clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Donald Trump weaponized Bill Clinton against Democrats

Hillary Clinton Holds Primary Night Event In Brooklyn, New York Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Eye for an eye, measure for measure — even when faced with an undeniable hot mic tape of him bragging about sexual assaulting women, Donald Trump counterpunches. His targets in the wake of these sexual assault allegations? Bill Clinton — and the media that let him get away with his sexual misconduct.

“This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close,” Trump said in an official campaign statement in response to audio of him making lewd comments behind the scenes of an Access Hollywood show.

Trump has long threatened to weaponize Bill Clinton against Hillary Clinton. He even congratulated himself for not going there at the first presidential debate. But as more and more women come forward with sexual assault allegations against Trump, his campaign is going there.

"We’re going to turn him into Bill Cosby," Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon said of Clinton, Bloomberg reported, citing two Trump advisers who were present. An hour before the second presidential debate, Trump held a quickly assembled press conference with Bill Clinton’s sexual assault accusers: Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones.

For supporters of Hillary Clinton, it’s easy to write off this attack. After all, Bill Clinton is not running for president. Even so, it’s tough for liberals to write off Bill’s history completely. As New York magazine’s Ann Friedman wrote, it’s tricky to reconcile how we now feel about sexual assault and harassment with Clinton’s legacy in retrospect — even if feminists know it’s unfair to level the former president’s behavior against his wife.

But if you’re a Trump supporter, your view of the situation is very different. This isn’t about a deep dive into our changing attitudes about sexual assault or exposing Bill Clinton as a “predator” — it’s about the media applying a standard to Trump that it didn’t to Clinton. It’s a campaign strategy directed at Trump voters specifically, helping them reconcile the assault accusations with the Trump vision for America that they subscribe to.

Bringing down Bill Clinton gives Trump voters a justification to continue supporting a man — Trump — who has an objectively questionable relationship with women. His surrogates and his unwavering supporters are saying explain Bill Clinton, then. They’re asking, if it didn’t disqualify Bill Clinton, why should it disqualify Trump?

They’re making a case for Trump’s eligibility.

Democrats don’t have a good answer for Bill Clinton — and Trump’s campaign knows it

High-ranking Republican politicians turned on the Republican nominee en masse after Trump’s lewd comments on women and subsequent assault allegations. (Though it’s worth noting most of the defections came in the wake of the former and not the latter.) Clinton’s campaign has used Trump’s sexism and misogyny in some the most striking attack ads of this election cycle.

But the spate of public unendorsements of Trump wasn’t met kindly by his supporters: Rally-goers shouted for “Never Trump” politicians to "Get over it!" and “stay on the issues.” One woman at a Trump rally even wore a “Trump can grab my...” T-shirt with an arrow pointing to her crotch.

His supporters are looking past Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct. They believe Trump will Make America Great Again and his possible sexual indiscretions do not disqualify that — nor do they believe the allegations should prevent Trump from realizing his political ambitions. Stated plainly, it’s a weak case for Trump, but it happens to be a similar argument Democrats have for Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton often puts Democrats in a difficult position. It’s challenging to find a satisfying answer to the question, “How should progressive feminists think about Bill Clinton?” when trying to reconcile an understanding of sexual power dynamics, rape culture, and victim shaming with the widely held Democratic notion that Clinton was a great president. It seems clear to a lot of Democrats today that Clinton’s personal behavior should have been disqualifying.

When I asked Rebecca Traister about Clinton earlier this summer, she had the correct, and frustrating, answer: He represents “the complicated thing about politics,” that he was likely both personally fallible and a great president.

Trump can’t directly make this argument about himself — that might imply he was complicit in these charges of assault. (He vehemently denies all allegations.) But he can help frame this double standard, and that too has proven to be a powerful argument for his supporters.

Claiming the media is rigged, in the context of these sexual assault allegations, is another way of asking how Bill Clinton got away with this conduct for years. Why have the standards suddenly changed?

All Trump can say is that the media is rigged — and it goes hand in hand with miring Bill Clinton

Trump’s tape response strategy is two-pronged: Smear Bill Clinton and punch back at the media. They are not independent of each other.

In the final weeks of his campaign, Trump has reinvigorated his pleas against the so-called rigged election. This has taken many forms, namely calling out the media for trying to swing the election toward Clinton; warning his supporters about voter fraud is one of the more dangerous iterations. After the initial assault allegations were published, he went on a multi-day Twitter tirade:

It’s not a new line for Trump — he boycotted a primary debate because he said Fox News’s Megyn Kelly was biased against him. But his newest attempts to discredit the media for reporting the allegations of his accusers highlights the double standard. To members of his own party, this standard has rendered Trump ineligible for the White House but still permits Bill Clinton to stand on a campaign stage to support his wife.

For those on the right, this is one in a long line of examples of the mainstream media going easier on the left than on the right — letting Democrats get away with “real” wrongdoing.

It’s not a particularly strong argument on Trump’s part — sexual assault allegations are undoubtedly serious — but it’s an argument both sides of the aisle have had to make.

And for those who believe Donald Trump will make America great again, Bill Clinton is a case in point that these sexual assault allegations haven’t always been disqualifying.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.