ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump’s campaign sought to intimidate Hillary Clinton and embarrass her husband by seating women who have accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual abuse in the Trump family’s box at the presidential debate here Sunday night, according to four people involved in the discussions.
The campaign’s plan, which was closely held and unknown to several of Trump’s top aides, was thwarted just minutes before it could be executed when officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates intervened. The commission officials warned that, if the Trump campaign tried to seat the accusers in the elevated family box, security officers would remove the women, according to the people involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential.
The gambit to give Bill Clinton’s accusers prime seats was devised by Trump campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner, the candidate’s son-in-law, and approved personally by Trump. The four women — three of whom have alleged that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them years ago — were to walk in the debate hall at the same time as the 42nd president and confront him in front of a national television audience.
“We were going to put the four women in the VIP box,” said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who represents Trump in debate negotiations. “We had it all set. We wanted to have them shake hands with Bill, to see if Bill would shake hands with them.”
The four women — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton — sat with other ticketed members of the audience. Bill Clinton long has denied the allegations of Jones, Broaddrick and Willey. Shelton was 12 years old when she accused a 41-year-old man of raping her. Hillary Clinton was selected by a judge to defend the man, who eventually pleaded to a lesser charge.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf, the debate commission’s co-chairman and a former Republican National Committee chairman, caught wind of the plot on Sunday and immediately moved to put an end to it. Fahrenkopf tartly warned a Trump staffer that if the campaign tried to put the four women in the family box, security personnel would remove them, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversations.
“Fahrenkopf said, ‘no’ — verbally said ‘no,’ that ‘security would throw them out,’” Giuliani said.
That came shortly after commission officials told the Clinton campaign that they could not seat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) with Bill and Chelsea Clinton and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, in the Clinton family box. The discussions continued up until the debate programming began.
After issuing his warning, Fahrenkopf and co-chairman Mike McCurry, a former Clinton White House press secretary, took the stage to make pre-debate announcements.
At that point, the co-chairmen were not certain whether the Trump campaign would abide by Fahrenkopf’s order. A Republican strategist later said that it was only when Fahrenkopf saw Giuliani leading the women to other seats that he knew the campaign had backed down.
Giuliani said Bannon kept pushing to have the women come out until three minutes before the debate began.
“But we pulled it because we were going to have a big incident on national TV,” Giuliani said. “Frank Fahrenkopf stopped us, and we weren’t going to have a fight on national TV with the commission to start the debate.”
Bannon declined to comment late Sunday, but his role in coming up with the idea was confirmed by multiple Trump campaign advisers. Senior Clinton campaign officials said they were unaware of the Trump campaign’s plans to try to seat the women in the family box.
Giuliani was highly critical of Fahrenkopf in an interview after the debate Sunday and said the Trump campaign is considering asking for him to step aside before the third and final debate, scheduled for Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.
Informed of Giuliani's comments, Fahrenkopf declined to respond.
Giuliani said it was unfair that the commission has allowed Mark Cuban, a billionaire Trump tormenter and Clinton surrogate, to sit in the front row, but would not permit Bill Clinton’s accusers to sit in Trump’s family box.
“In the first debate with Mark Cuban, Fahrenkopf said we’ll make a deal and everybody will [be able] to approve who’s in the shot, and if it’s not family, they have a right to object and we have a right to object,” Giuliani said. “So we object. But 10 minutes before that debate, he tells us he can’t do anything about Cuban sitting in the first row, that security can’t throw him out.”
Giuliani said that experience led them to believe the campaigns could control their seats.
However, the staging of the second debate differed from the first.
In St. Louis, family members sat in an elevated box, while in Hempstead, N.Y., they were seated in the front row with other attendees.
“The women were outraged,” Giuliani said. “They were in the holding room and ready to go. No one was pushing them. They volunteered. But I knew the minute we got pushback that we had gotten into their heads. [Hillary Clinton] was rattled. They were rattled.”