• Politics

Q&A: David Brock on Attacking Bernie Sanders

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Correction appended, Feb. 24, 2016

If Robby Mook manages Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, former journalist David Brock rules the external Clinton machine.

He is a founder of Media Matters and Correct The Record—two groups that monitor and “correct” news reports about Clinton; and Super PACS American Bridge and Priorities USA, which work to help Democratic candidates, especially Clinton.

All the pushback on misleading news reports that Bernie Sanders won the Latino vote (he didn’t) in Nevada, trackers following Sanders catching his every gaffe or pushing polling showing Clinton winning amongst African Americans in South Carolina—those all come from from Brock.

TIME sat down with Brock at his Nashua, N.H., on a snowy Monday afternoon to get his take on Clinton’s campaign. Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

Q. What has the Clinton team failed to do to stop the continued Benghazi questions, the dampen the email talk? How does the whole operation need to be more aggressive?

A. The Benghazi pseudo-scandal has already been stopped in its tracks. … There are ongoing inquiries but these are ex-post facto classification exercises and as the news reported at of the end of last week showed, Secretary Powell, aides to Secretary Rice— what they’re going through to release Secretary Clinton’s emails, the same process that would apply in those cases too. There’s no wrongdoing here, there never has been. So it can’t quite be put to bed but I don’t see it doing any long-term damage to her candidacy.

Q. Is a candidate really responsible for online commenters who claim to be supporters? Bernie has condemned the Bernie Bros sexism. There are people online who say they are against Hillary and for Bernie because he is a Jew. Is she responsible for that?

A. I don’t think the candidate would be directly responsible for things that their supporters say, but when it gets to a certain level they ought to say cut it out. I was happy to see that Senator Sanders yesterday on the Sunday shows did say that if there’s sexism on the part of his supporters, that’s not something he supports and they ought to cut it out. So that’s all I ask. But I have to say that there’s a lot of conversation about the trouble that Secretary Clinton is having in winning the youth vote and that is true. But if you spend some time online and you consume social media, which is how all these folks are getting their news, you can see that a combination of Senator Sanders’ supporters, Republicans, various people trolling have the Internet filled with vicious lies and misinformation about Hillary, so it’s no wonder that there’s this impression among people who are consuming all that about her character, about whether they really feel like they can trust her. I think that’s terrible. Some of the language used against her in these forums I won’t say now. So it’s a factor and people should just be aware of it.

Q. Is there still a lot of sexism against female candidates?

A. Certainly going back to 2008 during the primary Secretary Clinton was subjected to various forms of sexism overt, subtle that were detrimental. Fortunately Senator Obama was not subjected to something similar; the culture seemed to tolerate sexism and not racism. We ought not tolerate either. This time around, I think there’s less overt sexism. I think the Republicans are trying to learn from their mistakes about attacks on women because the women’s vote will backfire. But you do still see subtle things like just last week the tone of Secretary Clinton’s voice—look when there’s applause in a crowd every candidate struggles to be heard over the applause—but to have everybody obsessed for three or four days questioning over whether she was shouting or not, it does betray a subtle sexism, yes.

Q. Do you believe Bernie Sanders has ever allowed a campaign contribution to influence an official act?

A. I do know there’s been some hypocrisy here. It came out over the weekend—I go to the DSCC retreats myself. I’ve seen Senator Sanders myself sitting on the deck of a nice hotels talking to lobbyists, talking to people from the financial sector who are there supporting the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and they’ve supported his Senate races. So I think the purity bubble here is about to burst. I think that what we’re seeing is politics as usual. I’m not making accusations that he’s done anything. I won’t make those accusations in the way they’ve made them against Secretary Clinton because we don’t have any evidence of that. … Lets get real here and let’s not having the pot calling the kettle black.

Q. Bernie Sanders does not have a real opposition research department and he does not even know how to say “oppo research.” Are you, MM, CTR, Bridge and Priorities fighting an asymmetrical war against him?

A. I don’t know about the internal workings of the Sanders campaign but they’re certainly very quick to get whatever opposition research will be considered opposition research out into the public domain. For example in the debate last week, when Secretary Clinton said there was no time that she changed her view, I heard on the news that the Sanders campaign quickly put out something from a book that Senator Warren had written to try to contradict her. Whether they call it opposition research or not, someone is doing that work, and I object to some of it and some of it is the basis of false accusations that they’ve made against Secretary Clinton. We do opposition research but we haven’t leveled any false accusations against Senator Sanders and we won’t.

Q. Clinton pollster Joel Benenson said that Bernie Sanders is running “the most negative campaign” of any Democrat in primary history. Do you agree?

A. I think so. … All of these attacks on Secretary Clinton at the end of thee day are character attacks. They’re very personal they’re totally unwarranted and it’s especially troubling because he’s using the Republican playbook against Secretary Clinton these are exactly the kinds of attacks certainly after she wins the nomination that they will be launching, and I think it’s very troubling that he’s using these same tactics. It’s false, it’s wrong and it’s about the time that Secretary Clinton speaks up about that.

Q. When you called on Bernie to release his health records, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta told you on Twitter to “chill out.” Where do you see the line you cannot cross with Bernie?

A. Correct the Record, which is the super PAC that I have, coordinates its activity with the campaign. … Now, that doesn’t mean that everything I say or do is run through the campaign. John—we don’t always agree on the exact right approach and I took him at his word and I got the message.

Q. What is the most effective line of attack against Sanders? And what do you think will make him lose support among his biggest fans?

A. One, from watching the debate last week, front and center is the question of whether he’s qualified to be commander in chief. He failed that test in that debate. He was asked twice questions about Afghanistan, he didn’t seem to know the answers. He clearly didn’t understand the power structure in North Korea. He thinks Iran and Saudi Arabia can work together when they’re actually enemies. I think he really failed the commander-in-chief test and everybody knows that Hillary Clinton passes that test with flying colors.

The second thing is his notions, policy-wise, don’t add up. They’re very sketchy and that extends from his plan to reform Wall Street where Hillary Clinton had to take him to school and basically explain Dodd Frank. I thought that was quite embarrassing because that’s his signature issue. And it extends to health care, where he doesn’t have a credible and plausible way of paying for his plan.

Three is the issue that President Clinton raised yesterday, which is hypocrisy. And that goes to the question of his fundraising at the DSCC, the financial sector. It goes to pledges that he’s not going to run a negative campaign and breaking the pledges. It goes to a promise that he won’t increase taxes to pay for his healthcare plan, and when the plan was released it had middle class tax hikes in it.

Q. Is there a Democratic purity test?

A. The Clintons came in 1990s, they remade this party. Senator Sanders wants to take us back to a time [of the 1960’s and 1970’s] of those ideological purity tests. And it can’t do any good it can only divide Democrats. The stakes in this election—we can’t afford to be divided.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement from a Feb. 20 caucus event in Nevada to Bernie Sanders. Sanders was not present.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com