Donald Trump doesn’t think he’s gotten enough credit for not talking about Bill Clinton’s history of sexual misconduct in Monday’s debate.
Just ask his son, Eric Trump, who said it took “a lot of courage” for the Republican nominee not to attack the former president. Or his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who told MSNBC on Tuesday that Trump showed “presidential virtue” by not talking about the Clinton scandals.
The scandals, of course, have been successfully revived by Trump and his allies this week — including in this article — by pretending not to talk about them.
In a risky move for a thrice-married adulterous nominee, Trump is making a full-on pivot to the former president’s sexual misbehavior. While the candidate demanded praise for his winking show of restraint, and top aides say he plans to take “the high road” and focus on jobs — top surrogates have been out in force to raise the issue in explicit terms.
This isn't a coincidence. According to talking points obtained by NBC News, supporters were instructed by the campaign on Wednesday to tell reporters that "Hillary Clinton trying to present herself as some sort of feminist champion is a joke" and that she "bullied and smeared women" connected to her husband's scandals. The memo's existence was first reported by CNN.
"Whether it's him directly or those around him operating with his tacit approval, Trump does not get to claim 'restraint,'" said Tracy Sefl, a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “He fools absolutely no one.”
The turn comes as the Trump team tries to regroup after a tough debate, where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took the opportunity in front of 80 million viewers to tell the story Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe who weathered painful criticism from Trump two decades ago about her body and her weight.
Trump, who owned the pageant contest until last year, refused to back down at the debate. Even the day after Trump complained that Machado had “gained a massive amount of weight” and was “the absolute worst.”
That debate moment is prompting backers to revisit the transgressions of Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the Republican-controlled House in 1998 after lying about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Trump supporter, told MSNBC on Wednesday that she did not approve of Trump’s comments on Machado but moved quickly to tie Hillary Clinton to the sins of her husband.
“I find it so interesting that there continues to be this conversation about what he has said when you look at what she has done: Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky. My goodness,” Blackburn told MSNBC.
The story’s relevance to Hillary Clinton, she added, was that the former secretary of state and first lady had been “vindictive” to women who had claimed a sexual relationship with the former president.
Trump’s deputy campaign manager David Bossie took a similar tack, telling Fox News on Wednesday that Clinton was an “enabler” of her husband’s behavior. Rep. Chris Collins, another Trump surrogate, told MSNBC that “the women that Bill Clinton was involved with saw the wrath of Hillary Clinton.”
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who famously used a press conference to announce he was leaving his second wife for a mistress, came up with another angle.
The allegations around Clinton have been debated and relitigated over decades and there’s scant public evidence to support claims that Hillary Clinton had been “vindictive” against women linked to her husband.
Ironically, the same can’t be said of Trump: He publicly called Paula Jones, who settled a harassment suit against Bill Clinton, a “loser” and mocked Lewinsky’s appearance. As recently as a 2008 CNN interview, he called the conduct that led to Clinton’s impeachment “totally unimportant.”
But Trump changed his tune as a candidate and now he’s bringing his campaign with him. Over the weekend, he threatened on Twitter to invite Flowers, who had an affair with Bill Clinton, to the debate. In May, Trump called the ex-president a “disaster” with women.
His inner circle notably includes several veterans of the 1990s fights with Clinton: Bossie served as a high-profile investigator for House Republicans. Roger Stone, an outside confidant of Trump, has spent years trumpeting obscure conspiracy theories about the Clintons and last year wrote a book called, "The Clintons’ War on Women." Newt Gingrich, a leading Trump ally, was speaker of the House during Clinton’s impeachment.
“It’s sort of Ahab and the white whale,” Liam Donovan, a GOP strategist, said. “There are people fighting the old battles like it’s still 1996 when this stuff doesn’t matter to anyone.”
Republican and Democratic strategists alike told NBC News they were puzzled by the Trump campaign’s full-court press, especially given the real estate mogul's own history in the tabloids, along with top surrogates like Giuliani and Gingrich.
Tim Miller and Katie Packer, two Republican strategists who oppose Trump, conducted focus groups before the primaries where they tested attacks tied to the former president’s sex scandals with female swing voters. They concluded it was a political dead end.
“These voters were completely turned off and disgusted by it,” Miller said in an e-mail. “We found time and again these attacks turned Hillary into a victim and that it engendered sympathy for her.”
Packer said women showed little interest in judging Hillary Clinton’s behavior toward her husband’s accusers or the inner workings of her marriage.
“We know this is candy for Republican base voters ... but it doesn’t do you any favors with women we need to win elections,” Packer added in a phone interview.
Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant who worked for Giuliani, also reviewed focus group research on these kinds of attacks when Giuliani was considering a Senate bid against Hillary Clinton in 2000. He concluded it was “a recipe for blowback.”
“How do you make a person who is largely unsympathetic sympathetic?” Wilson said. “By engaging in a lot of attacks that most Americans find beyond the pale.”
Not everyone agrees. For years, a number of conservatives have raised the old Clinton scandals more freely. Some have argued that they might play differently with millennials too young to remember the impeachment era.
Ben Shapiro, editor of DailyWire.com and a fierce Clinton critic, said the Trump campaign might be able to use the issue as a way to muddy the waters over Trump’s behavior towards women, but not as a “first-strike launch.”
“Trump surrounds himself with guys who have a long history of problems with women, which precludes him from attacking Hillary unprovoked �— but she's provoked him, so neutering the argument is key,” Shapiro said.
Still, it's classic Trump: Brash and high-risk, likely to steal media attention and excite the base, even as it likely turns off other voters.
And Trump and his allies have telegraphed attacks on the sex scandals before, only to pull back before delivering them, suggesting they realized the danger here.
A draft speaker list for the Republican National Convention obtained by the New York Times suggested the sex scandals would be featured. That prompted Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, who as a member of Congress helped lead the effort to impeach Bill Clinton, to tell the Washington Post, “No, no, no ... That was covered once in our history. We don’t need to cover it again.”
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who had to navigate the Lewinsky scandal as a top strategist for then-vice president Al Gore in 2000, called it an “insane strategy” that “would backfire badly.”
And the backlash could be even more immediate and personal for Trump, Shrum warned, adding, “This coming from Donald Trump? [Reporters] will be all over the place asking for the unsealing of the papers from his first divorce.”
The issue has not been polled often in 2016, but Glamour Magazine commissioned a survey by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research which found even 56 percent of Republicans agreed “Hillary Clinton should not be judged for her husband’s record.” A large majority of voters said the scandals are not relevant to their vote.
“This is the wrong message and he's the wrong messenger on any of this,” said Marcy Stech, the communications director of Emily’s List, a Democratic group which works to elect women. “This is just a complete and desperate grasping at straws moment if he's going to that level.”