WASHINGTON — On the eve of a cross-country book tour seen as her opening gambit in the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton caused a political flap on Monday by saying her family was “dead broke” upon leaving the White House in 2001 and “struggled” to pay their mortgages on two homes.
Republicans seized on the comments to argue that the Democrat — now a multimillionaire who charges $200,000 per speech — is out of touch with middle-class Americans. The episode is the latest reminder of the increasingly partisan aura that surrounds the former secretary of state as she gets closer to making a decision about 2016.
During a one-hour prime-time special on ABC — a portion of which aired earlier in the day — Clinton also told news anchor Diane Sawyer that she considers the sharp criticism of her role in the terrorist attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 an argument in favor of a campaign.
“Actually, it’s more of a reason to run, because I do not believe our great country should be playing minor league ball,” she told Sawyer. “We ought to be in the majors. I view this as really apart from — even a diversion from — the hard work that the Congress should be doing about the problems facing our country and the world.”
The attacks in Benghazi killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, marring Clinton’s four-year tour as secretary and becoming a divisive political issue. Republican lawmakers have accused her and other Obama administration officials of hiding facts about the attacks and recently opened a select committee investigation.
Clinton said there was nothing she could have done differently to prevent the attacks.
“I take responsibility, but I was not making security decisions,” she said. She added, “I’m not equipped to sit and look at blueprints, to determine where the blast walls need to be or where the reinforcements need to be.”
To promote her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” which hits stores Tuesday, Clinton is traveling from coast to coast this month giving speeches, signing copies and sitting for network television interviews. The first, with Sawyer, aired Monday night.
Sawyer asked Clinton about reports that she has made an estimated $5 million delivering speeches since she left the State Department last year and that her husband, Bill Clinton — who earned $200,000 annually during his eight years as president — has made more than $100 million since leaving the White House in 2001.
“You have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt,” Clinton said. “We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”
Sawyer followed up with a reference to Hillary Clinton’s typical speaking fee of about $200,000. “Do you think Americans can understand five times the median income in this country for one speech?” she asked.
Clinton answered, “I thought making speeches for money was a much better thing than getting connected with any one group or company, as so many people who leave public life do.”
Her comments bore echoes of comments that caused political trouble for the past two Republican presidential nominees. In the 2008 campaign, Sen. John McCain, Ariz., said he was uncertain how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, owned. Four years later, Mitt Romney — a successful private equity investor — was criticized for making a $10,000 wager during a debate and other wealth-related gaffes.
Shortly after portions of Clinton’s interview were previewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “How out of touch is Hillary Clinton when ‘dead broke’ = mansions & massive speaking fees?”
America Rising, the leading Republican super PAC attacking Clinton in the run-up to the campaign, posted pictures of the Clintons’ “multi-million dollar mansions” in Chappaqua, N.Y., and Washington on its website.
When the Clintons left the White House in 2001, they had accrued an enormous amount of legal debt, much of it owed to Bill Clinton’s attorneys during impeachment proceedings.
In 1999, the couple bought a house in Chappaqua to establish Hillary Clinton’s residency in New York in advance of her 2000 Senate campaign. But they had so much debt that they needed a friend and campaign fundraiser, Terry McAuliffe — now the governor of Virginia — to put down $1.35 million as collateral on their $1.7 million loan.
Soon enough, however, both Clintons cashed in. In December 2000, Hillary Clinton signed an $8 million advance to publish her first memoir, “Living History.” Bill Clinton hit the paid-speaking circuit and received a reported $15 million advance for his memoir, “My Life.”
By 2004, according to federal financial disclosure forms, the Clintons had paid off their debts. During the 2008 campaign, the Clintons released tax returns showing they had earned $109 million over eight years.