The airwaves and newspaper headlines were filled with talk of infidelity and impeachment. When the votes were counted, the result was a shock: For only the second time since the Civil War, the president’s party had gained seats in the House of Representatives.
Republicans learned a lesson. “It was a huge blunder,” said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist, recalling the party’s 1998 midterm debacle and the sympathy the attacks on Bill Clinton engendered for the president and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
So it is inexplicable to Reed and many other Republicans that Donald Trump is seeking to recover from his stumbling debate performance by dredging up Bill Clinton’s womanizing and escalating his attacks on a former Miss Universe whose transgression, Trump suggests, was putting on a few pounds.
In a predawn barrage unleashed Friday on Twitter, Trump made an unsubstantiated charge that Alicia Machado, the 1996 pageant winner, had performed in a sex tape. He also asserted that Hillary Clinton helped Machado become a U.S. citizen just so the Democratic presidential nominee could cite the former beauty queen's past difficulties with Trump in an attack during Monday night’s debate.
“Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check sex tape and past) Alicia M. become a U.S. citizen so she could use in the debate?” Trump asked.
“This is…unhinged,” Clinton replied in a Tweeted response. “Even for Trump.”
A campaign spokeswoman denied that Clinton or her campaign had anything to do with Machado gaining citizenship last month.
Also, there is no evidence Machado, an actress, has produced a sex tape.
Posting on Instagram, Machado wrote Friday that she would continue to speak out against the Republican presidential nominee, who belittled her as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” during her Miss Universe reign. “I will continue standing up and sharing my story,” Machado said.
Trump’s lashing out, less than six weeks before the election, underscored how his campaign seems driven more by irritable impulse than any strategic imperative.
The personal attacks seem especially unlikely to win Trump support among Latinos and women, two important voting blocs in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida and New Hampshire.
Trump had his defenders.
“Donald Trump is setting the record straight and he’s using social media,” North Carolina Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers said on MSNBC. “That’s the kind of president we need. Someone who goes right to the root of the problem.”
But others, like Reed, were plainly confounded.
“It makes no sense,” said the veteran campaign consultant, a political strategist for the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “This state of the game should be about addition — adding voters — not alienating and subtracting.”
Trump’s response, however, is part of a pattern of personalizing disputes to his political detriment: with an Indiana-born judge who, the GOP nominee suggested, could not be fair in a civil lawsuit against Trump because he was Latino; with a Gold Star mother, whose husband spoke out against Trump at the Democratic National Convention; with Machado, whom he accused of violating the standards of pageant beauty by putting on weight.
Unbowed by charges of racism and the demonstrable falsehood of his assertion that President Obama was not born in this country, Trump is also sticking to his untrue claim that Clinton originated the “birther” movement that questioned Obama's legitimacy.
“Everybody knows it happened,” Trump said in an interview with cable station NH1 after a rally Thursday in Bedford, N.H., noting Obama was forced to release his birth certificate to address the false charges against him. “I’m very proud of that.”
But it is Trump’s attacks on Bill Clinton and the former president’s extramarital affairs that are particularly fraught, given Trump’s three marriages and own admitted adultery, and the way the issue previously backfired on Republicans
Trump raised Clinton's infidelity earlier this year, along with an unproven rape allegation, when Hillary Clinton and her allies attacked the Republican candidate’s repeated derogatory comments about women. She soon backed off — as did Trump.
But the mention of Machado at the end of Monday night's debate, which clearly caught Trump by surprise, provoked him anew.
He threatened to bring up Bill Clinton’s adulterous relationships at his next debate with Hillary Clinton, Oct. 9, and a leading surrogate, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has urged him on — though Giuliani has also been married three times and engaged in a highly publicized extramarital affair.
Trump was “too reserved and gentlemanly,” Giuliani told CNN, saying the candidate should have “talked about … what that woman standing there did to Monica Lewinsky.”
When news of Bill Clinton’s affair with the White House intern broke, Hillary Clinton attributed the reports to a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” At the time, according to a memoir by the former first lady, the president was lying to her about his sexual relations with Lewinsky.
In documents released years later, Clinton was quoted by a close friend referring to Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony tune.”
Rich Galen, who ran Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s political action committee during the 1998 midterm elections, sees no gain in dredging up impeachment and the Lewinsky affair, and is puzzled why Trump would even try.
“He’s not the candidate on the ballot,” Galen said of the ex-president. “She is. And we’ve already litigated Bill as a nation.”
Even if it did make sense, he said, why telegraph an intended line of attack so far ahead of the candidates’ next face-to-face meeting?
“It gives them a week and a half to come up with an appropriate response, which she will,” Galen said. “And then she’ll practice it until she can say it in her sleep.”
Barabak reported from San Francisco and Finnegan from Grand Rapids.