NEW YORK — Donald Trump says he took the moral high ground at the first presidential debate by not mentioning the infidelities of former President Bill Clinton. But he hinted at them, talked about them immediately afterward and then sent his campaign’s top backers out to do the same.
“An impeachment for lying,” Trump said Thursday at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, referring to the effort to remove Bill Clinton from office for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “Remember that? Impeach.”
The Republican nominee’s decision to dredge up the former president’s sexual history is a risky move in his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose own team isn’t fazed by the attack line. Clinton was asked on her campaign plane whether she has an obligation to speak out if Trump brings up her husband’s infidelities. Her answer was a terse “No.”
Trump critics say it all could backfire, elevating Clinton in the eyes of female voters and motivating her base.
“The whole notion of trying to get Hillary Clinton to pay for Bill Clinton’s infidelities is just strategically a bad choice,” said Katie Packer, a longtime Republican strategist opposed to Trump’s candidacy. Women in particular, she said, see it as cruel.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said Trump’s reference to Bill Clinton’s indiscretions was his low point Monday night among the group of voters with whom he watched the debate.
“They were laughing about it because they thought that was Trump at his worst,” Luntz said, adding that undecided voters are especially turned off by personal attacks.
The effort also risks drawing attention to the thrice-married Trump’s own unflattering history with women. His first marriage ended following a well-publicized affair, and two of his top advisers, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have had their own well-documented infidelities. The three have had nine wives combined.
Trump first touched on Bill Clinton’s sexual past the weekend before the debate, threatening to seat Gennifer Flowers in the front row. She has said she and Clinton had an affair and he has admitted to one sexual encounter. She didn’t appear.
Trump did not directly mention Bill Clinton’s affairs on stage with the Democratic nominee, but did make a veiled reference.
“You want to know the truth? I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself: I can’t do it. I just can’t do it,” he said on stage.
Moments after the debate ended, Trump raised Bill Clinton’s affairs unprompted, in response to a question about Hillary Clinton’s performance.
“I’m very happy I didn’t mention Bill’s indiscretions because that’s out of respect,” he told The Associated Press, adding that he’d held his tongue because the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, was in the audience.
That restraint didn’t last. In talking points later distributed by the campaign and obtained by the AP, Trump supporters were advised that “Mr. Trump has never treated women the way Hillary Clinton and her husband did when they actively worked to destroy Bill Clinton’s accusers.”
The document mentions Flowers, Lewinsky and Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state worker who sued Clinton for sexual harassment. The former president eventually agreed to an $850,000 settlement with Jones, but acknowledged no wrongdoing.
Trump supporters are advised to say they are not “blaming Hillary for Bill’s infidelities,” but rather are pointing out that she has “been an active participant in trying to destroy the women” who have come forward with a claim.
His backers got the message. Giuliani said Bill Clinton “disgraced this country with what he did in the Oval Office.”
As for Hillary Clinton, Giuliani said, “After being married to Bill Clinton for 20 years, if you didn’t know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her that she was telling the truth, then you’re too stupid to be president.” That was in an interview posted by a reporter from the news website Elite Daily.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge told MSNBC on Wednesday, “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.”
While Hillary Clinton’s aides aren’t thrilled about having her marriage back in the spotlight, they argue Trump’s new focus prevents him from making an affirmative case for his candidacy and only underscores the concerns some voters have with his temperament.
Said spokesman Brian Fallon, “She’s not wired in the same way he is, prone to outbursts.”
GOP strategist Packer, who has spent years working to draw women to the Republican Party, said independent, Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning women alike don’t blame Clinton for her husband’s affairs or for being angry with the women he slept with. And reminders of them only boost her popularity.
“Hillary is never stronger than when she was when she’s a victim,” Packer said.
Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer in Des Moines, Iowa, and Steve Peoples in New Bedford, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
Follow Jill Colvin on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/colvinj