The second presidential debate ended Sunday night on a somewhat pleasant note, with both candidates forced to awkwardly compliment each other through gritted teeth. That was a far cry from how it began — with a discussion of the leaked tape from 2005 featuring Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.
At first, Hillary Clinton seemed to stick with her strategy from the first debate, content to let Trump speak for himself.
“What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women, and he has said that the video didn’t represent who he is,” she said. “But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.”
Trump attacks Hillary — by bringing up Bill
But the civility began and ended there. Less than 10 minutes into the debate, Trump brought up the allegations of sexual assault against Bill Clinton, in an apparent attempt to make a false equivalence between his own behavior and the former president’s.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, mine are words and his was action,” the Republican nominee shot back. “What he has done to action. Never has anyone in the history of politics in the nation that has been so abusive to women.”
Trump was referring to the sexual assault allegations leveled against Bill Clinton that stretch back decades. In the 48 hours since the 2005 Trump tape emerged, Trump hinted that he would make that very topic a central theme of the debate.
Trump’s strategy to bring up the Clintons’ history with women and sexual assault allegations was risky. The issue had already been litigated, both in public opinion and in court, decades ago. What’s more, Trump already has record-low approval ratings with female voters and many agree that attacking a female candidate for her husband’s affairs does not usually merit sympathy. Trump did not wait for the event to even begin before he followed through on that threat. Less than two hours before the town hall began, Trump hosted a surprise press conference with four of Bill Clinton’s accusers. He then invited those women — Paula Jones, Kathy Shelton, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — to the debate, and all were seated in the room.
“Hillary Clinton attacked the women viciously, four of them are here tonight,” Trump said during the debate. He was referring to claims made by some of Bill Clinton’s accusers that his wife intimidated and bullied them in order to keep them quiet. These allegations have never been proven but they have been brought back into the spotlight by Trump and other anti-Clinton voices. Trump pushes Broaddrick’s claims
On Saturday night, Trump had retweeted a statement from Broaddrick that read, “How many times must it be said? Actions speak louder than words. [Donald Trump] said bad things! [Hillary Clinton] threatened me after [Bill Clinton] raped me.” By Sunday night, it had been retweeted 36,000 times.
On the town hall floor, Trump echoed Broaddrick’s accusations that Hillary Clinton had made a veiled threat against her decades ago and “she should be ashamed of herself.”
It was clear that Trump was bringing up the allegations against the Clintons in an attempt to shake his opponent. But she seemed to be expecting it. Clinton brushed off Trump’s attacks as baseless lies, the same response she has used in the past.
“When I hear something like that, I am reminded of what my friend Michelle Obama advised us all,” the former secretary of state said, with a smile. “When they go low, you go high.”