Donald Trump came to the second presidential debate with what many of his supporters consider the most powerful weapon against Hillary Clinton: the women who accuse her husband of harassment and sexual assault.
After holding a brief press conference with them beforehand, Trump invited Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathy Shelton to be his guests at the second presidential debate, where they sat as literal reminders of the troubling sexual allegations against Hillary Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton. (Shelton, who was raped at 12 by a man that Hillary Clinton later defended, was the only of the four not linked to Bill's sexual misconduct.)
If Hillary Clinton attacked Trump over his comments that he can "do anything" to women because he's "a star," all Trump had to do was point to his four counterpoints sitting in the first row.
And that's just what he did. When Trump was asked early on about the recently leaked audio tape, he immediately pivoted to Bill Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct, and the (much less well-substantiated) accusation that Hillary Clinton sought to smear his accusers:
"If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse: mine are words, his was action. This is what he has done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women, so you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. Four of them are here tonight."
The move was a clear attempt to both neutralize criticism of his own behavior and to put a dent into one of Clinton's main campaign assets, her long record of supporting women and girls. But it's up for serious debate whether Hillary "attacked them viciously," and there has never been any official corroboration of any claims of Hillary Clinton's alleged intimidation of these women.
But here is what Jones, Willey, Broaddrick and Shelton allege:
She was a state employee who was working at the registration desk at a 1991 convention where Bill Clinton was speaking as Governor of Arkansas. She said a Clinton bodyguard escorted her to a hotel room where she met Clinton. Once in the room, Jones testified in Federal District Court in 1997 that Clinton tried to kiss her, put his hands up her culottes, lowered his pants, and asked her to perform oral sex. She says she repeatedly rebuffed his advances and eventually left the room. Clinton's attorneys called Jones's allegations "baseless." In 1994 Jones held a press conference, organized by a conservative organization, to make the claim publicly. Later that year she filed a civil suit that asked for $700,000 and an apology from Clinton. The case was settled in 1998 for $850,000 with no admission of wrongdoing. Clinton's attorneys said the President chose to settle the lawsuit in because he was "not prepared to spend one more hour on this matter."
According to journalist Gail Sheehy, who spent a good deal of time with the Clintons throughout the '90s and wrote Hillary's Choice, Hillary was the reason it took so long to settle the Paula Jones case: she wanted to hold out in the hope that the whole thing would go away.
Willey was a volunteer at the White House in November of 1993 while Clinton was President. She met with the President in the personal study next to the Oval Office to ask for a paying job because of financial difficulties. She said in a 1998 60 Minutes interview that Clinton gave her a hug, put his hands in her hair and fondled her. She said she left the personal study when there was a knock on the door. Clinton denied the encounter under oath before a grand jury. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr investigated the allegation and concluded that "Willey and President Clinton are the only two direct witnesses to their meeting and their accounts differ substantially on the crucial facts of what occurred." His report concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove Willey's allegation beyond a reasonable doubt.
On Willey's website, A Scandal A Day, she claims she was "intimidated, threatened and terrorized" by Hillary Clinton and her "secret police," and that Clinton orchestrated a "reign of terror" on her, although no official investigations have corroborated this allegation. But former Trump aide and major Clinton conspiracy theorist Roger Stone has said that Trump made a financial contribution to Willey in order to allow her to campaign for him.
Broaddrick was a nursing home executive when Bill Clinton was the Attorney General of Arkansas. She says she requested a meeting about nursing homes in 1978. She says they planned to meet in a hotel restaurant in Little Rock, but he asked to come to her room to avoid press attention. In interviews with various media outlets including the Washington Post and the New York Times, Broaddrick says Clinton forcibly kissed, bit her lip, threw her on the bed, had sex with her over her objections . She most recently recalled the alleged rape in a video interview with Breitbart News, the conservative news outlet recently run by Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon.
Rumors of the accusation spread during the 1990s. In a 1997 affadavit for the Paula Jones lawsuit, Broaddrick (known as Jane Doe #5) denied the accusation under oath and said there is "no truth to the rumors." She then changed her mind and went public with numerous interviews in the late 1990s. Clinton's lawyers called Broaddrick's claims "absolutely false," and charges were never filed.
In the Breitbart News video released Sunday, Broaddrick also recalled that Hillary Clinton pressured her to stay silent about the alleged attack, although her recollection is rooted in Clinton's tone and facial expression rather than any concrete action. She says a few weeks after her encounter with Bill, Hillary Clinton came up to her at a fundraiser and said "I just want to thank you for everything you're doing in Bill's campaign and it's so nice to meet you." Broaddrick then recalled that she was Clinton had a "very angry look on her face." "The look that she gave me, I felt like she knew, and that she was telling me to keep quiet," Broaddrick says.
In Trump's press conference Sunday, Broaddrick repeated her accusation. "I tweeted recently and Mr. Trump retweeted it, that actions speak louder than words," she said. "Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don't think there's any comparison."
Shelton says was raped at age 12 by 41-year-old Thomas Alfred Taylor, whom Hillary Clinton defended in court. Clinton, then 27, was appointed by a judge to serve as Taylor's attorney while she was doing legal aid work in Fayetteville. She asked to be relieved of that responsibility but her request was not granted, so, as she put it in an interview with the British network Mumset, she felt she "had a professional duty to represent my client to the best of my ability." That meant filing a sworn affidavit requesting an evaluation of Shelton, the victim, on the grounds that Shelton could be "emotionally unstable" and "children in early adolescence tend to exaggerate or romanticize." Her legal work on Taylor's behalf meant that he served only a year in prison for a crime that would ordinarily carry upwards of a 15-year prison sentence. Legal experts say she argued the case in a way that was consistent with the legal and ethical standards of the time. Clinton later said she believed Taylor was guilty, but it was her obligation to give him the best defense she could. He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
"At twelve years old, Hillary put me through something that you'd never put a twelve-year old through," Shelton said in Trump press conference Sunday. "She says she's for women and children." Shelton later referred to Clinton "laughing" during a taped interview about the case, but that allegation is taken out of context—Clinton briefly scoffed about the fallibility of lie detector tests, but never mocked the seriousness of the crime or the pain of the victim.
Ironically, Trump himself once called Clinton’s accusers, including Jones, “a terrible group” and “unattractive,” even going so far as to say that Clinton was “a victim himself.” “The whole group, Paula Jones, Lewinsky, it’s just a really unattractive group,” Trump told FOX News’s Neil Cavuto in a 1998 interview. “I mean they’ve made Watergate out of really what should’ve been nothing."
When Trump brought up the four women sitting in the audience, Clinton attempted her own deflection. "So much of what he just said is not right, but he gets to run his campaign any way he chooses. He gets to decide what he gets to talk about, instead of answering people's questions, laying out the plans we have that make a better life and a better country. That's his choice," she said. "When I hear something like that, I am reminded of what my friend, Michelle Obama, advised us all: 'When they go low, you go high.'"