Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and sexual assault

Donald Trump walked past Bill Clinton after Sunday’s debate.
LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS
Donald Trump walked past Bill Clinton after Sunday’s debate.

On some level, Donald Trump must know this is over. In Sunday’s second presidential debate, he seemed like a man more intent on playing to the Hillary Clinton haters than trying to persuade undecided Americans that he’d be a better president.

In the process, the Republican nominee demonstrated yet again that he simply isn’t intellectually, temperamentally, or substantively prepared for the job he seeks — and that he has no interest in trying to meet that standard.

Consider: At various points in the debate, Trump actually called his opponent “the devil,” said she had “tremendous hate in her heart,” and vowed that, if elected, he would try to put her in prison.

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If one takes his strange segue into those last remarks seriously, it demonstrates his complete lack of strategic, mental, and verbal discipline.

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“I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it,” Trump said. “But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we’re going to have a special prosecutor.”

In fact, Clinton’s email controversy wasn’t even close to a prosecutable crime, as FBI Director James Comey has noted, which should be important to anyone who purports to respect the rule of law. Trump doesn’t, which he demonstrated when Clinton retorted that it was a good thing that someone like him “is not in charge of the law in our country.”

“Because you’d be in jail,” he retorted.

One can get so used to Trump’s juvenility that you come to shrug your shoulders at remarks like those and say, “Oh, that’s just Trump being Trump.”

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But those aren’t the kind of things that mature, serious, intellectually disciplined candidates for the most important office in a great democracy say. Rather, it’s the kind of thing you’d hear from, say, a cross-eyed crazy conservative guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.

Now, Trump faced a huge challenge going into this debate after the release of a decade-old audio clip in which he boasted about a boorish kiss-and-grab sexual technique. This latest controversy has the GOP in a panic, with prominent figures declaring they can no longer support their nominee — and others adopting a let’s-wait-and-watch-the-debate stance.

Faced with that situation, straight up contrition and a demonstration of maturity would have been the best course. But that simply wouldn’t be Trump. Indeed, it’s not something that he seems capable of doing.

Instead, he counterattacked by holding a pre-debate event with three women who have alleged offensive sexual behavior on the part of Bill Clinton, plus another whose accused rapist Hillary Clinton defended as a court-appointed lawyer. Trump’s team then brought those women inside the debate hall — and, according to the Washington Post, planned to seat them in the Trump family box until debates officials said no.

When the debate discussion quickly turned to his boorish comments, Trump said they paled when compared to what Bill Clinton had done.

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“Mine are words, his was action,” he said. “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women.” He then added the charge intended to make all this relevant to Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign: “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”

Clinton, having lambasted Trump for audio clip comments, then sought to rise strategically above the fray, taking refuge in Michelle Obama’s Democratic convention counsel that “when they go low, you go high.” Except here, Clinton was invoking Mrs. Obama’s adjuration as a rhetorical sidestep that let her avoid an uncomfortable topic.

All this is a matter that takes some serious sorting out.

Despite Trump’s words versus actions formulation, both he and Bill Clinton have had women say that they made boorish sexual advances toward them, groped them, or even raped them.

Most troubling with Clinton: Juanita Broaddrick, who has said that he forced himself on her in 1978, while he was Arkansas attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate and she was a campaign volunteer. Clinton has denied that through his attorney.

Most troubling with Trump: This summer, a woman who is proceeding legally as “Jane Doe” — that is, anonymously — filed suit alleging that Trump and billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein raped her at a party held by Epstein in 1994, when she was just 13. According to court filings, she has a witness to those assaults.

Epstein himself is an exceedingly sketchy character. In 2008, as a result of an investigation by Palm Beach police into possible sexual activity with a minor, Epstein pleaded guilty to a felony count of solicitation and served some jail time. He is or has been friends with both Trump and Bill Clinton.

As pertains to Trump and Clinton, this is a subject that, absent court verdicts, leaves one trying to decide what to make of “she said, he said’’ situations. That said, in 1998, Bill Clinton settled with Paula Jones, one of the women who accused him of (pre-presidential) piggishness, paying her $850,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, through notably without either an admission of wrongdoing or an apology.

There are, of course, no such allegations of sexual misconduct when it comes Hillary Clinton. Instead, the Trump campaign accuses her of enabling her husband by trying to discredit the various women making assertions about him. She has played some role there. For example, when Gennifer Flowers came forward in 1992 with allegations that she had carried on a long-time affair with Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton disparaged her on national television as “some failed cabaret singer who doesn’t even have much of a resume to fall back on” and suggested Flowers had made up her story for money and “15 minutes of fame.”

With Hillary Clinton, however, there is this caveat: What did she know or suspect at the time about her husband’s conduct? That is, did she truly believe his denials, or was she simply engaged in a truth-be-damned quest to protect his political career? Whatever voters think about that, most seem to prefer to leave it all in the past. As for her supposed role as an anti-feminist enabler, Hillary Clinton will probably get a (possibly) deceived spouse’s benefit of the doubt from non-Hillary haters.

But even if she doesn’t, given Trump’s own checkered marital history, his regular disparagement of women he dislikes and sexual objectification of those he finds attractive, it’s hard to see how he gains an advantage by taking the nation for an extended stroll through the muck.

Trump lost on Sunday night, but he wasn’t the only loser. The high-minded tradition of presidential debates also took a dismaying beating.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.