fb-pixel Skip to main content

WASHINGTON — The blue dress is in the news again, and its owner, Monica Lewinsky. So is Juanita Broaddrick. Paula Jones. And Kathleen Willey. And Gennifer Flowers.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump roared into the new year talking about the sex scandals that clouded Bill Clinton's presidency. He kept the conversation going this week by posting a campaign video on social media that links Hillary Clinton to her husband's sordid past with other women.

The line of attack provides a vivid reminder of the worst parts of the Clinton White House years — the seemingly nonstop personal drama surrounding the president, a drama that Trump is using to keep his name in the press and energize his base of supporters.


Already the strategy is setting off jitters in both parties, with Republicans worried about it backfiring and Democrats worried it won't.

At the very least, it's a preview of what's to come between now and November: A relitigation of the Clinton marriage — and the Clinton scandals — for the generation of voters too young (or too shielded) to live through them the first time. Trump is banking on a hope that these well-worn tales of Bill Clinton's sexual recklessness will be viewed more negatively in today's context then they were two decades ago.

Linking old scandals with new, Trump sought to connect Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby: In a video that he posted on his Instagram account Thursday, he drew a parallel between Bill Clinton's behavior and allegations against Cosby, once "America's father" on television but now sullied by a womanizing past that has taken on an even darker shade with a recent rape charge.

Screen grab from Trump’s video released on social media this week.
Screen grab from Trump’s video released on social media this week.

Hillary Clinton typically wears the victim's cape when discussion of her husband's Other Women returns to the public's consciousness. But Trump charges her with enabling her husband's behavior by helping to discredit the women who made accusations against him.


"I hope Bill Clinton starts talking about women's issues so that voters can see what a hypocrite he is and how Hillary abused those women!" Trump tweeted on Jan. 2.

He followed that up Thursday by posting the 15-second video on his Instagram account that plays audio of Hillary Clinton's famous address at a 1995 United Nation's conference in China where she declared "women's rights are human rights."

In Trump's version, Hillary Clinton speaks while the video shows photographs of Lewinsky wearing her black beret and standing with President Clinton, Bill Clinton looking guilty on the cover of a tabloid, and a photograph of Hillary Clinton standing next to Cosby.

Trump's campaign didn't respond to a question about whether the video would be incorporated into a television ad. As of Friday evening, more than 21,000 people had "liked" it on Trump's Instagram account.

Team Clinton, which typically takes offense at even the scent of an affront, isn't engaging so far — evidence that Clinton, like every GOP presidential candidate this year, is struggling to determine how to deal with the Trump phenomenon.

"I don't have any response," Bill Clinton said when reporters asked him about Trump's comments on Thursday during a campaign stop at a market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "If he wins the Republican nomination, we'll have plenty of time to talk. . . . I have no interest in getting involved in their politics or doing anything except trying to help Hillary."


The Clintons didn't need to deal with this issue in 2008, when Democratic opponent Barack Obama never dredged up the couple's marriage. Her current Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has forsworn negative attacks — and appears equally uninterested in pushing a public discussion about Bill Clinton's sex life.

Failing to respond incurs risks, as John Kerry can attest. During his presidential campaign, Republicans took one of his great strengths, decorations for his heroic war record in Vietnam, and turned it against him. They did so by trotting out fellow veterans who called themselves the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and disputed Kerry's battleground accounts. The allegations weren't true, but Kerry didn't want to sully himself by responding.

Bill Clinton is staying on the campaign trail, which provides Trump and other Republicans the opportunity to revisit his past with women.

Some of the Clinton women appear to be staying in the public eye too. "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," Broaddrick wrote on Twitter this week.

For Washington insiders, the shocking aspect about Trump's attacks is his willingness to upend GOP conventional wisdom that using the Bill Clinton affairs against Hillary Clinton will backfire.

The reasons for keeping quiet on the Clinton marriage are many: It's old news. Hillary Clinton's poll numbers were never higher than when she was seen as the victim standing by her man during the Monica Lewinsky affair.


GOP pollsters are worried that such attacks elicit sympathy for Hillary Clinton among a slice of the electorate they need to do well with in 2016: Married women.

Trump's own behavior also leaves him vulnerable. His first wife, Ivana Trump, accused him of raping her while she was married to him. She later said she didn't mean it in a "literal or criminal" way.

Trump struck up a relationship with his second wife, Marla Maples, at the church where he married Ivana Trump. That union didn't last, and now he's with wife number three, former model Melania Trump.

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.