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The odds that Donald Trump will bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes in Sunday night’s presidential debate just increased.

Consider Trump’s reaction to reports on his lewd hot mic moment. “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close,” he said in a statement. “I apologize if anyone was offended.”

Up until now, Trump’s references to the former president’s sex life — both confirmed infidelities and unproven allegations of rape and assault — have had the feel of red meat for his base, head fakes for Hillary Clinton.

Now actually raising the issue of Bill the bad boy (or worse) and Hillary the enabler seems like a real possibility. This would be risky in any debate format, but especially in a town hall where voters often plead for civility and decry the nastiness of politics.

“It wouldn’t be my focus because I think the American people have litigated how they feel about President Clinton and his personal conduct and his personal life,” said Trump supporter New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie while still a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. “And I don’t think we get anywhere as Republicans by doing that.”

The subject of Trump’s explicit comments is sure to come up, either in the context of a direct Hillary Clinton attack or a town hall participant demanding the Republican presidential nominee apologize for various past offensive remarks. How will he respond?

Trump appears to view Bill Clinton’s past as a way of neutralizing questions about his own. I wrote about this back in May:



What Trump appears to be trying to do is make that story less one-sided. There are accusations against Trump, but also against Bill Clinton. And in he-said-she-said disputes between Bill Clinton and women, Hillary did not always take the women’s sides.

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Up until now, Trump has largely used these issues in two ways: first while bonding with his supporters at friendly events like his rallies and second as a warning shot to the Clintons not to go after the billionaire on his own checkered past.

One way or another, a story has broken that will allow the Clintons to go there. And now Trump may find himself having to use his sex scandal self-defense mechanism as more than a threat, even as his political survival may depend on the degree to which Bill Clinton has changed the standards to which the public holds elected officials.

Another problem: Trump has been caught on tape. Granted, he is not doing anything. But in addition to adulterous talk, his comments can be read as boasting of nonconsensual sexual behavior, or at least claiming celebrities don’t need explicit consent from the women they kiss, grope or grab.

Bill Clinton has always had plausible deniability when it comes to the worst things he has been accused of. And even when his denials were implausible, as in the case of Monica Lewinsky, there was no audio of him bragging about his conquests.

Trump’s temptation will be to bring up Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paul Jones — and Hillary Clinton’s lack of support for such accusers — to even the score. But unlike the Clintons, Trump will not have the media on his side. There will be no Nina Burleigh justifying Trump’s misdeeds on the grounds of lofty policy goals.

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Beyond Sunday night’s debate, the news also has major implications for social conservatives. Many have supported Trump because of his formal positions on abortion and religious liberty. In the 1990s, they opposed Bill Clinton on both his personal character and his public policies. This year, even those who trust Trump on social issues must choose one or the other, in some cases at risk to the credibility of their religious witness.

The fact that control of the Supreme Court is at stake — and with it, the ability to even address social conservatives’ concerns th­­rough the democratic legislative process, possibly for years to come — makes the dilemma even more difficult. For some, it is a choice between disenfranchisement and dishonor. Still others will say we have learned nothing about Trump’s morals we didn’t already know.

In his latest comments on the matter, Trump struck a tone that was of both contrition and defiance. ­­He acknowledged that what he said was wrong and apologized more forthrightly than ever before. He said his travels across the country had changed him and vowed to “be a better man tomorrow.”

Yet Trump also said, “Let’s be honest. We’re living in the real world.” He talked about the jobs fleeing our country and the sins of the political class, typified by Hillary Clinton. Then he suggested he would not let the Clintons off the hook.

Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days,” Trump said. “See you at the debate on Sunday.”

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