Donald Trump, reeling after two days of Republican disavowals and disaffections over a 2005 videotape of him bragging about his ability to get away with sexual assault, attempted to change the subject to his opponent’s husband’s alleged infidelities.
Just 90 minutes before his second debate Sunday night with Hillary Clinton, the GOP nominee held a surprise panel, broadcast live to Facebook, with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct — in effect, dousing a campaign already on fire with buckets of fresh gasoline and bringing the worst fears of many Republicans to a stunning realization.
Seated beside four women — including Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton — Trump addressed viewers ahead of the debate, making an issue of the sexual history of Bill Clinton, who is not running for president.
“These four very courageous women have asked to be here, and it was our honor to help them,” Trump said of the women who then excused his comments caught on tape and released on Friday.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Broaddrick. “Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s anything worse.”
Broaddrick once signed an affadavit saying Clinton did not in fact rape her, but later recanted.
Standing in the back of the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom were Trump’s closest aides, including Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon and David Bossie, who have made a career — on the fringes of conservative politics — out of attacking the Clintons.
The surprise roundtable and the tawdriness of the subject is unprecedented in presidential politics, especially on the eve of a debate.
Trump, whose campaign has long tested a fragile Republican coalition that now is undeniably in tatters, is responding to a 48-hour period in which he saw dozens of GOP officeholders pull their endorsements after the video recording that showed him bragging to TV host Billy Bush about his ability to get away with “grab[bing women] by the pussy.”
Ever defiant amidst calls that he surrender the nomination and step aside, Trump is instead engaging in a scorched-earth assault that is only likely to further erode his diminished standing with women voters with potentially devastating consequences for the Republican Party, which is now bracing itself for more sweeping losses down the ballot.
Clinton, who has taken a few days off the campaign trail to prepare for the second debate and the very likelihood of such an attack from Trump, has said very little publicly since the lewd videotape came to light on Friday.
Her campaign, however, issued a statement roughly an hour before the debate began characterizing Trump’s publicity stunt as an act of desperation.
“We’re not surprised to see Donald Trump continue his destructive race to the bottom,” said Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri. “Hillary Clinton understands the opportunity in this town hall is to talk to voters on stage and in the audience about the issues that matter to them, and this stunt doesn’t change that.
“If Donald Trump doesn’t see that, that’s his loss. As always, she’s prepared to handle whatever Donald Trump throws her way.”
Donald Trump is asking you to ignore the actual recorded words he said 10 years ago, but to pay attention to the allegations of women against the spouse of his political opponent 20-30 years ago.