On a solemn Sunday morning as the nation observed the 15th anniversary of the 911 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, talk about the latest presidential political flap almost seemed trivial.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, where he conferred with two of his closest GOP allies, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York, also visited the site but was forced to leave the 911 memorial event after being overcome by heat. She was taken to her daughter Chelsea’s apartment where she rested, and she later emerged, telling reporters, “I’m feeling great.” In fact, she wasn't well at all. She had been diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday.
A report from The Washington Post late Sunday afternoon said, "Hours after the Democratic presidential nominee fell ill at a 9/11 commemoration Sunday in New York, her doctor said in a statement that Clinton 'was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was put on antibiotics, and advised to rest and modify her schedule. While at this morning's event, she became overheated and dehydrated.'"
Trump and Clinton had declared a one-day hiatus in their bitterly fought presidential campaign today to honor the victims of the 911 attack. But that didn’t prevent their surrogates from continuing to squabble over the latest campaign tempest – Clinton’s remarkably ill-advised assault on what she called the “basket of deplorables” supporting Trump.
Trump and other Republican leaders quickly pounced on Clinton’s remarks to an LGBT Democratic fundraiser in New York City Friday night in which she dismissed “half” of Trump’s supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.”
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” Clinton told a large, cheering crowd of supporters, donors and Democratic party elites.
“Wow. Hillary Clinton was SO insulting to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard working people,” Trump quickly wrote on Twitter. “I think it will cost her at the polls.”
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, speaking at the Values Voter Summit of conservative Christians in Washington over the weekend, chastised Clinton: “Hillary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans, and they deserve your respect.”
The Republicans’ hypocrisy, of course, was obvious. Trump has spent more than a year denouncing illegal Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, demanding that Muslims be denied entry into the country, re-tweeting an anti-Hillary message that contained a Semitic 6-point star, and even criticizing a Gold Star family for having the nerve to criticize him openly at the Democratic National Convention in July.
Clinton weeks ago delivered a major address drawing direct lines between Trump and the burgeoning “alt right” white supremacist hate groups – essentially accusing Trump of energizing activists in the darkest corners of the conservative movement.
But on Friday night she crossed the line by openly writing off large swaths of GOP voters in a smug and highly dismissive manner. For some, she was echoing Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s disastrous back room comment during the 2012 presidential campaign that “47 percent” of voters would back President Obama no matter what because they depend on government programs and pay no income tax.
Clinton on Saturday apologized for saying that “half” of Trump’s support comes from racists and xenophobes. However, she refused to back down from her larger critique that Trump had advanced his political career by pitting one group against another and bringing out the worst instincts in many Americans.
“It’s deplorable that Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia,” she said.
The controversy spilled over into the Sunday talk shows today, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a Trump champion, and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), a staunch Clinton backer, re-litigated Clinton’s comments on Fox News Sunday.
Becerra offered a laundry list of “deplorable” figures who have aggressively supported Trump, including former KKK grand wizard and Nazi sympathizer David Duke, who is running for Senate in Louisiana, and leaders of other white supremacist groups. Trump was slow in rejecting Duke’s support and at one point preposterously claimed that he didn’t know who Duke was.
“What we have to understand is that we should not have people get elected to office based on campaigning on anger and hate,” Becerra said. “And Newt, accept the fact that she said I regret those remarks.”
Gingrich replied that Trump “has repeatedly, explicitly repudiated David Duke – that’s a fact.”
“So this idea that Donald Trump somehow is secretly courting people, that’s wrong,” Gingrich said. “Trump goes to a black church in Detroit to talk about the failure of Democratic Party policies in the inner cities. Now let’s have a debate about the failure of the Democratic Party in the inner cities, which of course leads to them yelling racist, because if they can’t smear Trump, they’re going to lose a lot of votes.”
With barely two months before the November 8 election, Clinton is struggling to fend off a recent onslaught by Trump that is eating into her post-convention bounce. Some Democratic leaders have begun to fret that Clinton should be much further ahead of Trump in the polls by now, after spending $104 million on negative TV ads portraying Trump as incompetent and dangerous.
Trump, meanwhile, continues to stake out positions unpopular with the majority of Americans or that have shocked many in his own party, including doubling down on deporting 11 million illegal immigrants and praising Russian President Vladimir Putin over President Obama for his leadership skills. Yet he continues to move up in the polls.
Clinton’s negative numbers among voters are nearly as high as those of Trump’s, and her advisers have signaled the need for a change in campaign strategy -- one that focuses more on highlighting her policies and personality and less on continuing to tear down Trump’s image.
The latest flap over her comments in New York Friday night has badly undercut her call for national political unity while fueling her critics’ charges that she is an elitist out of touch with the average American. It didn’t help that Clinton spent most of the summer raising money at private dinners in Silicon Valley and The Hamptons while Trump barnstormed through the country, generating controversy and media attention.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend shows Clinton still leading Trump among likely voters, 46 percent to 41 percent, followed by Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson with 9 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein with just 2 percent.
But an analysis of the poll suggests that “lagging interest” among some of Clinton’s supporters – especially independents and liberals who preferred Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – could discourage Democratic turnout on Election Day. Other recent surveys show that Trump has narrowed Clinton’s lead in some key battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.