Donald Trump jumped headlong into Bill Clinton’s past sex scandals right before the presidential debate on Sunday, appearing with three women who have accused the former president of misconduct and a rape survivor whose assailant Hillary Clinton represented decades ago.
The event capped days of speculation over whether Trump would return to a risky strategy he has used when under attack over his own treatment of women – casting Hillary Clinton as an enabler for her husband.
Trump called the women – Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Kathy Shelton –“courageous,” and each of the women made short statements either in support of Trump or critical of the Clintons. Trump’s campaign referred to the press conference as “debate prep,” signaling that the sex scandals could spill out onto the debate stage tonight.
Trump has raised the issue in the past when he has been challenged over his own prior comments about women. He raised the stakes on Sunday night, as his campaign faces its biggest crisis over his own lewd comments, revealed in a 2005 video.
None of the claims by the three women who appeared with Trump and have accused Bill Clinton of misconduct have been proven by a finding of a court, and Bill Clinton has denied wrongdoing in each case. For a primer on the accusations by each of the women, see a post by my colleague Glenn Kessler.
In early May, after Democrats began to focus on his controversial past comments on women’s issues, he called Hillary Clinton an “unbelievably nasty, mean enabler” who “destroyed” the lives of her husband’s mistresses and accusers.
In the first presidential debate, Trump gave himself credit for not saying something “extremely rough” about the Clinton affairs. His self-described restraint came after Hillary Clinton name-checked Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe who has accused Trump of making demeaning comments about her weight and ethnicity.
In a videotaped statement issued Friday night, Trump apologized for his comments in the 2005 video but said they paled in comparison to what Bill Clinton had done. And today, after dozens of Republicans had withdrawn their support, Trump re-tweeted a headline from a right-wing website quoting three women who have made allegations against Bill Clinton and call Hillary an “enabler” who sought to silence them.
The strategy is risky. The claim that Hillary Clinton worked to silence Bill Clinton’s accusers largely rests on assumptions that are in dispute.
Critics say that Hillary Clinton, who addressed her husband’s infidelities with him privately in the 1980s, had reason to know that some of the allegations of infidelities were true when she discredited them publicly. Clinton has said her husband deceived her and she believed him.
But Clinton has also come under fire for the personal nature of some of her statements about the women.
In 1992, she dismissed an allegation of a long consensual affair made by Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas cabaret singer who sold her story to a supermarket tabloid after having previously denied an affair. In an interview that same year, Hillary Clinton called Flowers “some failed cabaret singer who doesn’t have much of resume to fall back on.” She said she would “crucify” Flowers in front of a jury. Six years later, Bill Clinton admitted to a sexual encounter with Flowers.
The campaign hired a private investigator to look into the claims of more than two dozen women during the 1992 presidential campaign, but Betsey Wright, a campaign aide at the time, has told The Post that Hillary Clinton was not involved in the decision to hire him.
When allegations surfaced in 1998 that Bill Clinton had an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton went on national television to assure Americans that her husband’s denials were true and she blamed the controversy on a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Bill Clinton later admitted to an inappropriate relationship and was impeached for lying about it. In a private conversation with a close friend, Diane Blair, Hillary Clinton called Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon,” according to Blair’s archived papers.
As the scandals were playing out in 1998, Trump was actually one of Bill Clinton’s defenders. When a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, sued Bill Clinton claiming sexual harassment, Trump called her a “loser.” And he suggested that if he were a candidate, he would face similar controversies. “Can you imagine how controversial that would be? You think about him with women. How about me with women.”
Among the accusers are also Broaddrick, who alleges Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, and Willey, a White House aide who says Clinton groped her in the Oval Office. Clinton has denied those allegations.
But they have forced Hillary Clinton to walk a fine line on sexual assault. In November, she sent out a tweet saying that assault victims deserve to be believed.
At a public forum in December, a questioner confronted Clinton and asked her whether her comment also applied to her husband’s accusers. “I would say that everybody should be believed at first,” she said, “until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”