Clintons Accuse Sanders of Falsely Labeling HRC as 'Establishment'

Bill and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail

Pushback over the Human Rights Campaign endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president this week included Bernie Sanders dismissing it as an effect of the "establishment" that backs the former first lady, senator and secretary of State.

Clinton doesn't like that label and has since twice portrayed herself as coming to the defense of HRC from attacks from Sanders — who she suggested is the true "establishment" figure because he's been in Congress so long. Then on Thursday, Sanders clarified his comments to MSNBC, refocusing criticism on the leaders of the groups, not the organizations themselves.

"I have to say I didn't understand that at all," Clinton told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who asked about Sanders grouping her as part of the "political establishment" when explaining why HRC and Planned Parenthood would endorse her campaign over his. 

"The Human Rights Campaign has been in the forefront of making sure that LGBT Americans are not discriminated against," said Clinton. "They helped to lead the battle for marriage equality. I really don't understand what he means by that. These are two of the really great human rights, progressive organizations in our country. I've worked with both of them a long time. I've worked to get results for the people that they represent and serve."

"But, are you the establishment?" pressed Blitzer. 

"I just don't understand what that means," said a smiling Clinton, before suggesting the label more appropriately applies to Sanders because he's been in Congress since 1990, first in the House and now in the Senate. 

Clinton also raised the issue while campaigning in Burlington, Iowa on Wednesday. Even former president Bill Clinton has started defending HRC against the "establishment" label, saying on Wednesday during a campaign speech, "We got people from Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign fund who are campaigning for her. That's another disagreement in the primary: Hillary does not consider Planned Parenthood a member of the establishment, and I don't see how anybody else could."

Whether HRC leaders are indeed "grassroots" or "establishment" — and whether the group has supported Clinton because of that — has suddenly become a big part of the presidential primary debate. HRC and the other groups started speaking out against Sanders, as well.

"We share @PPact's disappointment in Sanders' attacks," wrote the HRC on Twitter. "@HRC has proudly taken on the establishment & fought for LGBT people for over 30 years."

"Fighting for health, reproductive rights and LGBT rights is the establishment?" asked Clinton adviser John Podesta on Twitter. 

Then HRC, with its more than 500,000 followers, started sharing a series of sarcastic tweets with the hashtag #ImSoEstablishment. 

"#ImSoEstablishment that I support @HRC and @PPact," said one. 

#ImSoEstablishment that I lead & fight every day for #LGBTQ equality in the workplace, & pub. accomodations," said another.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow first interviewed Sanders on Tuesday, and when asked whether he'd tried and failed to win the endorsements of HRC, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, Sanders said, "I would love to have the endorsement of every progressive organization in America." He of course pointed out his own endorsements from Democracy for America and

Then he called those groups grassroots while seeming to label the Clinton-supporting groups as establishment. That's not a popular thing to be these days, not with the anti-Washington fervor that's helped propel both Donald Trump and Sanders into contention for their party nominations.

"We are taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we are taking on the political establishment," explained Sanders. 

"Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time and some of these groups are in fact part of the establishment," he said. "I will challenge anybody with regard to my record on LGBT issues."

Sanders cited his vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act, for example, which Clinton originally supported and her husband signed into law. And elsewhere on social media Sanders shared a copy of a pride month proclamation he made as mayor of Burlington dating way back to June 1985.

But on Thursday, Sanders went even further in analyzing what led HRC and others to endorse Clinton. He put the blame on the leaders of those groups being part of the establishment, clarifying that he doesn't see the organizations themselves or their missions the same way.

"The question was the endorsement," he told MSNBC's Kasie Hunt. "I  am a very, very strong supporter of Planned Parenthood. I think they are doing a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances… Strong supporter of the Human Rights fund, and I have I think a 100 percent voting record for all of these organizations.  What I said in response to a question about endorsements — what I meant to say anyhow — is that sometimes the grassroots are asking, 'How does it happen if somebody has a 100 percent voting record in support of your issue and doesn't get endorsed?' And sometimes the leadership of an organization might look at the world a little bit different than the grassroots."

The latest congressional scorecard from HRC does show Sanders with a 100 percent rating, which he's scored consistently even while Clinton was in the Senate. While representing New York, Clinton scored 95 percent during the 110th congress, 89 percent in the 109th, and 88 percent in the 108th. 

HRC president Chad Griffin is indeed a Clinton acolyte, who touts himself as "a veteran of the Clinton White House communications team and a native of Arkansas" in his bio on the HRC website. He's from Hope, Arkansas and campaigned for Bill Clinton back in 1992, then becoming part of the first administration, even halting his college education to take the job.

When introducing the candidate to an HRC crowd last year, Griffin shared slides of himself as a teenager in Arkansas with Hillary Clinton as the state's first lady. Everyone had a good laugh about it at the time.

"I've known Hillary Clinton for a long time, like a really long time — like a really, really long time," he said while introducing her, showing off the photos. "Those photos were taken when I was a teenager — a few years ago — living in Arkansas."

Griffin went on to share an anecdote about meeting Clinton after becoming HRC president "maybe a few decades later." 

"Then she very quickly says, 'I was the first 'HRC' in your life,'" he remembered fondly. "Indeed, she was." 

But HRC's endorsement for president isn't up to just one person. With its announcement, the group was clear the endorsement indicates a unanimous vote among its 32 community leaders.

Meanwhile, the primary race is coming down to the last few days in Iowa, with caucuses set to begin on February 1. A new CNN/ORC poll out on Thursday showed Sanders ahead with 51 percent support versus Clinton's 43 percent. He leads in New Hampshire polls, as well.

Watch the original Sanders comments to Maddow: