Hillary Clinton’s campaign was noncommittal Friday about if, or when, it would release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks and other groups.
Instead, a day after she said during a debate that she would look into making them public, advisers sought to downplay the importance of the issue.
“I don’t think voters are interested in the transcripts of her speeches,” Clinton’s pollster, Joel Benenson, said during a Friday breakfast with reporters hosted by the Wall Street Journal.
Clinton’s lucrative career giving speeches has emerged as an issue in her tightening Democratic primary race with Bernie Sanders, who has cited her speech income to paint her as cozy with Wall Street interests.
Clinton made $21.6 million on the paid speaking circuit between the time she stepped down as secretary of state in 2013 and the start of her presidential campaign last April.
Nearly one in five of her speeches was delivered at events hosted by financial services companies. Sanders has hit Clinton for earning $675,000 for giving three speeches to Goldman Sachs in 2013.
Asked during a debate with Sanders on MSNBC on Thursday night if she would release the transcripts, Clinton said, “I will look into it. I don’t know the status, but I will certainly look into it.”
Campaign spokesman Brian Fallon provided no further details on Friday but instead compared Sanders to GOP operative Karl Rove, a widely disliked figure on the left.
“This subject has come up because Bernie Sanders, like Karl Rove before him, is trying to impugn Hillary Clinton’s integrity without any basis in fact,” he said in a statement. He called Sanders’ suggestions “character assassination by insinuation” and said that Sanders should either “have the courage to spell” out his accusations directly or “drop the subject.”
That was a tougher version of a similar tact Clinton herself took in a brief interview with MSNBC Friday, in which she said that “what’s really going on” is “an effort by the Sanders campaign to basically say, anybody who’s ever taken a donation, not just from Wall Street, but to take it to the natural conclusion from anybody, is bought and paid for. That is absolutely untrue and I know the American people have every right to ask those question and I have every right to answer them.”
She said she was not sorry she had given the speeches, adding that they were “a good way to communicate what I was seeing in the world, to answer question about that and my term as secretary of state.”
Clinton had been asked to release speech transcripts several times in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s debate. A reporter for the Intercept asked her if she would release the speeches after a town hall in Manchester on Jan. 23. Clinton laughed and continued shaking hands with town hall attendees, without answering the question.
The Washington Post has also asked Clinton’s campaign for copies of the speeches or transcripts of the events several times over the last two weeks, without answer.
Clinton has said that her speaking fees had no impact on her policy positions. At Thursday’s debate, she challenged Sanders to come up with examples of times her positions have changed as a result of Wall Street speaking fees or corporate donations, accusing him of engaging in “innuendo” on the subject.
“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly,” she said. “But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.”
During the debate, Sanders responded instead by decrying the role of corporate money in American politics more generally. But after the debate ended, Sanders’s strategist Tad Devine told MSNBC that he believes Clinton should release the speeches.
“My advice would be, don’t look into it too long, because it’s not going to go away until they come out, okay?” he said.
Clinton’s handling of the issue drew criticism Friday from veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, who advised the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Al Gore.
“That’s a continuing issue, and unless there’s something lethal in there, she should release them,” he said.
He said the failing to release the speeches would probably dog Clinton and potentially hurt her worse than revelations likely to be found in the texts, including if she potentially thanked bank executives for their support. “People assume and imagine that there’s something in there that’s worse than I’m sure what’s in there,” Shrum said.
Clinton has said she was paid to offer her views on the world, particularly foreign policy, after the conclusion of her term as secretary of state.
Some of those speeches, especially those delivered in the months just before the launch of her presidential campaign, were covered at the time by the media. For instance, she talked about the need for more bipartisanship and bemoaned a national “fun deficit” while talking to the American Camp Association for $260,000 in March.
But details of many of Clinton’s other speeches have not been released by her or her hosts. A review of some of her contracts that have been made public shows her representatives typically placed stringent restrictions on how her hosts could use her remarks.
Several Republicans running for president have also delivered speeches for pay, including Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, but so far those speeches have not become a contested issue in the GOP race. Bush told reporters Friday that he would be willing to have the transcripts of all of his speeches released.
Clinton has struggled to explain why she hit the speaking trail so hard after stepping down as secretary of state. She was widely panned as out of touch when she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in June 2014 that she and husband Bill Clinton were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001.
In a town hall sponsored by CNN on Wednesday, she said she accepted the invitations because other former secretaries of state had done so before her and she was not certain that she would run for president.
Shrum said that answer was unlikely to end the issue for Clinton.
“Along the way, they’ve got to find a better answer to the Wall Street speeches than ‘I didn’t know whether I was going to run for president,’ ” he said.
Asked at the same event why Clinton accepted $225,000 from Goldman Sachs per speech, she responded, “That’s what they offered.”
Documents and emails obtained by The Washington Post through public records requests at public universities, where Clinton gave several speeches with fees benefiting the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, show her fee was set by the Harry Walker Agency, which represents all three Clintons. Fees were not established by speaking hosts.
Indeed, when officials at UCLA learned from Harry Walker representatives that Clinton’s fee for the March 2014 speech would be $300,000, they asked if they could get a reduced rate for universities. They were told that $300,000 was the “special university rate,” internal university emails show.
Contracts from Clinton’s speeches at public universities also show that she asked the universities to pay to provide a stenographer for Clinton’s appearance, ensuring a transcript was compiled of her remarks.
The contract then indicated that the transcript would be owned by Clinton and she would hold control over its release. Presuming the language is standard throughout all of her contracts, it would suggest that Clinton has no contractual restrictions on releasing transcripts of speaking events.
Philip Rucker, Anne Gearan and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.