Whenever Donald Trump has gotten in trouble for boorish behavior, he’s had a standard response: That may be bad, but Bill Clinton has done much worse.
It was his first inclination Friday, when a lurid tape surfaced from 2005, filled with randy and contemptuous remarks about women.
“Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close,” Trump said in a sorry-if-I-offended-anyone non-apology apology.
It was his second inclination early Saturday morning, when he released a video saying he was, indeed, sorry, before segueing into an attack on Clinton and his wife, Hillary, the Democratic presidential nominee.
“There’s a big difference between words and the actions of other people,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked and intimidated his victims.”
Trump promised to discuss the allegations “more in the coming days,” including, perhaps, in Sunday night’s second presidential debate, a town hall-style meeting in St. Louis. It is a threat he has made repeatedly since a widely panned performance in the first debate last month, when he was confronted with disparaging remarks he made about a former Miss Universe.
While the attack sheathed in apology may have thrilled some Trump supporters, who deeply loathe the Clintons, and sated whatever alpha-male competitiveness the Republican nominee feels toward the ex-president, it struck many as needlessly belligerent and politically unhelpful.
“The words that Donald Trump spoke last night were all the right words, but the tone was not exactly what you would have wanted. He seemed defiant, defensive, angry, less than sincere,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist in Pennsylvania, a state pivotal to Trump’s hopes of winning the White House. “When you are apologizing, you leave it at that.”
More broadly, party strategists said it would be a mistake to dredge up Bill Clinton’s well-publicized womanizing, even if Trump sought to focus on Hillary Clinton and her efforts to defend her husband and discredit his accusers. Trump has admitted to committing adultery, and in the 2005 tape, he boasts of trying to seduce a married woman.
“Trump needs to make this solely about himself,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant in Sacramento. “If he is in fact a different human being than when he made those comments, then he needs to demonstrate it.”
As for attacking Hillary Clinton over her treatment of women, “All that does is mollify his base,” Stutzman said. “That won’t win this election. He needs to be expanding his support over the next three weeks.”
Like so much else in this bizarre election, there is something askance about Trump’s angry and fierce denunciations of Bill Clinton: They used to be friends — or at least friends in the transactional what-can-you-do-for-me ways of Washington and the rich and powerful.
“They weren’t bosom buddies,” said George Arzt, a New York City media and public affairs consultant. “He was a donor. He gave bucks, and he entertained. Plus, the Clintons were celebrities, and Trump was all about celebrities.”
The Manhattan real estate mogul contributed more than $4,000 to Hillary Clinton’s campaigns when she represented New York in the U.S. Senate and more than $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, which he now regularly maligns.
The ex-president had a phone chat with Trump in the weeks before the Republican launched his White House bid. Trump defended Clinton over his impeachment for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“Look at the trouble Bill Clinton got into with something that was totally unimportant, and they tried to impeach him, which was nonsense,” Trump said on CNN in 2008. (Clinton was impeached by the House, but was acquitted in a trial in the Senate, which allowed him to finish his term as president.)
There are abundant photos of Bill Clinton and Trump chumming it up over the years, including on the golf course.
Perhaps most famously, Bill and Hillary Clinton were guests at the 2005 wedding of Trump and his third wife, Melania. The four of them are seen smiling in a well-circulated photograph taken at Trump’s posh Palm Beach resort.
In a recent appearance on the faux talk show “Between Two Ferns,” Hillary Clinton was asked by comedian Zach Galifianakis about the Trumps’ wedding vows.
“I really couldn’t see or hear very well, so I’m not quite sure what his vows were,” Clinton responded, “But I’m sure they were great and huge and wonderful.”
In fact, Clinton sat in the front row.