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We caught up with Hillary Clinton. Her message for the nation right now

Hillary Clinton in a scene from the Hulu documentary "Hillary."
(Barbara Kinney / Hulu)

Since “Hillary,” Hulu’s four-part documentary about Hillary Clinton, premiered in early March, America has been devastated by a pandemic and convulsed by nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

Clinton understands the despair that drives the protests and pervades the country in the wake of more than 100,000 pandemic deaths and one in four American workers filing for unemployment insurance.

But she also sees signs for cautious optimism.

“If you look at the young people who are the primary movers of the peaceful protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s killing, I’m hopeful that this can break open not only some hearts but some structural impediments to equality and justice in a way that defies the distraction of the second-to-second demands of social media,” Clinton says.

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“And it may well be that a leader like [Donald] Trump, who depends upon distraction, has finally been brought down to Earth because people are watching in real time what is happening and how inadequate his response has been to these historic moments.”

Clinton was calling from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., along with “Hillary” director Nanette Burstein (sheltering in the Catskills), to talk about the documentary, but the conversation inevitably turned to current events and the former secretary of State was, as you would expect, brutally frank in her assessment of President Trump’s performance these last few months.

“He has been such a failure across the board,” she says.

These are edited excerpts from our conversation, which will run in full on July 2 in The Envelope.

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The documentary ends on a positive tenor, noting the number of women elected to Congress in 2018 and with you saying that maybe your loss in the 2016 election will be remembered as a historic turning point that lit the fuse. Rewatching it this week, the phrase “lit the fuse” hit me in a much different way.

I can understand that. I’ve had people contact me about the documentary, and it’s interesting because people who watched it early had a different take than people who watched it recently.

So much of what we’re seeing now, sadly, was known about Trump and the kind of people who were loyal to him. But it turned out to be even worse than what I thought it would be. Despite having my own front-row seat and being concerned about his character and behavior, he has gone further and broken more norms and undermined our institutions more deeply than I thought would have been possible in such a short period of time.

We see you in the movie at his inauguration, showing up, taking a deep breath and worrying that he wouldn’t rise to the occasion.

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What has been so surprising to me is how he can barely make an effort to rise to the occasion. I truly don’t think he can get out of his own way. Everything has to be all about him. If it’s about a terrible pandemic with an unprecedented virus, he tries to ignore it, tries to keep the attention on himself. Then when it becomes impossible to do that, he tries to seize the moment and turn it into a daily rally, like he loves to do. And then when it becomes impossible to ignore, he tries to change the subject, he tries to withdraw from the spotlight so he can come up with some other diversion and distraction for the body politic and the press.

Then when we have a terrible killing like we did in Minneapolis, he makes some steps toward — in the very early hours after we all saw that horrific video — to look like he’s going to be empathetic, to look like he’s going to try to talk about this stripping bare of the continuing racism and inequities of law enforcement and justice system. And then he pivots again because he’s not comfortable doing that. He doesn’t have even the minor amount of empathy to fake it, to look like he is concerned, and he reverts to the belligerence and the threat-making and the photo-opping, all the tried-and-true tactics that feed his need for control and dominance and attention.

You tweeted about his most recent photo op, when troops used tear gas to clear protesters so Trump could walk to St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible, calling it a “horrifying use of presidential power.” What was that like to watch?

It was beyond my comprehension. We have never seen anything like this. He is without shame. It is a mystery why anybody with a beating heart and a working mind still supports him.

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You mentioned the inauguration. I’d been to every inauguration since 1993, and I had a really hard time going to that one, but I thought, “OK. The moment might very well transform him and the awesome responsibility of the office as well.” And yet I heard him get up and give that speech that was the absolute opposite of anything that could have brought the country together. Politics should be about addition, about finding common ground. No, he was speaking to his outraged base.

And in the movie, I say, I was sitting next to George W. Bush — who has now spoken out twice, trying to provide some ballast in this time we’re going through, which I appreciate, despite my political disagreements with him — and he just turned to me and said, “That was some weird s.” And every single day has been a surprise, an unpleasant surprise, about how there seems to be no bottom to this man and his presidency.

You talk about misinformation in the documentary, saying that “even when something is disproved, there’s still a little space in the back of people’s heads.” Watching it again now, I thought of Trump’s false claims about mail-in voting, which prompted Twitter to add links, urging people to “get the facts.”

We live in a time when there is a deluge of disinformation, misinformation, that is deliberately intended to confuse people, to undermine their beliefs. And it’s a terrible threat to our democracy and our peacefulness, our prosperity, our soul as a nation. You can think you are disregarding something because you don’t believe it to be true. But the people who are purveying the falsities know, psychologically, you will keep it stored. It will be there in the back of your mind. And that is Donald Trump’s trump card, so to speak. He understands the big lie technique.

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Are you confident we will be able to conduct a free and fair election in November?

Well, I am putting my energy into an organization that I have started called Onward Together, [supporting] vote by mail. The goal of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, which has been stated explicitly, is to stop vote by mail because they believe — and I think rightly — that the more people who vote, the less likely they are to win the White House again, to keep the Senate and also be able to dominate in state legislatures and statewide offices.

The brazenness of the lies about vote by mail are intended to do exactly what we’ve been discussing, to sow doubt and provide rationale for cooperating state and local officials to deny the whole panoply of rights that should go along with vote by mail. If we can fight them, which is what I’m doing everything I can to support, to expand vote by mail, our chances of winning go up. That’s why it’s going to be a really tough challenge, because the other side knows it too.


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