The first presidential debate was a true test of one of the Trump campaign’s favorite strategies for handling criticism of the candidate: Declaring “I know Hillary Clinton is, but what is Trump?” Could they plausibly argue that it’s Clinton who’s the real sexist, not Trump, after millions of Americans watched him demonstrate his deep misogyny for 90 minutes straight? No, but they’re going to try anyway — even though Republicans are basically begging them not to.
While doing his own spin after the debate, Trump praised himself for the great restraint he showed in not saying something “extremely rough” to Clinton about her husband’s infidelities. Surrogates including Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway parroted the line in their own post-debate analysis.
The argument was ridiculous, but maybe they were just desperate to find something to praise in Trump’s performance? Apparently not. On Wednesday CNN obtained talking points that show Trump supporters are now being instructed to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs to counter questions about Trump’s feud with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Per CNN:
“Mr. Trump has never treated women the way Hillary Clinton and her husband did when they actively worked to destroy Bill Clinton’s accusers,” one talking point reads.
“Hillary Clinton bullied and smeared women like Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky,” reads another.
“Are you blaming Hillary for Bill’s infidelities? No, however, she’s been an active participant in trying to destroy the women who has come forward with a claim,” reads a third.
There are already many examples of the plan in action. While telling BuzzFeed that she’s not aware of the existence of any Clinton scandal talking points, Conway mentioned, “The issue is not simply that Bill Clinton cheated on Hillary numerous times throughout their marriage. The issue is how Hillary Clinton treated the women in her husband’s life. She attacked them. Some of them have said their lives were ruined.”
Wednesday morning on Fox News, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, called Hillary an “enabler” of Bill’s behavior. Representative Chris Collins told MSNBC that “the women that Bill Clinton was involved with saw the wrath of Hillary Clinton.” In another MSNBC interview, Arkansas attorney general Leslie Rutledge said, “If we want to dig back through the ‘90s on comments made about women, we can certainly look to Secretary Clinton referring to Monica Lewinsky as a neurotic loony toon.”
And here’s Representative Marsha Blackburn making a nonsensical pivot to Bill’s cheating on MSNBC. In the same breath, she acknowledges that Trump calling a beauty queen fat won’t help him with female voters, and suggests Hillary is thinking, “maybe I should not have been so vindictive toward some of those women.”
On a related note, some Trump supporters took a cue from the candidate and tried to defend him by calling Machado fat — and slutty. As the Daily Beast reports, right-wing sites picked up on false rumors that she appeared in porn films. Machado was also attacked for appearing in Playboy topless, though Melania Trump has modeled nude and Donald Trump appeared on the magazine’s cover. Newt Gingrich reportedly said at a Log Cabin Republicans dinner on Wednesday night, “You are not supposed to gain 60 pounds the year you are Miss Universe.”
Many Republicans who are less zealously pro-Trump have made it clear that they would like their nominee to stop launching sexist attacks against both Machado and Clinton. There isn’t much public evidence to prove that Hillary was “vindictive” toward Bill’s accusers, but there are many reasons to believe that relitigating the former president’s infidelities is a losing strategy.
Republican strategists Tim Miller and Katie Packer, who do not support Trump, told NBC News that in focus groups conducted before the primaries, they found the attack was ineffective with female swing voters.
“These voters were completely turned off and disgusted by it,” Miller said. “We found time and again these attacks turned Hillary into a victim and that it engendered sympathy for her.”
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers agreed that the strategy is likely to backfire. Hillary’s popularity rose to 67 percent at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, and the issue will draw attention to Trump’s three marriages, including his very public affair with Marla Maples.
“That’s a distraction away from the high ground he’s got. I think talking about the economy and about how the Democrats have failed the economy and the working poor is our high ground,” Senator David Perdue, a Trump supporter, told Politico. “All of this [about Bill Clinton] really doesn’t matter. People back home are concerned about the economy and security issues.”
That’s sensible advice, but Trump’s entire campaign is based on doing the opposite of the conventional political wisdom. Republicans can keep warning Trump to stop talking about ’90s sex scandals and focus on the issues, but they’re just increasing the chances that he’ll start reading from the Starr Report at rallies.