Donald Trump has his own Bill Clinton problems

If the 42nd president is a drag on his wife's presidential hopes, he's worse for Donald Trump

Wouldn't it be nice if we could just get all the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump garbage out in the open now, pour it in some toxic news dump and sift through it for a week, air out all the shiny pieces, then go back to talking for six months about which policies are better for America?

If your answer is no, that would be boring, you're in luck.

These past two weeks, essentially the first in the general election campaign, Trump has taken us back to the 1990s, the Bill Clinton presidency, especially Clinton's extramarital affairs, even an unsubstantiated rape allegation and the nutty idea that Bill and Hillary had their friend Vince Foster iced. Bill Clinton has sometimes been a distraction when stumping for his wife's presidential campaign, and he arguably does more harm than good.

But Donald Trump has his own Bill Clinton problems, and refighting the political wars from the 1990s won't fix them. To begin with, as Paul Waldman notes, these scandals were endlessly litigated in the 1990s, and Clinton essentially won.

That's in part because many voters saw impeachment as an overreach, even though Clinton had lied (or relied on an obscure definition of "sexual relations") under oath about an affair with an intern during a six-year, $50 million taxpayer-funded investigation into a 1980s failed Arkansas land deal. (Yes, that is the Whitewater affair that Trump's campaign accidentally disclosed it will be dredging up to attack Hillary Clinton.) It's also because his main Republican antagonists in the impeachment trial — House Speakers Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, and (we now know) Dennis Hastert, plus Sen. Henry Hyde — each had their own history of illicit sexual encounters; Gingrich was having an affair while pushing to impeach Clinton.

And that brings us to Donald Trump's first Bill Clinton problem:

1. Trump has no business attacking Clinton's affairs.

Is that because Trump, too, has had extramarital affairs? Sure. Is it because he has called Bill a friend, "a terrific guy," who did "a terrific job" as president? Kind of. But the big problem for Trump is that he has already exonerated Clinton for any peccadilloes in the 1990s.

In an August 1998 interview, for example — the one where Trump called Clinton accuser Paula Jones "a loser" — Chris Matthews asked Trump if he would ever run for president. Trump said no, "can you imagine how controversial that'd be? You think about [Clinton] with the women. How about me with the women? Can you imagine...." Matthews made a cigar joke, and Trump reconsidered: "Well, they might like my women better, too, you know." As late as 2008, Trump called the Lewinsky affair "something that was totally unimportant," and argued in 2001 that Bill Clinton's big mistake is that he didn't take invoke his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent during the questioning about Lewinsky.

Changing your opinion of a friend is very different than suddenly expressing horror at sexual activity you already called "totally unimportant." At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf points out that there are really only two explanations for Trump's pivot:

Perhaps Donald Trump truly believes that Bill Clinton is a rapist, or at best "one of the worst abusers of women" in U.S. history, as he said. And therefore, Trump invited a man he believes to be a rapist to his wedding, where Trump had his new wife pose beside the ostensible abuser, Trump smiling as the man he believed to be a sexual predator posed with his arm encircling his new bride's waist.

Or maybe Trump doesn't actually believe that Bill Clinton is a rapist, or one of the worst abusers of women in history. Rather, he is cynically and falsely publicizing a rape accusation, knowing the accused may well be innocent, because spreading it will help Trump to win power. A frivolous or disingenuous rape accusation would typically make Trump supporters apoplectic.... They regard false rape accusations as serious if not unforgivable transgressions. [The Atlantic]

Neither option looks very good for Trump. And yet he soldiers on, "a walking contradiction," as Chuck Todd said on Wednesday's NBC Today. "He has contradicted every single attack he's made on the Clintons. You can find sound to contradict it. It doesn't touch him."

Trump's rationale, Todd said, is that he was a private citizen, not a politician, when he said nice things about the Clintons, and that being nice to powerful people is good for business. Which brings us to Trump's second Bill Clinton problem:

2. Talking about Clinton makes Trump looking like a lying, misogynist jerk.

When explaining why he is talking differently about Bill Clinton now, Trump is essentially saying that he used to be a private-sector liar, but now that he's a politician, he's a truth-teller. That's counterintuitive, but that's the campaign's story and they're sticking to it. When CNN's Chris Cuomo asked Trump's longtime attorney and political adviser, Michael Cohen, at what point Trump was lying about Bill Clinton, in the 1990s or now, Cohen replied: "He was not lying. He was protecting a friend. There's a difference."

What's that difference? Cuomo asked. Trump "was being a true friend," Cohen said. He elaborated: "He was a private citizen who was friendly with the Clintons, and he was trying to protect a friend, all right. Now, it's a different game. It's 2016." Cuomo pressed on, asking: "Why would I trust you if you say all the things you said then were false?" Trump "was a private individual," Cohen said. When he was bad-mouthing the women accusing Clinton of sexual misconduct, Cohen suggested, Trump "was standing up for a man who he considered to be a friend at the time."

That's essentially the "bros-before-hos" defense, and it's an interesting strategy for raising Trump's dismal favorability numbers with women.

3. Trump wants spouses to be untouchable, except Hillary Clinton's.

Two of Trump's rockiest moments this campaign are when a Ted Cruz super PAC ran an ad showing a scantily clad Melania Trump, and when GQ published a long profile of Trump's wife. In the first instance, Donald Trump retweeted an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz to his legions of Twitter followers. After the GQ article, Trump said to leave his wife out of this. George Stephanopoulos asked the obvious follow-up.

"There was an article in GQ about your wife Melania this week," he told Trump on ABC News earlier this month. "And you said that spouses should be off the table, but you are willing to talk about Bill Clinton. Should he be off the table as well?" Trump eventually got to no. "It depends if he's involved in the campaign," he said. "I think if he's involved in the campaign, he shouldn't be. And I — he probably will be involved. I think he gets involved when she plays the women's card."

Now this is nonsense, on its face. First of all, Melania Trump is involved in Trump's campaign — she appears with him at campaign events, she has been interviewed about the campaign on TV, and she has stumped for her husband. If Bill Clinton's participation in his wife's campaign makes him a target, Trump's exemption of his wife makes no sense. Second of all, Hillary Clinton pointing out the offensive things Trump has really said about women doesn't have anything to do with Bill Clinton.

Trump's response is that Hillary Clinton is an "enabler." Or as he told Stephanopoulos: "Hillary Clinton's husband abused women more than any man that we know of in the history of politics, right. She's married to a man who was the worst abuser of women in the history of politics. She's married to a man who hurt many women." But surely Trump would be outraged if anyone in the Clinton camp called Ivana Trump, his first wife and mother of his children, an "enabler" of Donald Trump's affair with the future second Mrs. Trump, Marla Maples, when he was still married.

If only some spouses are off-limits, then Trump has to come up with a better explanation why his wife is untouchable — not that anyone in the Clinton camp is attacking her — and Bill Clinton is not. Otherwise he's playing his own "woman's card." Which brings us to Trump's final Bill Clinton problem:

4. Trump is trying to get in the Clintons' heads, and its backfiring.

Bill Clinton's extramarital dalliances are "fair game," as Slate's Jim Newell points out, but it's a time-tested electoral dud. Did Trump really think the Clintons didn't expect this? So far, when confronted with Trump's taunts, neither Clinton has taken the bait. In fact, bringing up Bill Clinton and women only highlights Donald Trump's Mad Men-era way of talking about women, and as Newell contends, plausibly, it reminds even many politically moderate women why they don't like Trump's party in the first place — restricting access to contraception, attacking Planned Parenthood, scrapping WIC benefits. Talking about the "women's card," he says, "only reinforces how clueless the party is about the ill will such policymaking priorities created, especially among unmarried women."

Donald Trump fashions himself as a "counter-puncher," by which he means he only hits people who attack him first, and often he tries to hit them harder. He appears to be serious about this, even proud of it; to him, it sounds chivalrous, just like treating your date nicely is a sign that you are pro-woman. It's actually pretty juvenile, the grown-up version of the 5-year-old's lament: "But, she started it!" (It also is a terrible trait for a presidential candidate — would you really want a thin-skinned, egocentric commander-in-chief going nuclear if he perceives a slight from a foreign leader?)

Trump has the political bully's instinct to attack his opponent's perceived strengths — "Trusted" Ted Cruz became Lyin' Ted, smart and wonky Jeb Bush became Low-energy Jeb — and Bill Clinton will be one of Hillary's assets in the general election. Bill is "the most gifted politician of the baby boomer generation," said none other than Kenneth Starr — yes, the one from the Whitewater/Lewinsky prosecution — to The New York Times this week. "His genuine empathy for human beings is absolutely clear.... The 'I feel your pain' is absolutely genuine."

So it's not foolhardy to try and "muddy up the image of the fondly remembered former president, Hillary Clinton's most effective proxy," as Slate's Newell puts it. "If you can turn Bill Clinton into a liability, you've greatly increased your chances of defeating Hillary Clinton."

But it also carries risks, especially for Trump. That old saying about throwing stones from glass houses? Donald Trump has a glass tower with his name in big gold letters, and Bill Clinton has good aim.

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