WASHINGTON — An unrepentant Donald Trump, under fire for his lewd remarks about women, presided over an ugly night in U.S. politics on Sunday.
Trump appeared with women who figured in Bill Clinton’s 1990s sex-scandals stories at a press conference just before his town-hall style debate with Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis.
As a practical matter, the women whose names once dominated sizzling headlines — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — may seem like the distant past to voters.
A fourth woman in the group, Kathy Shelton, was a rape victim when she was 12. In 1975, Clinton represented the man accused of raping her when she was a private attorney in Arkansas.
Trump brought all four to the debate, where they sat in front of two Illinois Democrats: Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez.
Trump on Sunday hit the gutter — or whatever is lower than the gutter.
He said Clinton has hate in her heart. He called her the “devil.”
Trump said if he were the president, he would appoint a special prosecutor to find a way to put Clinton in jail. That’s unheard of, a presidential contender threatening to bend the justice system to investigate, convict and imprison a rival.
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He rambled. He ranted. He complained about the moderators, ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper — who only sought time and again for Trump to focus on the question at hand.
Trump took the high-risk, low-road disgusting route as Republican leaders have been deserting him over the weekend after a video surfaced Friday of Trump talking about sex and how his fame allows him to grab women at their private parts — among other graphic details.
The reality show star delivered a dismal, unauthentic apology near midnight on Friday for his 2005 remarks, where he mitigated whatever bit of sorry he said by adding he would go after Bill Clinton at the Sunday debate.
Prudent self-serving political behavior called for Trump, with a massive primetime television audience, to apologize again and show a shred of humanity.
Trump shrugged off the video. “This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family. I apologized to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk,” Trump said.
Asked directly if he ever did any of the sexual predatory things he bragged about on the video, he said “no.” He tried to turn the conversation to important issues but ended up looking evasive, not persuasive.
Let’s be clear: Trump was not in a locker room. He was at work in the 2005 video, taping an “Access Hollywood” show.
While not proud of his locker room words, Trump took the gamble that dragging in Bill Clinton’s sexual lapses will make him the president.
“There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women. So you can say it any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women,” Trump said. “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. Four of them are here tonight.”
Bill Clinton and Chelsea were in the audience.
Knowing what was coming, Bill Clinton shook hands with Melania Trump and three of Trump’s children before the town hall-style debate started with electric anticipation.
Trump and Clinton did not shake hands when they walked on the stage.
Later in the debate, Trump showed no empathy, or ability to speak coherently about policy or even mount an effective offense on Clinton’s major vulnerabilities, her use of a private email service and her highly paid Wall Street speeches.
Trump was combative and defiant at a debate he sorely needed to do well in to save his candidacy, which may be doomed because of his own words.
Clinton never mentioned the women, or her husband, even as Trump said that what Bill Clinton did was worse than him.
I asked an Illinois Trump backer, Mark Fratella, to share his reaction to Trump on the point of whether he got ahead of the video scandal. When I talked to Fratella on Sunday afternoon, he said Trump needed to make a full, genuine apology.
“He dropped the ball on the apology. It wasn’t sincere and just seemed perfunctory,” Fratella said. Fratella didn’t think it was smart to bring up the Bill Clinton issues.
What worked, Fratella said, is when Trump said Clinton ought to be in jail.
It is a line that plays to Trump’s base. But Trump needs a lot more at this point than to rally his base. He needs to keep his campaign alive for the next month.