WASHINGTON — Allies of Donald Trump have a new line in the days since the debate: that Trump is a paragon of graciousness for not attacking Hillary Clinton on the debate stage for her husband’s affairs.
Trump himself got the ball rolling moments after the debate, telling CNN in the spin room that “I'm very happy I was able to hold back on the indiscretions with respect to Bill Clinton. Because I have a lot of respect for Chelsea Clinton, and I didn't want to say what I was going to say” and then threatening to bring it up next time.
And from there, the people around Trump have followed in his stead. His campaign manager Kellyanne Conway mentioned his omitting the topic later in the spin room and on television. His son Eric said in a radio interview that it had taken “courage” for his father to not bring the issue up and that it would be “something I’ll always remember.”
Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn brought up Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and Monica Lewinsky in an MSNBC interview. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge also said on MSNBC that “If we want to dig back through the ‘90s on comments made about women, we can certainly look to Secretary Clinton referring to Monica Lewinsky as a neurotic loony toon.” And in another MSNBC interview, Rep. Chris Collins also criticized Hillary Clinton for allegedly mistreating the women with whom Bill Clinton cheated. (In correspondence brought to light by the Free Beacon two years ago, Clinton was reported by friend Diane Blair to have referred to Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon” in private.)
Rudy Giuliani has taken the line of attack one step further by referring to Clinton as “too stupid to be president” because of her husband’s affairs.
It’s unclear to what extent the surrogates are simply following the public lead of the candidate and top staff, or whether they have received instructions. One person close to a Trump surrogate who made some of the comments said that they had not received talking points.
Asked if the campaign has been sending out talking points to surrogates on this topic, Conway said in an email to BuzzFeed News, “I've personally seen no talkers to that extent (they may exist because I don't use talkers normally), so it may be freelancing.”
“It is something I said immediately after the debate in the spin room/on TV, and have repeated privately and publicly since. Restraint is a presidential virtue,” Conway said. Trump showed “admirable restraint and grace because we knew she would attack him about women,” Conway said.
Coming out of the debate, both sides are jostling each other for the favor of independent and even some Republican women, a voting bloc Trump desperately needs. Women with college degrees have been especially anti-Trump, and Clinton is attempting to further lock down that segment by highlighting Trump’s own issues with women. The Clinton campaign has also been promoting the story of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe whom Trump publicly shamed for her weight back in the 1990s and who has told interviewers (in two interviews that came out very quickly after the debate, though the interviewers say the release was not coordinated with the Clinton campaign) that she was scarred by the experience.
Trump’s making sure to mention his not mentioning Bill Clinton’s sex scandals is a coy way of mentioning them. The strategy is the Trump side’s own attempt to not only re-highlight the Clinton scandals of the 1990s, but to appeal to women by casting Clinton as a betrayer of women.
“The issue is not simply that Bill Clinton cheated on Hillary numerous times throughout their marriage. The issue is how Hillary Clinton treated the women in her husband's life. She attacked them. Some of them have said their lives were ruined,” Conway contended.
Trump told CNN in the spin room that he would possibly bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities in the next debate, though if, as he stated, Chelsea Clinton’s attendance is the condition for him to not raise the issue, that could hamper him.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when my parents and my family weren’t being attacked, and so it just sort of seems to be in that tradition, unfortunately,” Chelsea Clinton said in an interview with Cosmopolitan on Wednesday in regard to Trump’s raising the specter of her father’s cheating.
By turning the focus to Bill Clinton’s infidelity, Trump also runs the risk of opening himself up to criticism for his own marital history, which includes having left his first wife Ivana Trump for second wife Marla Maples after having an affair with Maples.
And, historically, Hillary Clinton’s popularity was actually highest in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal.