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All the ways Trump attacking Hillary Clinton over Bill's sex scandals could go horribly wrong

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump isn’t going to go down without a fight.

Not only is he saying he won’t quit the presidential race in the wake of his leaked tape scandal, he is planning to use tonight’s debate to try and attack Hillary Clinton over allegations about her husband’s sexual conduct — and even held a pre-debate event with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of rape or sexual harassment.

These attacks come at a time when many commentators have concluded that the presidential race is all but over. Trump was trailing in the polls even before the scandal broke, and since then he’s been hemorrhaging support from Republican elites, some of whom are now calling on him to withdraw from the race entirely, even though the election is only 30 days away.

So Trump is hoping to stanch the bleeding and go on the attack against Clinton. Yet while he’s hoping these attacks will hurt his opponent, he could well just end up doing even greater damage to his own campaign and to Republican prospects more generally.

Because there are oh so many ways this could backfire.

Trump seems to want to talk Bill Clinton sex scandals

Now, we know that Trump’s instinct when attacked by anyone — whether it’s Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Khizr Khan, or Alicia Machado — is to respond with maximum viciousness and ugliness, with slinging mud and lies and smears. (“Check out sex tape,” Trump wrote of Machado.)

So it should be no surprise that after the leak of a tape in which Trump bragged that he could grab women “by the pussy” without asking permission because he was famous, Trump’s instinct was to respond by arguing that Hillary Clinton’s husband is worse, and that she is complicit in his behavior.

“Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course,” Trump said in a statement when the news first broke. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims,” he later added in his video apology.

Trump then retweeted Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Bill Clinton of rape, and tweeted out a new Breitbart story in which Broaddrick is interviewed, before holding this pre-debate event with Broaddrick, in which she said, “Bill Clinton raped me, and Hillary Clinton threatened me.”

And Bloomberg’s Josh Green accurately reported that Trump wouldn’t stop there. “Trump’s survival plan thus entails portraying Hillary as enabler of sexual violence — name I heard is Kathy Shelton, 12-y.o. rape survivor,” Green tweeted on Saturday. (As a young lawyer, Clinton defended the man accused of raping Shelton.)

Shelton was also present with Trump at the pre-debate event, saying, “At 12 years old Hillary put me through something that you would never put a 12-year-old through.” Two other accusers of Bill Clinton whose names were familiar in the 1990s, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones, attended the event too.

This strategy could backfire in so many ways

But though Trump’s instincts — and certain of his advisers — seem to be leading him down this path, there are just so many ways it can go wrong.

First, there’s the simple truth that this line of attack doesn’t poll well. A little over a week ago, Politico asked voters whether it would be appropriate or inappropriate for Trump to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs and “allegations that Hillary Clinton tried to silence women who accused her husband of infidelity or sexual misconduct.” Only 33 percent said this would be appropriate, and 56 percent said it would be inappropriate.

Second, it is really difficult to strike a balance between appearing contrite and going on the attack as Trump appears to want to do. The story since Friday has been about Donald Trump’s conduct. So if he tries to change the subject, it will be interpreted as him trying to change the subject. His video apology statement was hammered for just this reason — the apology just seems less sincere when you throw in “Bill Clinton is worse.” Either the apology or the attack is going to come off as weak.

Third, there’s the question of just what Hillary Clinton will say in response — she’s deliberately said nothing about the leaked tape so far. That’s because, according to a report by Politico’s Annie Karni, her team wants to maximize the impact of her first response by having it take place live on the debate stage, in front of an audience of tens of millions of people.

Fourth, the leaked Trump tape is already out there, voters are widely aware of it, and what it portrays is indisputable. So Hillary Clinton can afford to use a lighter and more subtle touch in discussing it, if she feels that’s the best option. But if Trump truly wants to portray Hillary Clinton as “an enabler of sexual violence,” he is going to have to be the one to do it — all those ugly and disputed allegations are going to have to come out of Donald Trump’s mouth onstage.

Fifth, the optics of Trump aggressively confronting Clinton might be quite bad. Her best moments in past political debates have often come when arrogant male opponents have aggressively overplayed their hands, and Trump has already been hammered for interrupting her too many times in the first debate.

Sixth, there’s the fact that this debate takes place in a town hall setting. The room will be full of undecided voters who will ask preselected questions, and most will likely focus on more traditional policy issues. How does Trump press a sexual misconduct–focused case against Bill and Hillary Clinton in an environment when the questioners will likely want to talk about other things? It’s much easier to ignore the question and completely change the subject when it’s a moderator talking rather than a flesh-and-blood voter.

And finally, Trump’s mental state does not seem to be the greatest at this moment. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman writes that he is “increasingly isolated and upset.” And he couldn’t manage to seriously commit himself to debate prep even before his campaign entered this recent tailspin, after all.

Republicans would much rather Trump apologize and move on

Any of these challenges would be tremendously difficult to overcome even for a polished political veteran running a stable, professional campaign — let alone for Trump, whose campaign is in crisis.

But it’s important to keep in mind that Trump was losing even before the tape leaked. The message he’s been hammering home the whole campaign has never really been enough to give him a solid lead in poll averages.

So if he does make a risky gamble that goes horribly wrong, well, he’ll just lose by a bigger margin and still not be president. It’ll be Republican politicians across the country, not him, who will truly pay the price down ballot.

Naturally, then, leading Republicans have been signaling that they want Trump to use the debate tonight to apologize and to demonstrate “contrition.” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a party rising star who’s generally been pro-Trump, said Saturday night that during the debate Trump “needs to take full responsibility for his words and his behavior, he needs to beg their forgiveness, and he needs to pledge to finally change his ways.”

These party elites would have preferred Trump to practice a short bit about how much he regrets those decade-old comments, deliver it in a reasonably sincere way, and then transition back to talking about jobs, “Crooked Hillary” (with extra attention on her newly leaked speeches to Wall Street), and Making America Great Again (#MAGA).

But while Republican elites have a strong incentive to try to avert a landslide that would wipe many of them out down ballot by going back to the pre-tape status quo, that would mean going back to a time when Trump was set to lose. It does make sense, then, that if he wants to win, he should try a riskier strategy to shake things up.

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