For reasons best known to Donald Trump and his campaign, they seem to believe that the best way to deflect the ongoing deluge of sexual assault accusations against him is to keep repeating old stories about Bill Clinton. If the former president did something wrong once upon a time, according to this theory, then Hillary Clinton is also guilty by association. And Trump is somehow exculpated.
Both the candidate and his surrogates insist that Clinton "enabled" her husband's philandering, although they never quite explain what that means. And sometimes, without offering any proof, they claim that she "intimidated" or "attacked" the women who complained about her husband's alleged unwanted advances. To bolster this argument, they usually roll out three alleged victims — Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones —usually on Fox News.
And sometimes the Trump camp presents Kathy Shelton, a fourth complainant who, unlike the others, has a story that is actually about Hillary Clinton.
Broaddrick's simple accusation is that Clinton raped her in a hotel room in 1978. But the rest of the circumstances are complicated, with recantations and denials and contradictory testimony. The Office of Independent Counsel, determined though its lawyers were to defame both Clintons, reached no conclusion about the Broaddrick case, except that there was no evidence the Clintons had ever tried to cover it up.
Indeed, when Broaddrick gave her first televised interview about the alleged assault in 1999, she firmly told NBC News correspondent Lisa Myers that neither Clinton nor anyone close to him had tried to intimidate her or prevent her from talking.
Starr also investigated charges by Kathleen Willey that Clinton had forcefully kissed and "groped" her in the Oval Office. But when he investigated her case, after granting Willey immunity, he found many reasons to doubt her credibility. Linda Tripp, his star witness in the Monica Lewinsky case and a former close friend of Willey, said she was lying. Another Willey friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, said that, too. She had demanded various appointments from Clinton, including an ambassadorial post, none of which were fulfilled.
And then Starr discovered that Willey had lied to his own agents, which meant that he had to immunize her again. In the end, he wisely set her case aside — which is what journalists should consider doing now.
In 1993, Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton in federal court, claiming that he had exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room and demanded oral sex. There were many reasons to doubt both her story and her motives. Judge Susan Webber Wright, a Republican, dismissed her case in summary judgment, a decision that Jones appealed — which led Clinton to pay a settlement, without any admission of the charges that he had vehemently denied.
Prominent conservatives who had backed Jones financially and politically from the start, including Ann Coulter, angrily dumped her after she posed for Penthouse magazine in December 2000. Now that she has reappeared with Trump, they're welcoming her back. But whatever she says now about Hillary Clinton is likely a script given to her by the Trump campaign.
Of the women brought forward by the Trump campaign, only Kathy Shelton's complaint directly and credibly involves Hillary Clinton. Shelton, now 53, was raped in 1975 by a factory worker — and the trial court appointed Clinton, then a young attorney in Arkansas, to represent him. She did so diligently and, thanks to her work and prosecutorial failures, the rapist got off with a plea bargain. Claims that Clinton has "laughed" in a taped interview about that painful outcome have been widely debunked by fact-checking organizations.
In fact, Shelton herself told a Newsday reporter in 2008 that she bore Clinton no ill will — although she has clearly changed her mind since then. Her personal story is terrible; she has lived with awful memories of the abuse she suffered and the ensuing psychological damage, became addicted to methamphetamine, and went to prison several years ago for theft.
But it is hard to see how Clinton, forced to accept the rapist's case by a trial judge and duty bound to provide the best possible defense, deserves the blame for what happened to Shelton. Nor can that sad case, decided 41 years ago, erase Clinton's lifelong dedication to feminist causes.
No, nothing the Clintons are said to have done excuses the gross misconduct of Donald Trump — a man who never apologizes and always looks for someone else to blame. This time, he doesn't seem to be getting away with it.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.