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Watch: Hillary Clinton defends ties to Wall Street by invoking 9/11

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At Saturday night's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders lit into Hillary Clinton for her links to big finance. "Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been a major, the major, campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton?" he asked, implying that her ties to Wall Street were compromising. The exchange got heated, culminating in an impassioned Clinton defending her Wall Street ties by an unusual reference — 9/11:

I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.

The argument was jarring — it sounded a little like Clinton was defending her relationship with finance as a means of of fighting al-Qaeda. Later in the debate, CBS's John Dickerson read a tweet about it — "I've never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now" — and asked Clinton to respond. She didn't back down, saying her real point was that she met people during the process of rebuilding New York:

Well, I'm sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. So, yes, I did know people. I've had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds say, 'I don't agree with you on everything, but I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I'm going to support you.' And I think that is absolutely appropriate.

Clinton won applause for that, and Sanders was quick to cede a point. "I applaud Secretary Clinton" for her work rebuilding New York after 9/11, he said. But Sanders went on to insist Wall Street's influence on a candidate, in any form, was cancerous:

At the end of the day, wall Street today has enormous economic and political power. Their business model is greed and fraud. And for the sake of our economy, they must — the major banks — must be broken up.

All in all, it was a very odd exchange for the two leading Democrats to be having on national television.