In a stunningly brazen move, Donald Trump met Sunday night with several women who have accused Bill Clinton of rape and other unwanted sexual advances, just over an hour before the Republican presidential nominee was stepping on the debate stage with the former president’s wife, Hillary Clinton.
The Trump pre-debate event was the clearest sign yet that he planned to use Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs to try to distract from the swirling controversy over his own predatory remarks about women. Trump is under enormous pressure from his own Republican Party after the release of a 2005 video in which the businessman can be heard saying his fame allows him to “do anything” to women.
Trump refused to answer questions from reporters about the video during his meeting in a hotel conference room with Paula Jones, Kathy Shelton, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey. Some of the women seated alongside him, however, were graphic in their accusations against the Clintons.
Broaddrick, a former Arkansas nursing home administrator, first claimed 17 years ago that Bill Clinton raped her during a meeting in Little Rock in 1978. Her lawsuit against him was dismissed in 2001 and criminal charges were never filed. Clinton has denied the allegations.
Trump is trying to change the subject from his own conduct. Even before Friday’s new revelations of his sexual remarks about women, his campaign was slumping. But the release of the 2005 video has some leading Republicans convinced the damage is insurmountable.
Even Trump’s most loyal supporters struggled to defend him on Sunday.
“They’re remarks you certainly don’t want to hear from anyone, much less a presidential candidate,” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, said on CNN. “I think he made a full and complete apology for it. He probably is going to do it again tonight.”
Clinton has stayed largely silent since the video was made public, though running mate Tim Kaine accused Trump of engaging in a “pattern of assaultive behavior.”
“I think there’s kind of a piece of the jigsaw puzzle missing in Donald Trump where he does not look at women and consider them as equal to himself,” Kaine said on CNN.
Trump’s troubles have almost completely overshadowed the release of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign that revealed the contents of previously secret paid speeches to Wall Street. Clinton told bankers behind closed doors that she favored “open trade.” Such remarks were at odds with her tough public comments.
Trump allies desperately hope the businessman can keep his focus in the debate on Clinton, raising questions about her trustworthiness and pushing his own populist economic ideas. The candidates will face questions in the town hall-style setting both from moderators and undecided voters seated with them on stage, a format that typically rewards candidates who show empathy and connect with the problems facing Americans.
But as Trump’s meeting with Clinton’s accusers indicated, he appeared to have other priorities.
Trump has long hinted he would raise Bill Clinton’s sexual history at debates. In what was billed as a videotaped apology for the 2005 videotaped remarks, Trump said “Bill Clinton has actually abused women” and Hillary Clinton “bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated” her husband’s “victims.”
Clinton’s campaign appeared unconcerned by the prospect of Trump raising Bill Clinton’s past.
“If that is how he chooses to spend his time in the debate, then that’s his decision,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters. “I’m not sure that’s what voters are going to want to hear.”
At a fundraiser in Chicago, President Barack Obama called Trump’s rhetoric “disturbing.” Obama said “it tells you that he’s insecure enough that he pumps himself up by putting other people down.”
Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has declared he could neither condone nor defend the remarks in the video revealed on Friday.
Other Republicans have taken the extraordinary step of revoking support for their party’s nominee. Among them: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte — both are running for re-election — and the party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Some called on Trump to quit the race.
“I thought about years from now when my daughter Kate is old enough to know what is in those tapes and to understand what he is talking about,” Ayotte said of her 12-year-old daughter during a press conference Sunday. “I want her to know where I stood.”
Trump spent Sunday morning highlighting Twitter messages from supporters who slammed Republican leaders for abandoning him. In his own message, Trump said, “So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers — and elections — go down!”
Republican leaders scheduled a rare Monday conference call for House GOP lawmakers, who are on recess. An email obtained by The Associated Press doesn’t specify the topic, but rank-and-file lawmakers believe it’s about Trump.