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Donald Trump’s nasty, false tweetstorm against Alicia Machado proves how easy he is to bait

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Rally In Council Bluffs, Iowa Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Donald Trump apparently didn’t sleep very well last night. At 3:20 am Eastern, he tweeted angrily about the news media. And then a little after 5 am, he started attacking Alicia Machado — the former Miss Universe the Clinton campaign is using to make a point about Trump’s treatment of women — including repeating a debunked rumor that she starred in a sex tape.

This isn’t the first time Trump has fought back against his critics with the end result of amplifying a damaging story in the news media. And his angry response backs up Clinton’s depiction of Trump as a man who is easily provoked.

Clinton first mentioned Machado during the final moments of the debate Monday night, saying Trump called her “Miss Piggy” because she’d gained weight and “Miss Housekeeping” because she was Latina. For the rest of the week, Trump has been attempting to defend and justify his actions.

In his early-morning tweets, Trump called Machado “disgusting” and said she’d “duped” Clinton, calling Machado’s past “terrible”:

There’s a lot to unpack here, but first, let’s all note that the possible next leader of the free world — who has angrily disputed Hillary Clinton’s description of him as a man you can bait with a tweet — spent 15 minutes tweeting angrily about a woman who’s made a negative ad against him.

Trump’s mention of Machado’s past probably refers to the fact that she was once accused of threatening to murder a judge and driving a getaway car in an attempted murder. She was never charged with anything, but she doesn’t dispute the allegations, saying this week, “Everybody has a past. And I’m not a saint girl.”

The “sex tape” rumor, on the other hand, is completely false. Snopes looked into it and found that while Machado did once pose topless in Playboy and was portrayed having sex during a Real World-esque Spanish reality TV show, the footage from the show wasn’t explicit:

However, the so-called "sex tape" stemming from that incident, which is nothing more than some grainy, night-vision footage of a couple of covered figures writhing in a bed, hardly qualifies as explicit. And reality television being what it is, the scene the tape depicts was quite possibly staged or fabricated.

The pornography on the internet that claims to star Machado, meanwhile, actually features a look-alike actress.

Finally, there’s no evidence that Clinton helped Machado to become a citizen. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent writes, the citizenship process takes months or years. Machado has been giving media interviews since before Clinton mentioned her at the debate, and she said in August that she’d become an American citizen because she believed it was so important to vote against Trump.

Clinton baited Trump — and he took the bait

Clinton spent most of the first presidential debate on Monday night purposefully getting under Trump’s skin: alluding to the loan he had from his father to start his business, repeatedly calling him only by his first name, and so forth. But Machado, who she didn’t mention until the closing minutes of the debate, turns out to have been her ultimate achievement in trolling Trump.

By launching a new barrage of attack-tweets at Machado, Trump has taken what would have been just one element of Clinton’s strong debate performance and turned it into a weeklong story.

That’s because, while Trump is volatile, he’s not unpredictable. Over and over, when he’s attacked, he refuses to let it go unanswered. “When you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder,” his wife Melania said in April. Yet the more he fights back, the more he keeps the damaging story in the headlines in the first place.

This is what Trump did when Khizr Khan, the father of a slain American Army officer, criticized Trump’s treatment of Muslims at the Democratic National Convention — and it was one of the most damaging moments of his entire campaign.

Now it’s happening again with Machado. Every time Clinton draws Trump into asymmetric warfare against a private citizen, he proves one of her attacks against him is true: He’s a man who is quick to anger and easy to bait.

This election is about normal vs. abnormal

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