ST. LOUIS ― At this point, there is no question that Hillary Clinton’s marital history will come up Sunday night during the second presidential debate. The only question is what else Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump may do to embarrass himself, his party and his country in this nightmare of a campaign.
“I’ve said some foolish things, but there is a big difference between words and actions,” Trump said in a video his campaign released Saturday morning. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days.”
The statement ― issued nearly 12 hours after a 2005 recording emerged of Trump speaking about women in lewd and derogatory terms ― was less a sincere apology and more a declaration of war. The comments about unwanted sexual advances and groping women did not matter because they were more than a decade old, Trump claimed, yet he maintained that former President Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and scandals ― and his wife’s response to them ― were fair game.
The faux apology did little to staunch the steady wave of GOP defections over the weekend. Many party officials initially issued cautious condemnations, calling Trump’s comments “inexcusable,” “repulsive” or “sickening” ― without indicating whether they were withdrawing their support for the nominee. Others, however, went further by calling on Trump to exit the race entirely and allow his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to assume the nomination.
Trump, for his part, vowed defiantly that he would “never” drop out.
“I’m not quitting this race,” he told The Washington Post on Saturday. “I have tremendous support.”
Some of the GOP nominee’s biggest boosters suggested on Saturday that their continued support hinged on Trump’s debate performance at St. Louis’ Washington University. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Saturday in a statement that he was not rescinding his endorsement of Trump ― but added that he would be “watching tomorrow night’s debate very closely.”
Corker, who legitimized Trump in the primary by praising his foreign policy plan, may be in for a rude awakening.
Trump is reportedly planning on attacking Clinton over what his campaign is calling her husband’s “sex crimes.” Trump offered a preview of the attack last month ― calling Clinton an “enabler” of “the single greatest abuser of women in the history of politics.” The blame-the-victim tactic may further alienate female voters, who already view the brash businessman unfavorably given his previous derogatory comments.
Going after Clinton’s marital history could also backfire in a town hall-style debate format. Unlike the first debate at Hofstra University in New York, in which television cameras only showed the candidates frozen in place, Sunday’s debate will offer both Trump and Clinton an opportunity to interact with undecided voters in the crowd. A particularly ugly exchange between the two candidates could potentially be made even worse by the audience’s reaction.
Trump’s campaign on Thursday held a rare town hall event in New Hampshire that looked a lot like an attempt to ready the candidate for Sunday’s debate ― even providing him with a two-minute timer to simulate the rules. But the GOP nominee often blew through the time limit, answering pre-selected soft-ball questions for just 30 minutes.
The real estate mogul was in for a bruising night even before his latest controversial comments were unearthed. He had what many called the worst week of modern presidential politics in the days surrounding the first debate. He alleged baselessly that Clinton had cheated on her husband. He imitated her pneumonia-induced collapse at a campaign rally. He spent days arguing that a former Miss Universe he once employed was overweight.
A series of disastrous news reports also added fuel to the flames amid the continuing fallout. The New York Times reported the businessman had declared an eye-popping $916 million loss in his 1995 tax forms, which could have led him to legally avoid paying federal income taxes for two decades. BuzzFeed News reported that Trump once appeared in a Playboy soft-core porn film. The Associated Press reported that Trump repeatedly demeaned female contestants on the set of his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” Newsweek reported that Trump’s company violated the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Any one story would have sunk a presidential candidate in a normal election year. On Sunday night, however, the impulsive, short-tempered, thin-skinned reality TV star will likely do what he usually does when cornered ― lash out wildly, with no regard for himself or his party.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.