Why Trump is dredging up 1990s attacks against the Clintons

Donald Trump brings up old attacks against Bill Clinton
Donald Trump brings up old attacks against Bill Clinton

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Donald Trump brings up old attacks against Bill Clinton 02:42

Story highlights

  • Trump is bringing back 1990s-era political scandals to attack Hillary Clinton
  • The goal is to link them with a flurry of more recent dramas

(CNN)Donald Trump is campaigning like it's 1999.

The presumptive Republican nominee is reintroducing Americans to a panoply of dormant scandals, personal transgressions and partisan controversies that rocked Bill Clinton's White House and first lady Hillary Clinton in two turbulent presidential terms leading up to the end of the 20th Century.
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    The goal is to link them with a flurry of more recent dramas such as those over Clinton's private email server and Benghazi, to depict her potential presidency as a return to unsavory days of rumor, innuendo and alleged malfeasance that would exhaust and disgust voters -- in effect, making the 2016 election a referendum on the Clintons, and the baggage that has always haunted their successful and resilient political careers.
    Case in point: a new Instagram video that pictures Bill Clinton chomping on a cigar and revives claims of wrongdoing against him by several women, which ends with the sound of Hillary Clinton laughing and a slogan: "Here we go again?"
    The billionaire also appears to be taking aim at the already upside-down approval ratings of Hillary Clinton to neutralize rock-bottom perceptions of his own character revealed by polls that threaten his general election appeal, especially with women voters, the majority of whom prefer his likely Democratic rival.
    "What he is doing is he is exposing, not just Bill Clinton for what he was and what he had done, but it's the same as it relates to Hillary," Michael Cohen, Trump's legal counsel, said on CNN's "New Day."
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    "She attacked Mr. Trump as being a sexist, misogynist, and he is not any of those things," Cohen said, portraying Hillary Clinton as an "enabler" of her husband's dalliances.
    But Trump's personal broadsides against the Clintons are not risk-free. The New York billionaire real estate investor has had a colorful personal life himself, and has been accused by the former secretary of state's allies and in news reports of sexist behavior and a string of unflattering comments about women.
    Still, the strategy, from Trump's point of view, has the virtue of forcing Clinton into the painful personal position of recalling her husband's past wrongdoing when she would much prefer to focus on other issues.
    She answered with a terse "No" when asked by CNN's Chris Cuomo last week whether she ever felt compelled to defend her or her husband's honor against Trump.
    "I know that that's exactly what he is fishing for, and you know, I'm not going to be responding."
    Her campaign has dusted off the classic Clinton scandal playbook -- pivoting to focus on Trump's own vulnerabilities and stressing that the American people have more pressing concerns.
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    "The reason he is doing it, is his own record his coming under scrutiny," said Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon on "New Day" Monday , as the Clinton camp lit into Trump over past comments that he hoped the real estate market would crash as it would benefit his businesses.
    Trump's attacks, aimed at fixing the picture of "Crooked Hillary" in the public mind as the general election gears up, recall earlier political branding hit jobs that he pulled against "low energy" Jeb Bush and "little" Marco Rubio in the GOP race.
    He also is showing he is ready to fight fire with a flamethrower. It is significant for instance that his first veiled reference to 1990s sexual allegations against Bill Clinton came after he concluded that the Clinton campaign was playing the "women card" was against him.
    "They said things about me that were very nasty," Trump told The Washington Post. "And, you know, as long as they do that, you know, I will play at whatever level I have to play at. I think I've proven that."
    Trump's attacks recall a tortured political era in which the Clinton White House seemed to stagger from scandal to scandal -- but repeatedly defied predictions of its demise to survive and prosper.
    As soon as the new First Couple arrived in Washington from Arkansas, they were beset by rumors of wrongdoing and mini ethics scandals. There was Whitewater, about the First Lady's real estate dealings in Arkansas. Travelgate, about firings of officials in the White House travel office, and Filegate about the alleged misuse of FBI papers.
    Early on, the Clinton White House was rocked by the suicide of legal counsel Vince Foster, a close friend of Hillary Clinton, which became the cue for another round of conspiracy theories.
    It all culminated in an independent counsel investigation by Ken Starr, which in turn led to the moment when Clinton became only the second President to be impeached by the House of Representatives, in 1998, for lying under oath about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. He was subsequently acquitted in a trial before the U.S. Senate in February 1999. None of the other 'scandals' produced criminal charges against the Clintons and the Whitewater investigation was eventually wrapped up in 2002.
    All of that seemed like ancient history. Bill Clinton Clinton left office with a 66% approval rating, according to CNN/Gallup/USA Today polling, and threw himself into an energetic and philanthropic post presidency and built a personal fortune on the lucrative speech making circuit. Hillary Clinton pursued her own political career in the Senate, as secretary of state and her second presidential campaign.
    Even Starr has praised Clinton's redemptive post presidency and in remarks reported by the New York Times on Tuesday bemoaned the "tragic dimensions" of the Clinton scandals and investigations of which he was a part.
    But Trump is not interested in putting the past to rest. He's dredging it up.
    "It's the one thing with her, whether it's Whitewater or whether it's Vince or whether it's Benghazi. It's always a mess with Hillary," Trump said in the Post interview.
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    The most pressing question raised by Trump's personal assault using the ugliest moments of the Clinton presidency is whether it will work.
    Tana Goertz, a senior Trump adviser, told CNN's Pamela Brown on Tuesday that there were no fears in the billionaire's camp that raising Bill Clinton's conduct would boost his wife's approval ratings, just as they did back in the 1990s.
    "Back then, people felt sorry for Hillary because her husband was unfaithful. They believed she was going to do the right thing for women and empower women, strengthen women and support women and none of that happened," Goertz said. "That might have been a sympathy vote back then, but that will not happen again."
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    Throughout their turbulent political careers, the Clintons have shown an ability to court public support by portraying attacks against them as vicious partisan witch hunts and displayed an almost supernatural capacity to weather political crises.
    The period of personal anguish, self-reflection and humiliation that Hillary Clinton endured as she questioned whether to save her marriage after the Lewinsky saga meanwhile confounded her enemies as it stirred public empathy for her plight. But she also sparked a public debate over why she had chosen to stay with her husband amid claims by some critics that the marriage was simply a vehicle for her political ambition.
    But Hillary Clinton supporter Maria Cardona dismissed the idea that the ghosts of the 1990s will stalk her campaign a two decades later.
    "The Bill Clinton issue is already baked in. People know him," Cardona said on CNN.
    "An attack on her because of what her husband did is going to backfire in an incredibly big way -- she is going to continue to be focused on issues."