Last week, Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton had been badly beaten by Barack Obama in 2008. Except instead of saying “badly beaten,” he used a sexual euphemism that’s a colorful synonym for the F-bomb. The media, as per usual, spent the next 24-72 hours obsessing over what Trump had said. Clinton’s campaign accused him of sexism. “Hillary for America” communications director Jennifer Palmieri said:
No one will be surprised that major media by and large agreed with the Clinton campaign that this was humiliating and degrading language and that it was sexist. Many angst-ridden columns were written. Trump defended his use of the term, made easier by evidence that journalists had used the word in the same context previously. The freakout over the term died down over the weekend, followed by news that Hillary would be sending her husband, former President Bill Clinton, out on the trail to help her out. Trump responded:
If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women's card on me, she's wrong!
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2015
Oh no he di-int!
See, younger journalists and other millennials may have very little understanding of this, but the 1990s were politically exhausting in large part because of the many, many, many, many, many allegations of sexual abuse and harassment on the part of Bill Clinton. He was famously impeached on one count of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice for how he lied about the sexual relationship he had with just one of these women, his young intern (word to the wise: don’t read the footnotes of the Starr Report if you have and want to keep an even slightly favorable view of the former president, yeegads). He defended his lies about the sex he had with her on the grounds that he didn’t know oral sex (Of various kinds! Again, do not read the footnotes!) was sex, and that he could — and would! — quibble about the meaning of the word “is.” It was like everything you hate about how Hillary Clinton parses her wrongdoing, but with women claiming rape, exploitation, assault, and other wrongdoing.
And younger folks might not quite get the arrangement that Americans worked out with the former President, which is that they were content to pretend the aggrieved women didn’t exist if he’d just lay low and not make everyone deal with his insecurities and immoral behavior constantly.
Americans also generally held mixed views on how Hillary Clinton handled the sexual transgressions of her husband. On the one hand, she was the wounded wife. On the other, she blamed other people for his infidelities, and was reported to have targeted his accusers and certainly not defended them or believed them. The “rape culture” moment we’re in requires tweets like the following. But Clinton’s behavior when it came to allegations against her husband could not have been more opposed.
It’s not the first time she’s said something like that.
"To every survivor of sexual assault…You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We're with you." —Hillary
Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 14, 2015
Combine this with her strident defense of abortion on demand and the country’s largest abortion corporation Planned Parenthood, which ends more than 300,000 human lives in utero each year. If Clinton is going to run a campaign based largely on the Democrats’ once-successful “War on Women” messaging, she’s got trouble. But only if someone brings it up. And the media were never going to bring it up.
Until Donald Trump did. Say what you want about the man, the media can’t resist hanging on every word he utters. So when he tweeted that Bill Clinton was a liability to Hillary because of his “terrible record of women abuse,” they had to cover it.
Even before Trump really pushed the issue, it was getting out a bit. You had CNN’s Don Lemon cut the microphone off of Kurt Schlichter when he suggested that Clinton’s actions in the oval office were worse than Trump’s use of a sexual term. Lemon said something about this being old news and previously litigated. Schlichter said it had been litigated in the court of public opinion, with Clinton found beyond guilty. And Ruth Marcus was forced to admit that “Bill Clinton’s sordid sexual history is fair game.”
CNN struggled a bit with how to discuss the former president’s problem, with one host wondering whether he was sexist or merely liked women. Savanna Guthrie had a trio of interesting responses. She said:
You also said that he has — this is a different tweet, quote, “a terrible record of women abuse,” and I wondered if you could get specific about that. What do you mean? what are you referring to in particular? …
You mentioned Monica Lewinsky. Are you saying an alleged extramarital affair, that, of course, he has now admitted, is that fair game in a campaign?…
Right, exactly. Are you saying an extra marital affair by Bill Clinton is fair game and something that you think should be talking about in the campaign?
First off, should Trump really be asked to expand on Clinton’s terrible record of women abuse? How many women is it at this point whose names we actually know? Ten? Twenty? There’s playing journalist, and there’s playing dumb, and it’s hard to see which one is happening here.
Second, it wasn’t an “alleged” sexual relationship, it was an actual relationship and it was with an intern, if that matters.
Finally, why the heck wouldn’t it be “fair game?” It’s of course fair game to ask how the president of the United States acted in a predatory fashion toward an intern. In what world would that not be fair game?
This is why people cotton to Donald Trump. Because the media have ridiculous double standards where major media outlets can run stories on the front page, containing no evidence whatsoever, alleging sexual infidelities on the part of candidates they oppose, while wondering if you can discuss the former president’s oral-anal fixation even after it’s mentioned in court documents. And the Republican candidates put up with it until Donald Trump comes along and plays a bit of hardball.
The muckraker Ken Silverstein has an explosive piece about Bill Clinton’s relationship with pedophile Jeffrey Epstein over at The Observer (owned by Trump’s son-in-law), which includes a list of questions he’d like answered. He begins:
WASHINGTON—Why is no one in the D.C. political class and media bubble talking about the Jeffrey Epstein affair? Well, it’s not true that they’re not talking about it at all; they’re just not (for the most part) talking about it honestly or asking the right questions. And the right questions are:
Exactly how tight is the friendship between former President and potential future first gentleman Bill Clinton and Mr. Epstein, who owns a private island in Florida and is now accused of having sex with girls as young as 12 and procuring young girls for sex with other friends of his? What was Bill Clinton doing on the island with Mr. Epstein on multiple occasions and why did he fly overseas on Mr. Epstein’s plane at least 10 times?
What hardball PR and legal tactics will Hillary Clinton’s campaign use to try to make this potential problem—which could potentially derail her planned presidential bid—disappear? Will those tactics work, or is Ms. Clinton’s campaign already dead, even if the exact time of the funeral is not yet known?
So yes, if Hillary Clinton wants to run for office, tweet about rape culture and bring ol’ Bill out to help her, it’s all fair game. And it’s a game that does not play to her strengths. Donald Trump was smart to bring it up, particularly in the fashion he did. He’s not saying either Clinton’s behavior is disqualifying, just that they can’t play the sexism card with him without him bringing it up.
And in the same way that Trump reminded Republican voters this week about why they rejected Christie in the first place (hint: Obama embrace in the Fall of 2012), Trump is reminding all Americans why they grew so weary of the Clintons so long ago.
It may not be polite, but it’s ruthlessly effective and efficient.