NEW CASTLE, New Hampshire — Joe Biden said Friday that he advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 to “not get into the debate” with Donald Trump over his comments about groping women from an Access Hollywood recording that surfaced a month before the election.
The remarks came during a long response Biden offered to a supporter who wondered how the former vice president would debate Trump without coming off as too antagonistic.
“I think the biggest mistake that was made, and everyone underestimated it the last time about President Trump, the place he’s most comfortable is in the gutter arguing,” Biden said at the outset of his reply during a town hall-style forum at a park overlooking the New Hampshire coast.
Biden criticized Trump’s tactics and talked about how hard he worked for Clinton — “83, 84 campaign events” — and how he “thought she would have been a really good president.” Next he recalled advice he said he gave Clinton’s team before her second debate with Trump. That debate came two days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape that featured Trump bragging about how his fame entitled him to “grab” women “by the pussy.”
“I remember at the time saying, you know, the first question that’s going to be asked is they’re going to ask [Trump] about his comments about the Access Hollywood tape,” Biden said Friday as he recounted the conversation. “And I said, I really think what should be done is — that they’re going to turn to [Clinton] and say, ‘What’s your view?’ And I said, I’d respectfully recommend she stand there and … say, ‘Everybody knows who Donald Trump is. Let me tell you what I am going to do for the country,’ and not get into the debate, because it just drags it down.”
Biden ended his response by alluding to a post-election study he said showed the media didn’t cover Clinton substantively.
But his callback to how Clinton parried the Access Hollywood question puzzled Brian Fallon, who served as a senior aide on Clinton’s campaign.
"Is he suggesting Hillary's reaction to the Access Hollywood tape should have been, ‘Oh, nevermind?’” asked Fallon, who is not working for a Democratic candidate in 2020 and has at times been critical of Biden’s campaign. “That is a pretty Mad Men-era mentality."
Said a Biden aide when pressed by BuzzFeed News: “He wasn’t criticizing Hillary. He was criticizing the media for creating false equivalencies that minimized Trump’s atrocious and repugnant behavior.”
Biden’s 2020 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is deeply rooted in the argument that he’s the candidate who can best take the fight to Trump. “We know who Donald Trump is” is a frequent Biden refrain on the trail, though he often elaborates by emphasizing the racists and white supremacists Trump’s movement has inspired. And in the past Biden himself has used aggressive language in response to Trump’s comments about grabbing women.
"They asked me, would I like to debate this gentleman, and I said ‘No,’” Biden said when talking about the Access Hollywood remarks to the University of Miami College Democrats in 2018. “I said, 'If we were in high school, I'd take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.’”
Early on in the second 2016 debate, one of the moderators, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, referenced the tape, asking Trump whether he was modeling “appropriate behavior” for young people. “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
Trump characterized the remarks as “locker room talk” and urged Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, another moderator, to move on to “more important” topics, such as the threat of ISIS.
When asked to respond, Clinton did not appear hesitant to talk about the video, tying it to the central message of her general election campaign at the time: that unlike past Republican nominees for president, with whom she would have disagreed on politics and policy, Trump is “different” — morally and fundamentally “unfit” to serve in the nation’s highest office.
“I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief,” Clinton said during the debate. The Access Hollywood tape, she said, showed “what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn't represent who he is.”
“We have seen him insult women. We've seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We've seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.”
On Friday, the man who questioned Biden about his debate strategy was concerned how Biden would respond when Trump “lies, cheats, steals, defecates” in a debate. It was unclear from how Biden phrased his response if he believed Clinton’s approach was wrong.
Biden, who considered the idea of a presidential run in 2016, served as one of Clinton’s most prominent surrogates in the general election. He dealt directly with the candidate during that race, but a main point of his contact on strategy lay with Jake Sullivan, a former Obama administration official who worked for Biden before joining Clinton’s team as a senior strategist and policy advisor. Biden’s right-hand and former chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, also spoke frequently with Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.