ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump denied in Sunday’s debate that he ever kissed and grabbed women without their consent, then argued that his crude words from a newly released video paled in comparison to what he called Bill Clinton’s abuse of women. Standing a few feet away from the former president’s wife, he accused Hillary Clinton of attacking those women herself.
“She should be ashamed of herself,” Trump declared.
Clinton stared icily at Trump from across the stage. She did not respond directly to his accusations about her husband’s extramarital affairs or any role of her own, but was blistering in her condemnation of his aggressive comments about women in a 2005 tape released Friday.
“I think it’s clear to anyone who heard him that it represents exactly who he is,” she said, adding that she did not believe Trump had the “fitness to serve” as commander in chief.
Bill Clinton never faced any criminal charges in relation to the allegations, and a lawsuit over an alleged rape was dismissed. He did settle a lawsuit with one of the women who claimed harassment.
The tension between Trump and Clinton was palpable from the start of their 90-minute debate, the second time they have faced off in the presidential campaign. They did not shake hands as they met at center stage. Trump stood and paced throughout Clinton’s answers, repeatedly interrupting her.
This debate was a town hall format, with several undecided voters sitting on stage with the candidates. The voters, all from the St. Louis area, were selected by Gallup.
Ahead of the event, Trump brazenly met publicly with several women who have accused Bill Clinton of unwanted sexual advances and even rape.
The Trump pre-debate event was the clearest sign yet that he planned to use the former president’s sexual history to try to distract from the swirling controversy over his own predatory remarks about women. Trump is under enormous pressure from the Republican Party after the release of a 2005 video in which the businessman can be heard saying his fame allows him to “do anything” to women.
Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s communications director, said she wasn’t surprised to see Trump “continue his destructive race to the bottom.” She said the Democratic nominee was “prepared to handle whatever Donald Trump throws her way” on the debate stage.
Trump refused to answer questions from reporters about his own aggressive sexual remarks about women during the meeting in a hotel conference room with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey. Kathy Shelton, a fourth woman who appeared with Trump, was a 12-year-old Arkansas sexual assault victim whose alleged assailant was defended by Hillary Clinton.
Some of the women seated alongside him, however, were graphic in their accusations against the Clintons.
“Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me,” Broaddrick said. “I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
Broaddrick, a former Arkansas nursing home administrator, first claimed 17 years ago that Bill Clinton raped her during a meeting in Little Rock in 1978. Her lawsuit against him was dismissed in 2001 and criminal charges were never filed. Clinton has denied the allegations.
Trump’s stunt set up an extraordinary scene in the debate hall. His campaign said all four women planned to attend the event, with Bill Clinton also expected to be present.
Trump is trying to change the subject from his own conduct. Even before Friday’s new revelations of his sexual remarks about women, his campaign was slumping. But the release of the 2005 video has some leading Republicans convinced the damage is insurmountable.
The political firestorm was sparked by a 2005 video obtained and released Friday by The Washington Post and NBC News. In the video, Trump, who was married to his current wife at the time, is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. He also brags to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” about women letting him kiss them and grab their genitals because he is famous.
NBC said Sunday that it had indefinitely suspended Bush, now a “Today” show personality, for his role in the crude conversation with Trump.
Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has declared he could neither condone nor defend the remarks in the video revealed on Friday.
Other Republicans have taken the extraordinary step of revoking support for their party’s nominee. Among them: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte — both are running for re-election — and the party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Some called on Trump to quit the race.
Trump’s troubles have almost completely overshadowed the release of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign that revealed the contents of previously secret paid speeches to Wall Street. Clinton told bankers behind closed doors that she favored “open trade.” Such remarks were at odds with her tough public comments.
Trump has long hinted he would raise Bill Clinton’s sexual history at debates. In what was billed as a videotaped apology for the 2005 videotaped remarks, Trump said “Bill Clinton has actually abused women” and Hillary Clinton “bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated” her husband’s “victims.”
As early as last week, Trump had said he didn’t plan to raise the issues on the debate stage. But that appeared to change in the hours after his own remarks were made public and a flood of Republicans began turning against him.
Pace reported from Washington. AP writers Steve Peoples, Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire, Laurie Kellman and Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.