The election that wouldn’t end will, in fact, never end.
America has two ex-candidates, the victorious Donald Trump and the vanquished Hillary Clinton who just can’t let it lie.
In a stunning interview Tuesday, Clinton, the former Democratic nominee, vented her still raw emotions and blazing bitterness over her defeat by Trump – pointing to Russia and FBI Chief James Comey as the key drivers of her loss.
Trump, for his part, rarely lets more than a few days go by without boasting about his outsider win. Then, remarkably for a victor, he disputes the result – claiming without evidence that millions of illegal voters handed Clinton a popular vote triumph.
The prospect of regurgitating the most bitter election on record must horrify Americans who were forced to live through it for roughly two years.
But given Clinton’s public anger over her loss and Trump’s unwillingness to move on, a long-range rhetorical rematch is inevitable, especially since Clinton has a book coming in the fall.
The President is extraordinarily touchy about the merest suggestion that his victory is not totally authentic. Clinton has now given her supporters, many of whom believe she was cheated out of breaking the highest, hardest glass ceiling in politics, even more reasons to view Trump as illegitimate.
And the President is unlikely to take a pass at Clinton’s unflattering description of his performance, including her renewal of her claim that he was unprepared for office.
He’s already taken to Twitter to respond to Clinton’s claims.
“FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?”
Clinton’s interview was so interesting because it was so unusual.
She was unplugged, candid and unvarnished, ditching the cautious, stilted political speak that has constrained her public persona for decades, seemingly now at a point of her life where she does not care what people think.
It was a side of Clinton that friends know well but has not often been much in evidence in her public life, as she has fought claims she is inauthentic and calculating.
“If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” Clinton said, thrusting herself back into the public spotlight before an audience watching the interview conducted by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour at the Women for Women International summit in New York.
“I was on the way to winning until a combination of (FBI Director) Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me and got scared off,” she said.
“The evidence for that intervening event is, I think, compelling, persuasive, and so we overcame a lot in the campaign,” Clinton said, also adding that she believed misogyny played a role in her defeat.
Clinton’s comments were so visceral and politically electrifying that it seems impossible that Trump can resist returning fire.
In fact, she seemed positively to be goading the President.
“If he wants to tweet about me, then I am happy to be the diversion because we have a lot of things to worry about,” Clinton told Amanpour.
“He should worry less about the election and my winning the popular vote than doing some other things that would be important for the country.”
And in another jab, she suggested that if Trump launched a fusillade on Twitter, it would be “better than interfering in foreign affairs.”
Trump has been struggling to assert his authority on Washington and appears to be pining for a genuine political foe that can become his foil.
A knock-down, drag-out feud with Clinton – a political figure as polarizing as himself – could cheer his base and rally Republicans who are still cool to him who also deplore the former secretary of state.
It might also prompt him to renew his charges that claims that Russia intervened in the election on his own behalf represent a plot framed by Democrats still chafing at Clinton’s loss.
While Clinton’s remarks went further than she has before in taking responsibility for her defeat, they were somewhat characteristic in the selective way that she rationalized it.
“I take absolute personal responsibility. I was the candidate, I was the person who was on the ballot. I am very aware of the challenges, the problems, the shortfalls that we had,” Clinton said.
“Did I make mistakes, oh my god, yes, you will read my confessions, my request for absolution. But the reason I believe we lost were the intervening events in the last 10 days.”
But blaming Comey for the loss appears to absolve Clinton of her campaign’s failure to effectively counter Trump’s electorally appealing message in industrialized Midwestern states that went red instead of their usual blue.
The Clinton campaign and Democrats believe that the intervention of Comey 11 days before Election Day depressed turnout among swing voters and badly damaged Clinton.
But on the other hand, Comey’s comments were related to the investigation into the private email server that Clinton set up as secretary of state, in apparent infringement of government guidelines. It was that issue and her handling of it throughout the campaign that helped revive questions about the character and honesty of the Clintons that had remained largely dormant since former President Bill Clinton left office in 2001.
Her performance did not impress some critics.
“She does what she does, which is play lip-service to the things that she thinks she is supposed to say but you can tell very quickly she doesn’t really mean it,” said S.E. Cupp, a CNN conservative commentator.
“She seems to be squarely blaming this on events around her.”
But Guy Cecil, who ran a pro-Clinton Super PAC last year, said on CNN after Clinton’s speech that the former secretary of state was justified in her complaints.
“It’s possible to say you take responsibility while also acknowledging what is very clear, what independent analysts have shown over and over again… which was that the Russian WikiLeaks and Comey had had an impact on the election and were probably determinative.”
The former secretary of state’s return to the spotlight on Tuesday will inevitably spark questions about whether she is considering a return to front-line politics.
Her remarks equally appeared calculated to show that Clinton believes she has a voice and a rightful place in the political fray.
But a confidant of Clinton told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny that “she is not running for anything – but she’s just not hiding.”
And it’s not clear that a revival of the Clinton wars will be welcomed by Democrats.
Liberals and progressives are also still battling over the 2016 election, in this case the primary campaign won by Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The party also needs to be looking for a new generation of leaders as it prepares for mid-term elections in 2018 and an attempt to unseat Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Yet its familiar faces – Barack Obama, Sanders and now Clinton – who appear to be attracting the most attention so far – underlining its weak bench of up-and-comers ready for the big time.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly identify the Women for Women International summit.