The national political debate is consumed with allegations of collusion with a foreign government, playing dirty in the election and giving preferential treatment to family and friends.
Familiar charges, no doubt, but there is a twist: In each of these cases, President Trump and his allies are making the accusations, and their target is Hillary Clinton — the Democrat vanquished in a presidential contest held nearly nine months ago.
For many Republicans, the 2016 election is still alive and well — a go-to counterargument as Trump’s agenda bogs down and questions multiply around the Trump campaign’s possible improper contacts with Russian officials.
The latest example came Monday night when Trump, in an address to a Boy Scouts Jamboree in West Virginia, chided Clinton for not working hard enough in key Midwestern states that unexpectedly turned red on election night.
“Do you remember that incredible night with the maps?” Trump asked the Scouts.
Earlier in the day, taking to Twitter, Trump asked why investigators and his “beleaguered” attorney general, Jeff Sessions, aren’t “looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?”
In both public pronouncements and on social media, the president and his allies — including the Republican National Committee — are arguing, often with scant evidence, that Trump’s former rival engaged in similar, if not worse, behavior. The mere mention of Clinton, who remains a reviled figure among Trump’s core supporters, also serves as a reminder of how much worse they think things would be if she were in the Oval Office.
“This certainly seems to be a preoccupation, and as far as I can tell, it’s unprecedented,” said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant and former RNC communications director.
Trump, in many respects, has never stopped reliving last year’s election. He still makes frequent references to his triumph over Clinton, even in official White House speeches. In an interview last week with New York Times reporters, he quickly mentioned Clinton’s failure while first lady to help pass a comprehensive health-care bill.
From the podium of the White House briefing room, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has also tried to shift the focus to Clinton.
“Look, I think if you want to talk about having relationships with Russia, I’d look no further than the Clintons,” she said, citing a speech former president Bill Clinton had given to a Russian bank, among other things.
More recently, the RNC has started making a habit of focusing on Clinton in research memos distributed to reporters, White House and Capitol Hill staffers, GOP party leaders and other Washington insiders.
One recent memo highlighted Clinton’s initial opposition to a set of Russian sanctions while secretary of state. Another detailed internal discussions among Clinton’s campaign staff — brought to light in hacked emails — about whether to make an issue during the primaries of fraud allegations related to the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
Yet another highlighted opposition research done last year by a Democratic consultant regarding a leading Trump associate, allegedly with the assistance of the Ukrainian Embassy — an exercise that Trump boosters have argued comes closer to collusion with a foreign government than anything proven about the Trump campaign.
Still another memo last week carried the subject header “Hillary Clinton” but was about another subject entirely: the governor’s race in Virginia. An RNC aide acknowledged that the use of Clinton’s name was an attempt to get more attention.
Republican operatives say Clinton remains fair game, even though she holds no government office and has given no indication that she plans to run for anything again. “The Democrats are completely divided and without a leader,” said RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens, adding that Clinton’s plans for a new advocacy group, Onward Together, “shows she isn’t trying to exit the political arena anytime soon.”
Republican hands say some of the focus on Clinton is the result of her being in the headlines recently, including stories last week about an investigation that found the U.S. Postal Service engaged in violations of federal law by pressuring managers to approve letter carriers taking time off to campaign for Clinton last fall.
During the recent Group of 20 summit, Trump also referred to Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, in a tweet after he caught flak for briefly turning over his seat to daughter Ivanka during a session with other world leaders. Claiming a double standard, Trump asserted that if the same thing had happened under a Hillary Clinton presidency, the “Fake News” would have cheered the move.
Undoubtedly, part of the reason that Clinton remains a popular target for Trump and his allies is that she remains a largely unpopular figure.
A Bloomberg News poll this month found 39 percent of Americans rating her favorably and 58 percent unfavorably. That hasn’t changed much since the election and is about where Trump stands: His favorable rating was 41 percent while his unfavorable rating was 55 percent in the same poll.
Among Republicans, Clinton is even more of an anathema. Only 11 percent of Republicans viewed her favorably in a Gallup poll last month.
“I don’t know if there’s some grand scheme here,” Barry Bennett, a Republican operative who advised Trump during the general election campaign, said when asked about all the attention Clinton is still receiving. “She’s a great motivator for our party. She makes Trump look popular.”
The focus on Clinton has also reverberated in conservative media, including on Fox News.
Before his recent exclusive interview with Donald Trump Jr. about his meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 presidential campaign, host Sean Hannity spent several minutes outlining unfavorable stories about Clinton and the Democrats, including the Ukrainian reporting. Saying much of the media was obsessed with coverage of the Trump campaign’s alleged Russian connections, Hannity said: “I pose this question to everybody in the media that’s forced to tune in tonight: Which is worse?”
More recently, Jesse Watters, another Fox News host, cited reports that the special counsel investigating Russia was expanding his probe into Trump’s business dealings before he became president.
“The fact that the Trump Organization is now allegedly being investigated and the Clinton Foundation is not really scares me,” Watters said, referring to the charity run by the former president, first lady and their daughter.
The latest cover of the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid, a publication with friendly ties to Trump, promised a “world exclusive” on the Russia scandal, alleging that “HILLARY FRAMED DONALD TRUMP!”
Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh said Trump’s continued focus on Clinton appears to be part of a broader plan by the White House to play to the president’s base, which also includes plans to travel to Ohio on Tuesday for the latest in a series of campaign rallies in states he won.
“Everything they’re doing is about keeping the base in place, because they know it’s going to get worse from here,” Marsh said, referring to the multiple Russia probes. “The Trump base loathes Hillary Clinton. She’s a great foil to muddy the waters on all these topics, whether it’s true or not.”
Other presidents have cited their predecessors as a means of contrasting policy choices or pleading patience to turn around what was inherited.
President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies often talked about having to overcome the economic mess left by his predecessor, George W. Bush. And President Ronald Reagan and his team continued to talk about the “malaise” of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But this dynamic is different, analysts say.
“What is absolutely unprecedented is the focus on someone who wasn’t president, who wasn’t the incumbent,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “Trump knows his base hates Hillary Clinton. He reminds them of why they should hate Hillary Clinton. It’s a way of making them feel good about the choice they made in November.”
Heye, the Republican operative, said Trump and his team would be better served by talking up his agenda for the country.
Jesse Ferguson, a former Clinton campaign spokesman, said that with few major accomplishments to tout, Trump seems mired in the past.
“He’s like the guy at work who can’t talk about anything but his high school football glory days because he hasn’t done anything with his life since,” Ferguson said.