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Hillary Clinton’s Attack on Wells Fargo Fits a Pattern

September 20, 2016, 8:28 PM UTC

Hillary Clinton continues demonstrating an unusual willingness to call out corporate bad actors by name, even as she courts big business support for her campaign.

The latest came Tuesday, when the Democratic presidential nominee posted an open letter to Wells Fargo customers, castigating the bank—and its leadership—for signing up millions of customers for online services they never requested.

The letter was timed to coincide with an appearance by Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf before the Senate Banking Committee, his first Congressional testimony since the scandal erupted. “He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch,” Clinton wrote. “There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America.”

Clinton’s outspokenness fits a pattern the candidate has established over the course of her run: When a company make headlines for abusive practices, even if the story is relegated to the business pages, she calls them out by name—something presidential candidates have rarely done.

She’s been at it since launching her bid. In a major economic address last July, she catalogued “shocking” stories of financial industry malfeasance, denouncing HSBC for “allowing drug cartels to launder money” and the banks embroiled in the Libor Scandal. “There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior,” she said, promising to prosecute individual executives. On several occasions, she’s laced into former Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli—this season’s poster boy for C-suite greed—over predatory pricing, at one rally calling him the “personification of the worst blind date that anybody in this audience has ever had.” Clinton has likewise name-checked Valeant Pharmaceuticals and, most recently, EpiPen maker Mylan Pharmaceuticals for jacking up their prices, pointing to her plan to force drugmakers to explain such increases.

And those weren’t the only corporate targets. The Democrat has also condemned companies seeking to shift their headquarters or operations abroad as a cost-cutting maneuver. Last December, she slammed Pfizer for its proposed merger with Allergan, a since-abandoned deal that would’ve enabled the company to relocate to low-tax Ireland. Ditto for Johnson Controls, an auto parts maker that advocated for the federal auto bailout during the financial crisis then pursued a tie-up with Tyco to move to Ireland. “Now, under the law, they call this an inversion,” Clinton told a New Hampshire crowd in February. “I call it a perversion, and I’m going after it.” This spring, she called out Carrier Corp. and Nabisco for announced plans to shut down U.S. operations and move them to locales with cheaper labor. “If a company like Nabisco outsources and ships jobs overseas, we’ll make you give back the tax breaks you received here in America,” she said in a March speech on the economy in Detroit. “If you aren’t going to invest in us, why should taxpayers invest in you?”

The campaign frames the tactic as part of a broader strategy to feature corporate do-gooders—those already engaged in profit-sharing with workers or environmental stewardship, for example—while applying some heat to bad actors. That is to say, Clinton isn’t hostile to big business but also won’t refrain from criticizing specific examples of what she sees as wrongdoing.

But it’s also a testament to an odd political moment, in which both parties are struggling to wrangle newly assertive populist energy from their bases. In the case of Wells Fargo, Clinton noted that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency Republicans remain keen to curb or dismantle, secured most of the $185 million fine slapped on the bank. She pledged to defend it; to hold executives accountable for misconduct on their watch; and to break up any financial institution that proves “too big to manage.” But that looked like a gentle knuckle-wrapping next to what Stumpf faced in the Banking Committee hearing from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The liberal powerhouse excoriated Stumpf for “gutless leadership;” accused him of compelling his employees to cheat customers so he could put “hundreds of millions of dollars” in his own pocket; and told him he should resign and be “criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has taken on many of the same companies that Clinton has criticized, in arguably more memorable fashion. The Republican nominee called Pfizer’s proposed inversion “disgusting.” When Nabisco announced plans to move some operations to Mexico, he pledged to swear off Oreos. And he spent months inveighing against Carrier’s decision to move manufacturing jobs to Mexico. “I wanna do the number on Carrier, folks,” he said at one point and promised to slap tariffs on their products.

Corporate interests appear to accept that Clinton won’t pursue punitive policies, if their campaign giving is any indication. To a degree not witnessed in modern elections, the Democratic presidential nominee is swamping her GOP rival in contributions from across industry sectors. And her camp has made outreach to business leaders a formal component of her campaign, successfully recruiting a gold-plated roster of executives that typically lean right but have endorsed her in part out of fear of a Trump presidency.

This year, big business is finding that tough love beats the available alternative.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Johnson Controls sought federal bailout money. It has been updated to reflect the fact that while Johnson Controls supported the auto bailout, it didn’t seek funds for itself.