Donald Trump and his allies are dredging up the past marital infidelities of Hillary Clinton’s husband — a move of questionable benefit that is bewildering even some of his staunchest supporters.
The Republican nominee and his surrogates, under pressure to boost his standing with female voters and respond to Hillary Clinton’s accusations that he is a misogynist, are turning to an attack that has been tried repeatedly by the Clintons’ foes.
On Thursday, Trump spoke of the Clintons’ “sordid” history and made a reference to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which stemmed from his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. A campaign memo circulated the day before urged associates to mention Lewinsky and other women with whom Bill Clinton has been widely reported to have had affairs.
Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, who as House speaker led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton on perjury and obstruction charges, expressed dismay over the Trump campaign’s effort to revive the controversy.
“It’s totally the wrong direction to go,” Gingrich said. “He should not let them bait him into a swamp where they can revel in the mud.”
Nor does it speak to the broader question of where Trump would take a country that is thirsty for a change from the status quo.
“This stuff isn’t critical to the campaign or even relevant to the people we need to be winning,” said Carl Paladino, the hard-charging former New York gubernatorial nominee who is the Trump campaign’s co-chairman in that state.
“I’m not sure anyone gives a hell about Monica,” Paladino added.
Trump — whose own extramarital affair and resulting divorce were laid out in lurid detail by the circa 1990 New York tabloids — has said he has been mulling whether to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs in the next presidential debate.
Meanwhile, in the talking points sent around Wednesday, there were suggestions to frame Hillary Clinton as complicit in smear campaigns against the women involved.
“Mr. Trump has never treated women the way Hillary Clinton and her husband did when they actively worked to destroy Bill Clinton’s accusers,” according to one of the talking points, which were first reported by CNN.
In a Thursday interview on “The View,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said, “I’m not advising him to go there.”
But she defended the strategy. “It’s fair game to think about how Hillary Clinton treated those women after the fact. She called Monica Lewinsky a loony toon.”
Conway was referring to comments in a private conversation that Clinton had with her friend, political science professor Diane Blair, which Blair recorded in papers that were donated after her death to the University of Arkansas library.
Others on the right also brought up old allegations. Conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza tweeted Thursday: “Do young people know that in an admission of sexual abuse, Bill Clinton paid Paula Jones an $800,000 settlement?” (Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, had filed suit claiming that Clinton had sexually harassed her when he was governor; Clinton did not apologize or admit guilt in paying the out-of-court settlement, which was actually $850,000.)
Conway replied, also on Twitter: “Probably not. But Millennials don’t like Hillary anyway.”
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, an influential adviser who has been among those raising the subject of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, defended bringing them into the 2016 campaign.
“What I’ve said is that he can point out all of the questions around them and one of those questions is how Bill Clinton lied under oath, was one of two presidents ever impeached, and how Hillary didn’t stand up for an intern in the Oval Office,” Giuliani said. “Instead, she condemned her and called her all kinds of names. She says she stands up for victims of sexual predators, but she didn’t do it then. That was no victory for feminism.”
Clinton campaign officials theorized that Trump’s latest gambit reflected his own impulses, rather than a calculation on the part of his campaign high command.
“We’re convinced that very few people on his campaign actually think this is a smart strategy,” said Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. “It’s another case of the candidate’s impulsive, erratic instincts becoming the strategy.”
Resurrecting Bill Clinton’s sex scandals is a defensive move — and, some Trump allies worry, a desperate one — in the wake of Trump’s weak performance Monday in his first debate with Hillary Clinton.
One of the debate’s most memorable moments came when she attacked Trump for a history of insensitive comments about women, including humiliating Miss Universe Alicia Machado for gaining weight after she won the 1996 title of the Trump-owned beauty pageant.
After the debate, Trump said he had considered bringing up the Lewinsky affair then, but was constrained by the presence of the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, in the audience.
But at a rally on Thursday in Bedford, N.H., Trump brought up Bill Clinton’s impeachment several times.
“The American people have had it with years and decades of Clinton corruption and scandal. Corruption and scandal. And impeachment for lying. Impeachment for lying. Remember that? Impeach,” Trump said. “The Clintons are the sordid past. We will be the very bright and clean future.”
There is also a real possibility that bringing up Bill Clinton’s transgressions could backfire, by once again casting his wife in the role of a wronged spouse.
At the height of the Lewinsky scandal, the then-first lady rode a wave of public sympathy. Her favorability topped 65 percent in some polls, the highest she ever reached.
Bill Clinton’s own job approval reached 73 percent in the Gallup poll — its highest point — the week that he was impeached by the House, an indication in part that the public saw the punishment as a politically motivated move by the Republicans who controlled Congress. He was subsequently acquitted by the Senate.
Hillary Clinton, asked by reporters aboard her campaign plane whether she was concerned about Trump’s threat to bring up the darker chapters of her marriage, said it did not matter to her.
“He can run his campaign however he chooses. That’s up to him,” she said. “I’m not going to comment on how he runs his campaign. You’ll be able to see, we have two more debates, what he says and what I say.”
Anne Gearan in Chicago and Jenna Johnson in Bedford, N.H., contributed to this report.