At her penultimate debate, the first female presidential candidate faces an inquisition from a deranged playboy about her marriage to a philanderer. It is hard to imagine a more melodramatic scenario. If she were scripting the election, Shonda Rhimes herself would dismiss it as wildly over the top. Yet here we are.
With his support among Republican officials cratering, Donald Trump has signaled that he’s going to use Sunday night’s debate to blast Hillary Clinton for enabling her husband’s sexual predation. Given that Trump’s current crisis stems from a tape in which he boasts of grabbing women “by the pussy,” this is an approach of even greater chutzpah than Mike Pence’s shameless gaslighting at the vice presidential debate last week. On Twitter Saturday night, Businessweek’s Joshua Green quoted a Trump source on the candidate’s strategy: “She’s as much an attacker of women as Bill. We’re fully loaded. She’s gonna have to confront her accusers.” Trump himself twice retweeted Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978. Said one tweet, “Hillary calls Trump’s remarks ‘horrific’ while she lives with and protects a ‘Rapist’. Her actions are horrific.” Then, on Sunday morning, Trump tweeted a link to a new Breitbart video interview with Broaddrick, in which she tearfully recounts Bill Clinton’s alleged assault. “I’m still afraid, especially if she becomes president,” Broaddrick says, her voice breaking.
To be clear, I’ve always found Broaddrick’s claims about Bill Clinton credible, though only the two of them know the truth. Five people say she told them about the assault right after it allegedly happened. She denied the rape in a 1997 affidavit filed with Paula Jones’ lawyers but changed her story the next year, when she was interviewed by the FBI in the course of Kenneth Starr’s investigation. At the time, some Clinton defenders treated her changing story as evidence of her untrustworthiness, but it seems perfectly plausible that, as she told the New York Times, she hadn’t wanted to go public but also felt she couldn’t lie to federal investigators. In the 1990s, Clinton defenders sometimes pointed to the fact that Broaddrick attended a Clinton fundraiser three weeks after she says he raped her. But we know it’s not uncommon for rape victims to blame themselves and continue to seek their rapists’ favor. After all, I also believe Jill Harth, who accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment and attempted rape, even though later, reeling from a divorce, she became his girlfriend.
Far less credible, however, is Broaddrick’s claim that Hillary Clinton tried to intimidate her into silence. Even after Broaddrick went public with the rape charges, she initially denied that anyone tried to silence her. “Did Bill Clinton or anyone near him ever threaten you, try to intimidate you, do anything to keep you silent?” Dateline’s Lisa Myers asked her in 1999. “No,” Broaddrick replied. But a few months later, Broaddrick gave an interview to the Drudge Report in which she said that Hillary had indeed tried to shut her up, albeit very subtly. At the Clinton fundraiser Broaddrick attended, she told Drudge, Hillary “caught me and took my hand and said ‘I am so happy to meet you. I want you to know that we appreciate everything you do for Bill.’ ” Broaddrick interpreted this as a threat, but it sounds like the kind of thing a candidate’s wife at a political event would say to all his supporters. Even in her rendering of Hillary’s words, there is nothing outwardly sinister in them.
As I’ve written before, everything we know about the Clintons’ marriage tells us that Bill took pains to hide his affairs from his wife. In A Woman in Charge, Hillary’s biographer Carl Bernstein describes how Bill initially refused to settle a lawsuit with Paula Jones—setting off the events that led to impeachment—because he feared admitting a sexual encounter to Hillary. “Bill didn’t dare acknowledge to his wife that something had transpired with Jones, so he rolled the dice and risked his presidency on the outcome—just as he would when he denied for months that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky,” Bernstein writes.
If Trump really does insist on going nuclear on the Broaddrick charges at Sunday night’s debate, I hope Hillary sticks closely to what she’s been accused of—greeting a woman who would later call her husband a rapist in what that woman interpreted as a menacing tone of voice. When you examine every accusation of Hillary as an “attacker” of women, it ends up looking equally flimsy. Claims that Hillary Clinton smeared Monica Lewinsky rest on the fact that, after learning of her husband’s dalliance, she called her a “narcissistic loony toon” in a private letter to a close friend. Some on the right think Trump should hit Clinton for representing, as a young lawyer, a poor man charged with raping a 12-year-old named Kathy Shelton. But the judge in the case had appointed her, and as the prosecutor in the case has recounted, she accepted only reluctantly. Bill Clinton’s history with women is hard to defend. Hillary Clinton’s history is not. And her own history is all she should be accountable for Sunday night.