Ten things we learned from Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened
From ‘big shot’ Donald Trump’s gaudy wedding to hopes for a universal income scheme, the defeated Democratic presidential candidate reveals what was on her mind before, during and after her punishing White House campaign
Be it her disgust with Trump and his divisive campaign, or lingering wounds from her bruising primary with Bernie Sanders, Clinton holds little back in the 469-page What Happened.
Here are 10 notable anecdotes from Clinton’s book that shed light on everything from her humorous interactions at Trump’s inauguration to what was running through her mind as the results poured in on election night.
Attending Trump’s wedding
As Trump sought the Republican nomination for president, a photo of the real estate mogul posing with the Clintons at his 2005 wedding to Melania Trump became infamous. Trump’s Republican opponents circulated the image to underscore his past donations to Democrats and his more liberal-leaning views.
In the early pages of the book, Clinton explains the photo and her previous rapport with Trump: “I had known Donald Trump for years, but never imagined he’d be standing on the steps of the Capitol taking the oath of office as president of the United States. He was a fixture on the New York scene when I was a Senator – like a lot of big-shot real estate guys in the city, only more flamboyant and self-promoting.
“In 2005, he invited us to his wedding to Melania in Palm Beach, Florida. We weren’t friends, so I assumed he wanted as much star power as he could get. Bill happened to be speaking in the area that weekend, so we decided to go. Why not? I thought it would be a fun, gaudy, over-the-top spectacle, and I was right. I attended the ceremony, then met Bill for the reception at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. We had our photo taken with the bride and groom and left.”
Much ado has been made of Clinton’s criticism of Sanders in the book, reigniting in many ways the internal feud within the Democratic Party over its direction. In addition to insisting Sanders is “not a Democrat”, Clinton draws a contrast to her 2008 primary against Barack Obama.
“Bernie had hung on to the bitter end, drawing blood wherever he could along the way. I somewhat understood why he did it; after all, I stayed in the race for as long as I could in 2008. But that race was much closer, and I endorsed Barack right after the last primary.”
On the day she clinched the nomination, Clinton adds, “Bernie was still more than a month away from endorsing me.”
Clinton also felt hamstrung by the advice she received from all corners, including Obama, not to go after Sanders. “My team kept reminding me that we didn’t want to alienate Bernie’s supporters. President Obama urged me to grit my teeth and lay off Bernie as much as I could. I felt like I was in a straitjacket.”
Clinton has often likened Huma Abedin, her long-time aide and right-hand woman, to a daughter. It is for that reason, Clinton writes, that she refused to sideline Abedin in the aftermath of FBI director James Comey’s October letter revealing that his agency was examining new emails potentially relevant to the previously closed investigation into Clinton’s use of a private server. The batch of emails had been discovered on a computer belonging to Abedin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner, who was under FBI investigation for exchanging lewd messages with a teenage girl.
Abedin “looked stricken” by the news, Clinton writes. “Anthony had already caused so much heartache. And now this.”
“This man is going to be the death of me,” Abedin said, breaking down in tears.
Clinton hugged and consoled her aide, who started out with her as a 19-year-old intern in the early 1990s.
“After more than 20 years working with Huma, I think the world of her, and seeing her in such distress broke my heart … In the days that followed, some people thought I should fire Huma or ‘distance myself.’ Not a chance. She had done nothing wrong and was an invaluable member of my team. I stuck by her the same way she has always stuck by me.”
Jason Chaffetz, a former Republican congressman from Utah, is best known for his relentless focus on Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, during his tenure as the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
At Trump’s inauguration, Chaffetz was criticised for posting a photo of himself shaking hands with Clinton captioned: “So pleased she is not the president. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.”
But according to Clinton, she had mistaken Chaffetz for someone else: “I saw a man off to the side who I thought was Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee and incoming White House Chief of Staff. As I passed by, we shook hands and exchanged small talk. Later I realised it hadn’t been Priebus at all.”
It wasn’t just Chaffetz with whom Clinton had an awkward encounter on the day Trump was sworn in as president. At the post-inauguration lunch, she met then-representative Ryan Zinke, who now serves as Trump administration interior secretary.
Zinke brought his wife over to say “hello”, Clinton writes. “This was somewhat surprising, considering that in 2014 he called me the ‘antichrist’.”
She couldn’t help but quip, “You know, congressman, I’m not actually the antichrist.’”
“He was taken aback and mumbled something about not having meant it,” Clinton writes. “One thing I have learned over the years is how easy it is for some people to say horrible things about me when I’m not around but how hard it is for them to look me in the eye and say it to my face.”
In a lengthy middle section dedicated to the threat posed by Russia, Clinton takes aim at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
It was his website that published emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, as well as Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Assange has rejected allegations that the emails published on WikiLeaks came into its hands via the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 campaign, but Clinton disagrees.
“In my view, Assange is a hypocrite who deserves to be held accountable for his actions. He claims to be a champion of transparency, but for many years, he’s been helpful to Putin, one of the most repressive and least transparent autocrats in the world.
“It’s not just that WikiLeaks avoids publishing anything Putin won’t like and instead targets Russia’s adversaries – Assange actually hosted a television show on RT, Putin’s propaganda network, and receives adoring coverage there.”
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Obama said run
After she left the State Department in 2013, Clinton writes, she and Obama kept in regular touch. They met a few times for lunch, eating one summer on the terrace outside the Oval Office while dissecting the foreign policy challenges facing America.
“But gradually, as 2013 turned into 2014, our conversations turned more frequently to politics,” Clinton writes.
“President Obama knew the challenges facing Democrats. He never took his re-election for granted, and while it was a resounding win in 2012 (the legitimately resounding kind), he knew that his legacy depended to a large degree on a Democratic victory in 2016.
“He made it clear that he believed that I was our party’s best chance to hold the White House and keep our progress going, and he wanted me to move quickly to prepare to run. I knew President Obama thought the world of his vice-president, Joe Biden, and was close to some other potential candidates, so his vote of confidence meant a great deal to me.”
Sexism against female candidates
Clinton often revisits the role played by sexism and misogyny in her defeat, writing with the sort of freedom she seldom felt able to express on the campaign trail. She admits that past controversies, such as Whitewater, Travelgate and the email furore, played a part in the public’s perception of her. But she argues that the backlash was partly because she is a woman.
“Why am I seen as such a divisive figure and, say, Joe Biden and John Kerry aren’t? … What makes me such a lightning rod for fury? I’m really asking. I’m at a loss.
“I suspect that for many of us – more than we might think – it feels somehow off to picture a woman president sitting in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. It’s discordant to tune into a political rally and hear a woman’s voice booming (‘screaming,’ ‘screeching’) forth. Even the simple act of a woman standing up and speaking to a crowd is relatively new.”
Constantly pilloried for being insufficiently progressive, Clinton contemplated proposing a policy of universal income. She had drawn inspiration from a model in Alaska, under which oil revenues are used to fund an annual dividend for every man, woman, and child living in the state.
“Once you capitalise the fund, you can provide every American with a modest basic income every year,” Clinton writes while detailing the potential proposal. “Besides cash in people’s pockets, it would also be a way of making every American feel more connected to our country and to one another – part of something bigger than ourselves.
“I was fascinated by this idea, as was my husband, and we spent weeks working with our policy team to see if it could be viable enough to include in my campaign. We would call it ‘Alaska for America.’ Unfortunately, we couldn’t make the numbers work.”
Clinton had not even entertained the thought of a loss to Trump, describing herself as “shell-shocked” as the returns came in. “I hadn’t prepared mentally for this at all,” she writes. “There had been no doomsday scenarios playing out in my head in the final days, no imagining what I might say if I lost. I just didn’t think about it.”
As Trump inched closer to victory, Clinton could barely breathe.
She wondered to herself what might happen next. Although Clinton phoned Trump to congratulate him in what she characterises as a “perfectly nice and weirdly ordinary” call, another part of her brain registered that her opponent led chants of “lock her up” and vowed to send her to prison as she stood beside him in one of their debates.
When all was said and done, Clinton writes, it was just her and Bill.
“Bill was watching Trump’s speech on television. He couldn’t believe it. Neither could I. Eventually everyone left, and it was just us. I hadn’t cried yet, wasn’t sure if I would. But I felt deeply and thoroughly exhausted, like I hadn’t slept in 10 years. We lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Bill took my hand, and we just lay there.”