NEW YORK — Kirsten Gillibrand is having a moment, whether she meant to or not.
Going where no other prominent Democrat had before on Thursday evening by declaring that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York senator and potential 2020 presidential contender yet again found herself the face of a national conversation with the potential to dominate headlines and divide her party.
At a time Democrats are desperate to keep the focus on accusations against President Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Gillibrand’s stand shocked even some of her close allies. They had no inkling that she was planning to make news — let alone news that would invite questions about her own ties to a political power family that has dominated her party’s consciousness for nearly three decades.
The comment also put new, awkward distance between two women whose careers have been politically intertwined since Gillibrand — then a second-term House member — took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat upon her ascension to the State Department in 2009.
Yet it allowed Gillibrand to act as the tip of the spear on a position that many Democrats suspect will slowly become more popular in the party.
The longtime Clinton ally’s answer to The New York Times’ question neatly encapsulated how Gillibrand has placed herself front and center on the dominant issue of the day, even if it forces a debate her own party is uncomfortable confronting. And it highlighted the political dexterity that her critics and rivals often deride as opportunism: A former conservative Blue Dog House member, Gillibrand has reinvented herself as a leading progressive and face of the Trump resistance ahead of a potential presidential run.
“I admire her for speaking out and for being really honest and blunt and brutal about it, even when it comes to Democrats and even when it comes to President Clinton,” said longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a former Hillary Clinton aide.
But, Cardona said, Gillibrand’s fight is far from a straightforward one even within the party: “President Clinton is beloved.”
Gillibrand’s comments in a New York Times podcast interview came as a surprise even to people close to her, according to multiple Democrats in her tight political circles. Asked whether Clinton should have stepped down, the senator paused and responded, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.”
However, she then pointed to the difference between the late 1990s and now, highlighting the dramatically changed social and political environments.
“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances, there should be a very different reaction. And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him,” she said.
Gillibrand tried to pivot to safer ground, pointing to the many accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Trump. But Clinton’s allies were unimpressed. Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton’s spokesmen had any response, but much of their political circles were buzzing with confusion over Gillibrand’s statement. They speculated about whether her intention was to distance herself from the Clintons ahead of a 2020 presidential run, or whether she had misspoken.
A handful of aides to both Clintons declined to comment for this story, citing the political danger of weighing in on such a delicate matter between influential figures in the party. But Philippe Reines — a longtime aide to the former secretary of state — lashed out at Gillibrand on Twitter.
“Ken Starr spent $70 million on a consensual blowjob,” he wrote, referring to the investigation into Bill Clinton. “Senate voted to keep [President Clinton]. But not enough for you @SenGillibrand? Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
The message was later retweeted by former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala after a reporter pointed it out.
“The problem with adding Bill Clinton to these things is you were implying that there was no consequence, that nothing happened — there’s arguably no one in American political history who has gone through a greater scrutiny of their personal life when they were in office,” Reines subsequently told POLITICO on Friday.
“You might not like what [Clinton] did, but the idea that he got away with something in the context of what’s being discussed now is a little absurd, and I don’t think [Gillibrand] was trying to do anything, but for her to allow it to be put in the context of a Roy Moore is not right,” he added
Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate, was accused of pursuing — and in two cases assaulting — minors.
But the remark put the spotlight on New York, not Alabama.
Gillibrand and Clinton were never close personal friends — 20 years separate them in age, and they never served in the same legislative body. But a range of Democratic operatives have worked for both of them, and Gillibrand has appeared repeatedly in public and private events with both Clintons, including during the 2016 campaign.
The Republican National Committee was quick to note that fact in an attempt to further isolate Gillibrand on Friday.
The blowup lands at a politically sensitive time for the senator, who is regarded as a potential top-tier presidential candidate should she decide to run in 2020 — as many of her donors and political allies expect. The New Yorker often deflects questions about a presidential bid by pointing to her 2018 reelection campaign, but she is unlikely to face any serious opposition then.
Gillibrand has been positioning herself as a leader of the national resistance to Trump’s administration ever since the women’s marches in January and her subsequent votes against nearly every one of the president’s high-profile Cabinet nominees.
Now, one of her signature issues, combating sexual harassment, is at the forefront of the national discussion, making her a natural voice to emerge from the scrum.
Gillibrand has been introducing versions of a military sexual assault bill since 2013 while also pushing campus sexual assault legislation. And she introduced another bill to reform Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment complaint procedure just this week.
Her political work has also focused primarily on elevating women in recent years.
She has helped raise over $6 million for female candidates since 2011, said an aide. And on Friday, her PAC announced it would take the unusual step of backing Marie Newman, a challenger to sitting Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who has long been criticized by Democrats for his views on abortion.
Before the Times interview on Friday, Gillibrand became one of the first Democrats to condemn the behavior of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who was accused of groping a fellow entertainer when he was a comedian. She promised to send his $12,500 worth of donations to her to Protect Our Defenders, a group that combats military sexual assault.
“One of the things that I have always loved about Senator Gillibrand is that she has never shied away from tough subjects,” said her pollster, Jefrey Pollock. “Listening [to] and hearing [about] suffering is what drives her to action.”
Gillibrand’s remarks have put other Democrats in the uncomfortable position of being asked about their former president at a time when they — and she — would prefer to be putting pressure on the GOP over Moore and Trump himself.
Even some Democrats who are close to Gillibrand were wary of defending her remarks outright on Friday. Placing the former president in the same conversation as others like Trump, Moore and Harvey Weinstein is not fair, they maintain.
“I think we should not get careless in the process of judging and lumping things together that — although they are indefensible on one level — do not rise to the level of some of the things we’re hearing about today,” said Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic Party chairman who led New York’s Democratic Party during Gillibrand’s first three years as a senator.
But, he said, “I think Kirsten Gillibrand doing what she’s doing to promote what I’ll call the cleaning up of the workplace is a good thing.”
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