws of the United States international law when it comes to torture. His attitude towards our longest defence alliance and NATO, that we should somehow walk away from it. His suggestions that the United States should leave the Pacific and let Japan, South Korea, or whoever else wants to develop nuclear weapons. These are incredibly dangerous ideas that need to be confronted.
People sometimes ask me, “You’re still in a primary — why are you criticising Trump?” It’s because I don’t want what he’s saying to stand unanswered. And one of the problems, frankly, the Republicans seem to have had is they don’t like his personality, his tactics, but they basically agree with him on so many of the issues. So they can’t go after him where I think he needs to be criticised. So I’m going to keep speaking out about what he says, because I’m getting messages from leaders around the world who are just bewildered. They want to know what’s going on. And the amount of publicity that he gets, the coverage that he gets. So he said some very ill-considered, dangerous thing, and it’s around the world in a nanosecond.
Blodget: One of the things that’s fuelling that rhetoric, I think, is if you look at the polls, the majority of Americans actually disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy, and you were the architect of that foreign policy for four years. Do you feel like that’s a rejection of your own foreign policy?
Clinton: Absolutely not. These approval ratings go up and down. In fact, the last numbers I saw was the president’s approval ratings above 50% right now. So yes, they go up, they go down. I think what President Obama has done is to chart a steady course. When I was there, the first four years we had a lot of cleanup to do. We inherited a lot of bad feelings from the Bush administration, and much of what I spent my time doing was travelling around the world reassuring friends and allies. And I think people need to remember what the situation was when President Obama came into office. I’ll give you one quick example. It was during George W. Bush’s presidency that Iran mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, that they built covert facilities, that they stocked them with centrifuges, that they were spinning merrily away toward getting a nuclear-weapons program.
That happened before Barack Obama walked in the door. So what he and I did was to say clearly what we’re doing, all the bluster, all of the sanctions, that are just imposed by the American government haven’t had much impact. Let’s see if we can put together an international coalition to really cripple Iran, and then maybe we can begin a negotiation, and that’s what I did. It was difficult. We had to get China and Russia on board, and not just get them on board by signing a piece of paper. We had to get them on board so that they would actually not help Iran, not buy from Iran. We had to go see a lot of our friends, from India to Japan, that are energy hungry, but that they would do the same. So we did. We got an international coalition, and we imposed that. It was slow, patient diplomacy, nothing at all particularly headline-worthy. But then you got to the point where the negotiations — which I started and secretary Kerry completed — I think made the world safer. So when people say, well, they disapprove, I’d like to know what the specifics are, because sometimes — and the president has admitted this — they may not feel like he’s really explaining and understanding the emotion behind some of these fears. And that’s a perfectly legitimate question for people to ask. But if you look at the results of where we are, I think there are some things I agree with and some things I don’t agree with, and I think that’s absolutely fair game.
On emails: ‘I did what I did, and I’ve said that it was a mistake’
Blodget: You’ve said it was a mistake to have a private email server when you were secretary of state. Do you understand why that bothers people?
Clinton: I said it was a mistake. It wasn’t the best choice. But all my emails have been turned over to the public. I’m the most transparent secretary of state because of that. I’ve been willing to say, “OK, read them all.” And there was no prohibition against it. What I did was permitted. My emails went to state.gov accounts. I did what I did, and I’ve said that it was a mistake. I’ve tried to do the best I could to get that information out to people.
On Trump: ‘What’s important here is that the Republicans agree with him’
Blodget: Donald Trump recently said that if abortion is illegal, women should be punished for seeking an abortion or getting an abortion. He later changed that. What was your reaction when you heard that?
Clinton: It was outrageous that he would be advocating [that] women who exercise their constitutional right and have autonomy over their healthcare decisions would be criminals, along with the doctors that served them. He did try to walk it back — I think pretty unconvincingly. But again, what’s important here is that the Republicans agree with him. They all want to see women’s rights eroded and for abortion to become illegal again. That’s why so many state Republican governors and legislators are defunding Planned Parenthood and shutting down clinics that not only provide a safe abortion but HIV testing, cancer screenings, and so much else that women have every right to access, which is harder if you are unemployed or you are a low-income woman that’s part of the real service that Planned Parenthood provides. So he tried to walk it back, but I think you have to take him at his word. And I think what we heard was a very unvarnished view that he has, and I for one have been very vocal in criticising him and criticising the other Republicans who are now embarrassed that he said what they all believe.
Trump ‘an equal-opportunity insulter’
Blodget: One of the reactions to his comment was from women saying, wow, I thought it was time when he was going to start courting women voters, given how important they are. You’ve said that Trump has a “penchant for sexism.” Others use much stronger words — misogyny and and so forth. Do you think this will be an issue for him in the general election?
Clinton: Look, I think you have to take the man at his word. He’s kind of an equal-opportunity insulter. He started by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. He moved on to denigrating John McCain’s heroism during the Vietnam War. He has gone after people with disabilities. He has said Muslims should be kept out of our country. He certainly has gone after individual women in the media, in the political arena. I think you have to take the man and say to yourself, this is someone who wants to occupy the Oval Office, where Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and people who were our president, and I don’t think it’s just a woman’s issue. I think it’s an issue that should be of concern to all Americans.
Blodget: You talked about his tendency to insult everybody. One can imagine if you are running against him in a general election that he will come after you with everything he’s got. Do you practice being insulted by Donald Trump on a daily basis? [Clinton laughs.] Do you do that? And can you beat him? Because he has destroyed all of his challengers.
Clinton: Part of the reason he destroyed his Republican challengers is because they agree with him on issues. And he apparently struck a vein of entertainment among the Republican primary voters, so all they had left was kind of whining and insulting back and forth, as opposed to taking him on where I think a presidential election should, which is what you stand for, what you’re saying, what the actual results of that would be, both at home and around the world. I’m not going to be responding to him. I have pretty thick skin. I’ve been in the arena a long time, and that means that I am not going to get down with him and go insult for insult.
I’m going to keep talking about what I would do as president, the experience that I bring, the temperament and judgment that led President Obama to ask me to be Secretary of State after we ran a really hard primary against each other. It’s funny to me, because when I have a position, whether it’s first lady, or senator, or secretary of state, and I’m doing the work, I’m really quite popular.
I take seriously the concerns that voters are expressing … people who believe the economy has failed them, their government has failed them, politics has failed them.
When I left the secretary of state office, I had a 69% approval rating. Once I start running for office and all the incoming you know is battering away, people are going to say, “Hey, wait a minute — what’s that mean, what’s that mean?” I get all of that, but I don’t think we do any service to our country or the voters if we descend into the kind of insult fest that he seems to relish.
Blodget: So you don’t think the right response in the general election will be to go punch the bully in the nose and stop them.
Clinton: I think you have to stand up to a bully. But I’m not concerned about what he says about me. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to stand up for immigrants. I’m going to stand up for American Muslims who are working hard in this country that they love and consider their own. I’m going to stand up for other women. I’m going to stand up for the right to choose. I’m going to stand up for what he says and does that is threatening to Americans, to the lives of Americans, the rights of Americans. Maybe he’s just never dealt with somebody who’s not particularly impressed by his carrying on, but I’m not. So I’m going to stay focused on what’s at stake in this election.
‘There’s a lot of disappointment, fear, even anger’
Blodget: Both Trump and Bernie Sanders have surprised a lot of people with their staying power and the support that they have. What is the message that voters on both sides are sending to that? And what do you take away from that?
Clinton: I take seriously the concerns that voters are expressing. There’s a lot of disappointment, fear, even anger, among people who believe that the economy has failed them, their government has failed them, politics has failed them. They have every right to be concerned. And I feel like I have to do the best job I can to basically say, “OK, I understand — you have every right to be angry, but anger is not a plan. Here’s what I want to do, and that’s why I hope you will support me, because I think it will actually improve the lives of Americans.” I think for a lot of young people there is a sense that maybe the future is not going to be everything it was held out to be, especially if they’re coming out with a lot of student debt.
‘ I have a plan to make tuition debt-free for public colleges and universities. I have a difference with Senator Sanders, who promises free college, which, if you look at the fine print, depends really on governors coming up with a lot of the money, which I don’t think is a particularly wise bet. And I have a plan to help people pay down their student debt, because I want to unleash the entrepreneurial energy that young people have. This is a very connected, tolerant, creative generation, but a lot of them feel really constrained because they have got this big debt. They can’t do much with it other than try to figure out how to pay it down. They can’t take job they want. They can get the credit they would like to start a business. So we’re going to refinance it, we’re going move people into income-contingent repayment plans, we’re going to have a date certain when their obligations end, and I’m not going to let the government harass kids. I’m not going to let the government make a profit out of lending money for people to go to college. So we’re going to really change this. I see it as an investment, not an expense, and I’m going to treat it that way.
On Sanders: ‘I never can really tell what he’s talking about’
Blodget: Senator Sanders keeps saying that you’re too cosy with Wall Street. First of all, is that true? And second of all, what’s so bad about Wall Street? It’s one of our most successful industries — the finance industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, very successful, wonderful exports of finance business. Why is it so bad to be close to Wall Street?
Clinton: I never can really tell what he’s talking about. It’s just one of these sort of attacks that he pulls out all the time. I believe strongly that we need a finance industry that is good for the economy, and I don’t think anybody would argue that during the eight years leading up to the Great Recession, a lot of bets were made [and] risks taken that weren’t good for the economy. And I don’t think all the blame lies with Wall Street. I think a lot of the blame lies with the Bush administration. They went back to trickle-down economics. They took their eye off the mortgage market, they took their eye off the finance markets, and we ended up in a big mess. I mean, 9 million people lost their jobs and 5 million homes were lost and $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out.
So I think there were bad actors in the government and bad actors in the finance, mortgage, markets industries that need to be called out and held accountable. But you also have to make sure that you’ve got the credit flowing, the financial instruments, that are going to enable Main Street to be successful. So I’ve laid out my economic plans. I want to grow the economy. That’s why I have plans for jobs and raising incomes. I do want to go after bad actors on and off Wall Street, because I think companies that take money from federal, state, and local governments and then pick up and move should have to pay that back. I think companies trying to exercise a so-called inversion should be hit with an exit tax. So I want to change behaviours, and I am deeply distressed about quarterly capitalism, because I think it is causing businesses to make decisions that are not helping the long-term profitability of American corporations or the success of our economy. And I’m on record for that, going back to the time when I was a senator. So I hear that, but the facts don’t bear it out.
On quarterly capitalism: ‘I think there was a real wrong turn about 20 to 25 years ago’
Blodget: On quarterly capitalism, great companies, some have argued, serve multiple constituencies, not just shareholders. They serve customers, they serve employees, they serve the country and the economy. How do we get out of quarterly capitalism?
Clinton: This is an issue that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and talking to people about, because I think it’s one of the biggest challenges facing our economy. And I’ll just tell a quick story that I told when I gave my economic speeches last year. There was a recent survey that was done with the heads of major American corporations, and they were asked this question: If you could make an investment today that you know would make the company more profitable — say it was R&D, say it was plant and equipment, say it was investing and training your workers — and you knew that within five to 10 years you’d have so much good returns to show, but it would cost you a penny off your stock price to do it, would you do it? And every one of them said no.
So I knew one of the people who’d been asked, an iconic American corporation, and I called and I said, “Were you in this survey?” “Yes.” “You were asked this question?” “Yes.” “Clearly it was unanimous you said no, you wouldn’t do it. What does that mean? I know the kind of person you are. I know that you are trying to build a great company.” The answer was, “I’d be killed. The market would kill me, activist shareholders would kill me. So I would be spending all my time fending off this attack on me and the company [that] I wouldn’t even get to doing the work that we want to do.”
That’s crazy. That to me is not wealth creation for the long term. It’s not how we’re going to grow this economy, how we’re going to have brought inclusive prosperity. So I think we’ve got to look at corporate law. Back in the day when I studied it, there were different constituencies that were to be served, and I think there was a real wrong turn about 20 to 25 years ago when the theory began to be promoted that your highest duty — in fact, some would argue, your only duty — is to maximise shareholder return. I just don’t buy it. And it wasn’t the original underpinnings of the legal theory of corporate law.
This has been a development that I think has been promoted for other reasons, but nevertheless we’re living with it. So I think we have to take a look at corporate law. We have to take a look at the incentives that we can perhaps use to encourage more longer term. I think if you had a capital-gains system where the long, patient capital would actually be rewarded, nanosecond capital turning would not be. I think there’s a lot we could do that maybe would give a little more decision space to CEOs, to shareholders who want to hold for the long term, to investors who want to be part of the long term, that they would maybe have a little more room to withstand the pressure that is otherwise coming down on them.
‘Congress … They act like activist shareholders’
Blodget: The economy’s made tremendous progress in the last eight years. I think most people would still agree that we’d like to see it grow faster. If you could make one change, what would it be?
Clinton: I think we need to invest more in America. And for the life of me I don’t understand — we’ve had, as you know so well, practically zero-interest rates. They’re creeping up, not by much. What a time to invest in infrastructure, advanced manufacturing. I’ve been really impressed at some of the investments that I’ve seen in community college and technical schools that are training young people for these jobs in 3D printing and the like. I think a revolution transitioning from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy — somebody’s going to be the 21st-century clean-energy superpower. I think it’s going to be China, Germany, or us. Why not us? Jobs you do here at home or new discoveries that can be transformed into exports around the world.
The Congress is not willing to think about the long term. They act like activist shareholders, to use that phrase again. They’re not thinking about what can we do that will make us richer, safer, and stronger next year, and the year after, and five and 10 years out. How do we protect against climate change. How do we create jobs for so many Americans who are feeling pushed out, not just left out, pushed out of the modern economy. Obviously it’s skills and education. But it’s also jobs. So if I could do anything it would be to take this moment in time that we’ve got when, yes, our recovery is better, we’ve had steadier growth, I don’t think President Obama frankly gets the credit he deserves for the kind of steady hand that he and his advisers apply to moving through that really dangerous period. So OK, we are out of the ditch, we’re standing, we’re walking, but we’re not running. I want to grow the economy. I am not somebody who just says let’s beat up on the bad guys. No. I want to summon the good guys and give people the incentives and opportunities to actually grow this economy, put more people to work, get the middle class really feeling like they’re back in business.
Hillary Clinton campaigns for the Senate in 2000.
‘I will go anywhere, anytime, to meet with anyone to find common ground’
Blodget: One thing President Obama is criticised for, even by Democrats, is for being too aloof. He doesn’t get in the back rooms and make deals and persuade Congress to do things. Would you be different? And how would you persuade Congress to do something like invest in infrastructure?
Clinton: Everybody brings their personality to any position, and that’s true for presidents like anyone else. I am a very committed person when it comes to finding common ground. I will go anywhere, anytime, to meet with anyone to find common ground. I did it as first lady, I did it as a senator, I did it as secretary of state, and I know how hard it is. It’s not something you do once or twice and then throw your hands up because it is grinding work. But it is necessary work. So I am really welcoming of the opportunity to meet with not only people who agree with me but those who don’t to see what we can do to try to bridge the differences.
When we didn’t succeed at healthcare reform back in 1993,1994, I went to work with Democrats and Republicans and we created the Children’s Health Insurance Program. When I got to the Senate, I started working with Republicans. I think I practically worked with every single one of them, and a lot of them were on record talking about what a good colleague I am and how I like to get things done. When I was secretary of state, I had to be responsible for getting a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia through the Senate. We needed, I think, 13 Republican votes to get to 67. I started working in the summer making just endless phone calls, meetings, bringing experts to talk to Republicans, and then we finally got it done at the end of the year 2010. So I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and get into the business of solving problems and making progress together.
‘That’s why I’m so well-suited to this time’
Blodget: Going back to those years, too, you have a remarkable career as a progressive activist for women’s issues and so forth. Have your views changed since then? And following on that, those folks today seem to be supporting Bernie Sanders, rather than you, the younger generation. What is that like for you, having been so progressive and vocal about that when you were younger?
Clinton: I do remember being young. [Laughs.]
Blodget: I do, too!
Clinton: I think I’ve been very consistent in my values. I believe that what I’ve worked for — women and children, civil rights against poverty, trying to level the playing field for people to have a better chance — is what I still believe is important and what I’m trying to do today. So I am somewhat influenced by the years that I’ve spent trying to actually get things done, whether it was reforming education in Arkansas or a survey and Legal Services Corporation board when President Carter appointed me and trying to get lawyers for poor people. I have worked in these areas. I know it’s more than just a hope. You’ve got to translate it into a policy that leads to action. And I think that’s why I’m so well-suited to this time, because I think the values reflect really profound American values, and I think my agenda would be the best way to really get Americans once again to feel more confident and more optimistic about our future and deliver results, which I think is what it’s about.
‘I can’t compete with making promises you can’t keep’
Blodget: So you’ve learned how to get things done. And that is different than simply talking about things.
Clinton: I think talking’s important. I think aspirations are critical. I think setting big goals … but I think I’ve set some big goals. The American people haven’t had a raise in 15 years. Getting incomes up is a huge goal. Now maybe it’s not as exciting to some people, but it’s a huge goal. Making college affordable is a really important goal, and my plan will work better than Senator Sanders’ plan by everybody who has looked at it. Working to get the Affordable Care Act to cover everybody and get the cost down will work better and every analyst who’s looked at what I want to do compared to Senator Sanders has reached the same conclusion.
So I can’t compete with making promises you can’t keep, but I am very comfortable saying what I believe I can do, being very specific about how we will do it, how we will pay for it, and having people know that I want them to hold me accountable. I think part of our problem right now in the country is that people feel that nobody listens to them. And that means that they just don’t trust anybody in government, anybody in politics, and anybody in the economy. And if we don’t rebuild that connection with people we will really find even bigger gaps, because our gap on inequality is not just economic. That’s a huge problem, one that I want to address. But we have gaps that are rooted in systemic racism. Racial inequality is a big problem. We still have gaps that are rooted in gender inequality. Certainly we have discrimination against the LGBT community. We have a lot of inequality, and I’m not a one-issue candidate, because I don’t think this is a one-issue country. So I want to knock down all the barriers that stand in the way of people getting ahead and staying ahead.