Donald Trump has all but promised us that in 2016 we will revisit the peregrinations of Bill Clinton’s penis. “You look at whether it’s Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones or many of them,” he said Tuesday on NBC’s Today show. “That certainly will be fair game. Certainly if they play the woman’s card with respect to me, that will be fair game.” Like that, thanks to Trump’s near-supernatural command of the news cycle, Bill’s sexual history returned to the headlines. With Bill about to head out on the campaign trail—and with Hillary putting gender issues at the center of her bid for the presidency—it’s likely to stay there for a while.
Among Democrats, the conventional wisdom is that this can only help Hillary. Bill Clinton remains incredibly popular. People historically rally around Hillary when she seems like a victim—her approval ratings surged during the Lewinsky scandal. Besides, the oft-married Trump can’t credibly attack anyone for infidelity, especially given his own past defenses of Bill, whose only sin, in Trump’s estimation, was not cheating with hotter women. As Josh Marshall writes, “[I]n a general election, with an electorate not driven by the things that drive Trump supporters, having a thrice married, philandering blowhard like Trump trying to beat up on a woman over her husband’s philandering, about which she is if anything the victim rather than the perpetrator, is almost comically self-destructive on Trump’s part.”
Right now, though, we’re pretty far from a general election. And I’m not so sanguine that this can’t hurt Hillary, if only by undermining Bill’s effectiveness as a campaigner and complicating Hillary’s feminist message. That’s because, for the right, the Clinton sex scandals aren’t about infidelity. They’re about sexual harassment and assault. Conservatives are itching to turn the new feminist consensus on sexual violence against the woman who wants to be the first feminist president. As a New Hampshire voter asked Hillary Clinton earlier this month, “You say that all rape victims should be believed. But would you say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and/or Paula Jones?” Clinton’s somewhat awkward response: “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first, until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
Right-wing journalists and operatives have been laying the groundwork for an attack on Bill Clinton’s sexual history for months. In October, former Trump adviser Roger Stone published The Clintons’ War on Women, with a forward by Kathleen Willey, the former White House volunteer who claims that Bill groped her. Willey—who, according to the independent counsel report on Whitewater, gave false information both in a legal deposition and to the FBI—has launched a website seeking other women willing to publicly accuse Clinton of sexual impropriety. In November, right-wing radio host Aaron Klein landed an interview with the usually press-shy Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978, when he was Arkansas attorney general. Speaking to Klein, Broaddrick railed against Hillary’s attempt to position herself as a champion of women.
The cases of Jones, Willey, and Broaddrick have been very thoroughly investigated and endlessly chewed over. No evidence against Bill Clinton was ever found, though he did settle Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit for $850,000. But our rules for talking about sexual assault have changed since the 1990s, when these women were last in the news. Today, feminists have repeatedly and convincingly made the case that when women say they’ve been sexually assaulted, we should assume they’re telling the truth. Particularly when it comes to Broaddrick, it’s not easy to square the arguments against believing her with the dominant progressive consensus on trusting victims. This is a tension that people on the right are eager to exploit.
Let’s recap. In 1999, Broaddrick publicly claimed that Bill Clinton had raped her in a hotel room 21 years earlier. She reportedly told a few people about the alleged assault at the time, and right-wing operatives shopped the story during Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Broaddrick refused to talk, however, and she later denied the rape in an affidavit in the Paula Jones case. It was only when she was interviewed by the FBI in the course of Kenneth Starr’s investigation that she changed her story and said the rape had in fact happened. (In the New York Times, she explained the about-face by saying she hadn’t wanted to go public but felt she couldn’t lie to federal investigators.) Shortly afterward, frustrated with rumors that had begun to circulate about her, she gave several high-profile interviews.
We will probably never know the truth of what happened between Broaddrick and Clinton. But today, few feminists would find her shifting story disqualifying. Consider, also, another piece of evidence that was marshaled against Broaddrick in the 1990s: Three weeks after the alleged assault, she attended a fundraiser for Clinton. Speaking to Klein, she says she was traumatized and blamed herself for what happened. “I felt responsible. I don’t know if you know the mentality of women and men at that time. But me letting him come to my room? I accepted full blame.” In any other context, most feminists today would find this credible. After all, many were outraged when rape skeptics tried to discredit Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz because she’d sent friendly Facebook messages to her alleged rapist after the alleged rape.
To be clear: I don’t think for a moment that the people who hope to use Broaddrick against Hillary care about victim blaming. And it would be a profound sexist irony if these accusations, having failed to derail Bill Clinton’s political career, came back to haunt his wife. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why many on the right are giddy at the prospect of a new national conversation about Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, and thrilled that Trump is giving them one. As Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro told the Washington Post, “The irony of the situation is that the old Clintonian defense, ‘everybody lies about sex,’ doesn’t fly in a world in which Hillary has declared that nobody lies about sexual assault.”
Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, published a piece on Wednesday titled, “A guide to the allegations of Bill Clinton’s womanizing.” It is divided into “Consensual affairs” and “Allegations of an unwanted sexual encounter.” Kessler’s bottom line: “Trump’s claim is a bit too vague for a fact check. In any case, we imagine readers will have widely divergent reactions to this list of admitted affairs and unproven allegations of unwanted sexual encounters. But at least you now know the specific cases that Trump is referencing.” Trump likely knew what he was doing in getting Kessler to remind us.