Less than two hours before his debate with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, Trump held a press conference with several women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of various forms of sexual misconduct.
The most famous of these women is Paula Jones, whose sexual harassment lawsuit led eventually to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. But the most serious allegation against Clinton comes from another woman who was at Trump’s side on Sunday.
That woman is Juanita Broaddrick, a retired Arkansas nursing home operator who says Clinton raped her nearly 40 years ago ― a charge that the former president has said is untrue. On Sunday night, Broaddrick and the other accusers sat in the debate hall in St. Louis, the cameras repeatedly panning to them.
“If you look at Bill Clinton ― far worse ― mine are words and his was action,” Trump said at one point during the debate. “His was what he’s done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women.”
Trump claims that these women’s stories are especially relevant now because Hillary Clinton has at various times tried to bully or silence them. It’s a shaky assertion that looks a lot like an effort to distract attention from Trump’s own record of misconduct, which includes not just lewd behavior but instances where Trump has been specifically, credibly accused of sexual assault. Trump has denied those accusations, but they dovetail with his very public history of misogyny.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean Broaddrick’s rape allegation is untrue. Like so many allegations of sexual assault, Broaddrick’s story is both unproven and plausible. But its relevance to the 2016 election is a separate question.
Broaddrick’s tale ― which NBC’s “Dateline” first publicized in 1999 and BuzzFeed re-examined in August of this year ― begins in 1978, in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Bill Clinton was the state’s attorney general and running for governor. As Broaddrick tells it, she was volunteering for Clinton’s campaign and was supposed to meet him in a hotel coffee shop. At the last minute, she says, Clinton called her and suggested they meet upstairs, in a hotel room, because reporters were in the lobby. She agreed. When Clinton got to the room, she says, he raped her ― at one point biting her lip, causing it to bleed.
Two women have since said they saw Broaddrick in the hotel room, right after the alleged incident ― disheveled and, yes, with a blue, swollen lip. The women said Broaddrick told them she’d been raped by Clinton, but that she was afraid to say anything about it. She would remain silent until the late 1990s, when federal prosecutors were investigating Clinton’s personal history as part of the inquiry that exposed his now-infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
It was not the first time lawyers had asked Broaddrick about the incident. Previously, when lawyers in the Paula Jones lawsuit approached Broaddrick directly, she had signed an affidavit in which she described being “hounded” by reporters about rumors of the rape.
“I repeatedly denied the allegations and requested that my family’s privacy be respected,” she said in that affidavit. “These allegations are untrue and I had hoped that they would no longer haunt me, or cause further disruption to my family.” But in response to the federal inquiry, Broaddrick said Clinton had raped her.
Clinton, who was by then president, denied the allegation, unambiguously and strongly, through his lawyer. Ken Starr, the lead federal prosecutor, ultimately deemed Broaddrick’s story “inconclusive.” When the tale came out in the media, and Broaddrick gave that 1999 interview to “Dateline,” the controversy got lost in the aftermath of Clinton’s impeachment and near-removal from office. And at that point the story faded ― until about a year ago, when Broaddrick began speaking out about it.
Broaddrick later told BuzzFeed’s Katie Baker that she was moved to speak out after hearing a series of comments that Hillary Clinton made about sexual assault ― specifically, about the importance of believing victims. Broaddrick has long claimed that Hillary tried to intimidate her, citing as proof a brief conversation the two women had during an Arkansas encounter shortly after the alleged rape. Here’s how Broaddrick remembers that conversation, as the BuzzFeed article described it:
Soon after, Broaddrick says, she ran into Hillary Clinton at a political rally Broaddrick had promised friends she would attend. Hillary shook her hand and thanked her for everything she had done for Bill. To Broaddrick, the gesture felt like a threat to stay silent. As attorney general and later governor, Bill Clinton was “the main person that regulated my business and my income,” Broaddrick said. “After she said what she did to me, I just thought, I will keep quiet.”
Broaddrick says that she went “ballistic” when she heard Hillary’s statements about sexual assault, and eventually sent out the following message on Twitter: “I was 35 years old when Bill Clinton, Ark. Attorney General raped me and Hillary tried to silence me. I am now 73....it never goes away.”
That tweet got a lot of attention from conservatives on social media. Now, it’s getting attention from Trump, whose presidential candidacy suddenly hangs in the balance thanks to the publication of a 2005 recording in which he boasted that he liked to “grab [women] by the pussy” and that, because he is a powerful celebrity, “they let you do it.” The recording has prompted new attention to Trump’s own history of misogyny, and to those assault allegations he has denied. The recording has also provoked strong condemnations from pretty much every other leader in the Republican Party ― and multiple withdrawals of support.
Almost immediately after the recording became public, Trump signaled his intentions to talk about Bill Clinton’s sexual history. In a video message released Friday night, Trump apologized for his comments on that 2005 recording before adding that “Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made similar statements when appearing on the Sunday morning political shows.
Trump and his supporters insist they aren’t simply trying to distract attention from Trump’s problems, or to disparage Hillary by reminding everybody of Bill’s history of unfaithfulness. The issue, they say, is how the former first lady behaved.
“What I’m talking about [is] the things that she has said and that have been reported in various books and magazines and other places about the women that Bill Clinton raped, sexually abused and attacked ― not Bill Clinton’s role, but her role as the attacker,” Giuliani said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The truth of what happened that day in Little Rock may be impossible to know ― particularly now, four decades after the day in question. Skeptics of Broaddrick’s story can point to Broaddrick’s original affidavit saying that she had no information on Bill’s alleged misconduct. They can also argue that the two women who say they saw her in the hotel room might have political motives of their own. (You can read about these and other wrinkles in the case in the summary Dylan Matthews of Vox has put together.)
Believers can cite two other women who said Broaddrick told them about the rape shortly afterwards. And of course it’s not uncommon for rape victims to withhold information for great lengths of time ― because they think they’re at fault, because they are convinced nobody will believe them, or because they fear retribution. As Michelle Goldberg wrote at Slate last year: “Feminists have repeatedly and convincingly made the case that when women say they’ve been sexually assaulted, we should assume they’re telling the truth. Particularly when it comes to Broaddrick, it’s not easy to square the arguments against believing her with the dominant progressive consensus on trusting victims.”
Whether any of this is relevant to Hillary’s campaign is another question entirely. Broaddrick’s claim that Hillary Clinton meant to intimidate her is based on a conversation the two women had ― and how Broaddrick perceived it. “I have to go by what I felt then and the look that she gave me,” she told Breitbart News in a recent interview. “I felt like she knew, and she was telling me to keep quiet.”
To think that Hillary was trying to bully Broaddrick into keeping quiet about a rape, you have to believe that Hillary knew Bill had committed the rape. But that would mean, presumably, Bill had told her ― something he was unlikely to have done. Cheaters and rapists don’t tend to tell their wives about their deeds in real time. (And sometimes rapists convince themselves their encounters were consensual.)
Meanwhile, to think this part of Broaddrick’s story is wrong, you don’t have to believe she is trying to deceive anybody, or that she’s wrong about the other charge she makes. You simply have to believe she misinterpreted visual and tonal cues during a quick conversation with a relative stranger ― which is something that happens all the time, in all kinds of circumstances. It would be even easier to understand in the circumstances Broaddrick was under.
As for the relevance to the 2016 election, the most telling aspect is that Trump ― cornered politically, struggling to keep his candidacy alive ― has chosen to compare his behavior to the husband of his opponent. But he’s not running against him. He’s running against her.