Donald Trump long threatened to put the sex scandals involving Bill Clinton at the center of the presidential race, and now, faced with having to answer for his own transgressions, he is delivering in a big way.
But while Trump wins enthusiastic applause from his base for painting Hillary Clinton as an enabler of her husband’s misdeeds who callously ruined the lives of his victims, it is a tougher sell with the wider electorate.
The cases involving the women were all investigated or litigated years ago, and in most instances the evidence brought against the Clintons fell short — particularly when it came to charges that Hillary Clinton orchestrated cover-ups.
Trump nonetheless sees opportunity in the tawdry nature of the decades-old accusations, and on Sunday night he moved to capitalize on them by bringing as his guests to the presidential debate three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and a fourth who says Hillary Clinton cold-heartedly defended the man who raped her as a child.
All of the women are stars in conservative media. And their appearances were widely reported to have been arranged by Trump campaign Chief Executive Stephen Bannon, who previously ran alt-right favorite Breitbart News. Trump referred to them as he tried to shift the conversation away from a recently disclosed videotape from 2005, in which Trump boasts during what he thought was a private conversation about assaulting women himself.
His campaign even sought to rattle Clinton by seating the accusers in the Trump family box at the debate, which would have enabled them to walk into the auditorium at the same time as Bill Clinton.
Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Post that the plan was for the women to confront Clinton at that time, creating a scene before a national audience. But a co-chair of the Presidential Debate Commission prohibited the accusers from sitting up front. The campaign was warned that if the women took seats there, they would be escorted out by security.
The women instead sat with the general audience. Trump advisors later cried foul. But that itself became a talking point for Trump, another argument that the system is rigged against him. This was the same debate where Trump accused the moderators more than once of pushing the scale in Hillary Clinton’s favor.
Jones initially did not succeed in her litigation, during the course of which Bill Clinton denied he had sexual contact with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But when special prosecutors later proved otherwise, Clinton’s denial in Jones’ case became central to his impeachment charges and her litigation gained new momentum. Faced with the prospect of a fresh round of embarrassing and politically damaging depositions, Clinton opted to settle without admitting guilt.
Trump claims that Hillary Clinton “viciously” attacked Jones and the other women. She did at one point say that the Jones lawsuit was part of a bigger right-wing conspiracy against her husband. Clinton also probably helped lawyers prepare their defense, which involved questioning Jones’ credibility in court. But fact checkers have been hard-pressed to find evidence she mounted any “vicious” attacks.
Another of the Clinton accusers at the debate was Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer. She accused Bill Clinton of fondling her during a private meeting in the Oval Office. But the same prosecutors who recommended Clinton be impeached found insufficient evidence to support Willey’s claims.
Others contradicted Willey’s testimony, including Linda Tripp, who was no friend of the Clintons — Tripp’s secret recordings set off the impeachment investigation.
Still, Willey’s allegations of threats and intimidation have been embraced by right-wing media and Trump. She told the Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet, that since she accused Clinton of groping her, a dead cat has been found on her porch, a stranger was asking around her neighborhood — threateningly — about her children and a man was seen lurking under her deck.
Another of Trump’s debate guests was also familiar to those who followed Clinton’s impeachment. Juanita Broaddrick alleges she was raped by him in 1978, when she was a nursing home administrator volunteering for his gubernatorial campaign. She says she resisted going public for years, even as rumors swirled around Arkansas. During the investigation that preceded impeachment, Broaddrick signed an affidavit denying that Clinton raped her.
She later reneged on that statement, telling NBC News and the Wall Street Journal about her allegations.
Clinton’s lawyer denied there was any rape, calling it “absolutely false.” Special prosecutors found “inconclusive evidence” that Broaddrick was raped by Clinton.
Broaddrick has described this as Hillary Clinton’s attempt to “silence” her from speaking out. Broaddrick has become a regular presence in Breitbart News and on Twitter, where she criticizes the Clintons and shares pro-Trump messages.
The final guest from the Clintons’ past that Trump brought to the debate, Kathy Shelton, says she detests Hillary Clinton for her role in defending the man who attacked Shelton when she was 12. Clinton was assigned the case by a judge.
Clinton did what defense attorneys do in such cases. In an affidavit requesting a psychiatric examination, Clinton questioned Shelton’s emotional stability and wrote that Shelton “has in the past made false accusations about persons.”
The charges against Shelton’s assailant were ultimately reduced from first-degree rape to unlawful fondling of a child. Shelton’s anger with Clinton, though, emerged only recently, after the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, unearthed recordings from an interview with Clinton in the 1980s. In them, Clinton implied knowing the man, Thomas Taylor, was guilty while she defended him. “I had him take a polygraph, which he passed, which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs,” she said. Clinton laughed during the interview, which enraged Shelton.
Shelton began to give interviews criticizing Clinton, telling the Daily Beast that she “took me through hell.”
Clinton’s representatives have defended her conduct, noting that she had “an ethical and legal obligation” to represent Taylor as his court-appointed lawyer.