WASHINGTON — The last time America was asked to consider the activities of presidents at 3 a.m., it was 2008, when Hillary Clinton aired a Democratic primary campaign ad wondering if the next commander in chief to answer the phone at that hour would be ready to respond to global danger.
Donald Trump on Friday re-opened the question of presidential readiness in a whole new way, with a bizarre Twitter tirade in the wee hours aimed at the media and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. He accused her of appearing in a “sex tape’’— an apparently false assertion — and kept up his feud over comments he made about her weight 20 years ago.
Publicly airing grudges against a former beauty queen, in the middle of the night, is certainly unprecedented in American presidential campaigns and marks another strange turn in Trump’s twisting course toward November.
It triggered a remarkable response from Machado, who said Trump was running a “campaign of hate,’’ and opened up another opportunity for Clinton, who called the GOP nominee’s remarks “unhinged, even for Trump.”
“When I was just a young woman, the current candidate publicly humiliated me, insulted me, disrespected me, as he usually did privately in the cruelest way,” Machado said in a statement.
And so the real estate mogul experienced a fourth day of negative TV coverage about his propensity to bully and smear, as well as his reluctance to walk away from a fight, even when he is losing. It was especially surprising to GOP and Democratic political strategists that, already dogged by a poor debate performance Monday and questions about his discipline and temperament, he once again would choose to divert attention away from his rival in the 2016 race for the White House.
His wee-hours Twitter fusillade baffled many in Trump’s own party.
“You really have to ask yourself what’s he doing? This is the end of a bad week, and now is when people are starting to vote in a lot of the early-voting states,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.
“Normally this phase of the campaign is about adding votes, not subtracting votes,” added Reed, who is now the chief strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce. “I just can’t for the life of me figure out what they’re doing besides settling some grudge match with an ex-beauty queen. It’s bizarre. It’s indefensible. And shocking.”
Machado was crowned Miss Universe in 1996, several months before Trump bought the contest. She had gained weight, and Trump said she had a healthy appetite and “the way she’s going, she’d eat the whole gymnasium.”
Clinton brought up Machado during the first presidential debate on Monday, catching Trump off guard. He reacted on Tuesday morning by criticizing Machado on Fox News as “the worst we ever had” because “she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”
Trump started his tweeting at 3:20 a.m. ridiculing the media’s “made up lies” in the use of anonymous sources within his campaign. Then, two hours later, he turned his attention to Machado.
“Wow, Crooked Hillary was duped and used by my worst Miss U. Hillary floated her as an “angel” without checking her past, which is terrible!” he tweeted at 5:14 a.m.
“Using Alicia M in the debate as a paragon of virtue just shows that Crooked Hillary suffers from BAD JUDGEMENT! Hillary was set up by a con,” he continued at 5:19 a.m.
And then, at 5:30 a.m. he concluded with: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?”
There does not appear to be any sex tape of Machado. There is a 2005 tape from a Spanish-language reality show called “La Granja,” in which she is writhing under a blanket with a man. There is no nudity in the dark, grainy clip.
Machado was also suspected in the 1998 of driving a getaway car after her then-boyfriend shot someone in Venezuela.
“I am not a saint girl,” Machado told CNN earlier in the week.
Clinton’s campaign quickly seized on Trump’s Twitter comments on Friday, in a tweet that said “This is . . . unhinged, even for Trump’’ and referring to his outburst as a “Machado meltdown.”
“Who gets up at 3 o’clock in the morning to engage in a Twitter attack against the former Miss Universe? I mean, he hurled as many insults as he could, really. Why does he do things like that?” Clinton asked during a rally in Coral Springs, Fla.
Calling Trump’s tweets a “meltdown,’’ Clinton said, “It proves yet again he is temperamentally unfit to be president and commander in chief. I will say it again: A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not be anywhere near the nuclear codes.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a frequent Trump antagonist on Twitter, also got in on the action. “Is this what keeps you up at night, @realDonaldTrump? Thinking of new & interesting ways to call women fat or ugly or sluts?” she tweeted late on Friday afternoon.
Warren’s use of sluts was an apparent reference to Trump’s accusation that Machado made a sex tape, which critics said was a form of slut-shaming. A review of press clips did not show an instance where Trump actually used the word in public.
Clinton also called Machado on Friday to thank her for her support and for standing up to Trump.
Machado responded directly to Trump, posting a photo of herself draped in the American flag on her social media accounts.
“The Republican candidate and his campaign are, once again, launching attacks, insults and are attempting to revive slanders and false accusations about my life, in order to humiliate, intimidate, and unbalance me,” she wrote. “These attacks are cheap lies with bad intentions.”
Trump’s actions ensured a fourth straight day of discussion about his insensitivity toward women and derogatory comments about women’s weight. While some of Trump’s top surrogates have raised questions about Machado’s past, they have also pointed out that he himself should try to move on.
“I don’t think Donald Trump needs to be doing that, in interviews or via Twitter,” Kayleigh McEnany, a CNN commentator who often defends Trump, said Friday morning on CNN’s “New Day.”
But it has become a pattern for Trump to become consumed by perceived slights, and his inability to turn away from those who criticize him has often bogged down his campaign.
Several new polls released on Friday indicated that Clinton has stabilized her campaign, after several weeks leading up to the debate on Monday in which Trump had gained ground. In New Hampshire, for example, a WBUR poll has Clinton leading by 7 points, with likely voters saying overwhelmingly that Clinton won the debate.
Trump, who ignored shouted questions at him as he visited the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., tried to put the best spin on the day.
“For those few people knocking me for tweeting at three o’clock in the morning,” Trump wrote Friday afternoon on Twitter, “at least you know I will be there, awake, to answer the call!”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.