The revenge trap

It is becoming increasingly clear that Donald Trump is smarting from his performance in the first debate. Initially, just after the debate, he seemed to think he had done pretty well, praising the moderator Lester Holt for doing a great job. This is not unusual for people like Trump who are so wrapped up in themselves that they do not realize how others see them until they are told, and even then dismissing any suggestion that they were less than excellent. But the fact that there was near unanimity that he was handed his hat by Hillary Clinton has sunk in and definitely got under his skin and he has started lashing out, calling the moderator biased, renewing his attacks on Alicia Machado, and even bizarrely suggesting that someone had tampered with his microphone.

This article explains what Trump was inferring with his cryptic comment at the end of the first debate.

Trump, making his first run for public office, praised himself for not attacking Clinton about the marital infidelity of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during the debate at Hofstra University but said in a Tuesday morning interview with Fox News that he may take up the attack line going forward.

“I may hit her harder in certain ways,” Trump said in a telephone interview with “Fox & Friends.” Trump added that when Clinton criticized him for his treatment of women, he resisted. “I was going to hit her with her husband’s women. And I decided I shouldn’t do it because her daughter was in the room.”

This is one case where his first instinct was the right one. I think that attacking the spouse of your opponent in a nationally viewed debate could seriously boomerang on him.

It is undoubtedly true that Clinton hit him hard on his business practices, his taxes and wealth, and his treatment of women and minorities. He seems to think that these were unfair personal attacks that justify him responding with a blitz attack. Yes, they are personal attacks but his campaign has been built almost entirely on his personality and his business skills so they are relevant. It would be appropriate to attack Clinton on the emails, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, her Wall Street speeches, and her warmongering record as senator and secretary of state and we can expect him to do so relentlessly the next time around.

But to attack her husband’s behavior as if it somehow reflects on her ability to be president? That would be very dangerous because not only would (I think) most people recoil from it, thinking it inappropriate, it would open up his own personal life and the details of his affairs and multiple marriages to direct scrutiny. His close advisors and surrogates Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich are hardly the people to preach personal virtues either.

Party insiders are nervous about this possibility and are trying to dissuade him but they are fighting an uphill battle. Trump’s followers are angry about the debate and, like sports fans who feel that the opposing team beat them unfairly, are urging him to extract revenge at the next debate and think that Bill Clinton is fair game. This comment by a Trump fan is telling about how they view Trump and excuse his behavior in the first debate. “Barb Haag of West Chester, a retired teacher of the emotionally disturbed, said Mr. Trump’s interruptions did not bother her. “Kids interrupt you all the time if they have a point to make,” she said.”

Trump is the kind of person who responds to the crowd and this is one instance where his skill in reading his audience could lead him astray. Furthermore, how effective would attacks on Bill Clinton be? Is there anyone over the age of 40 who is not generally aware of what he did, even if they do not know all the details? And how much would voters under the age of 40 care about them? Furthermore, the Clinton team knows that this is coming and will have some response prepared. The best attacks are the surprise ones, like the Machado story that clearly sandbagged Trump and for which he could only splutter “Where did you find this?” three times in rapid succession. And, of course, being Trump, he has made it worse by not letting go, the way he blundered with Khizr Khan, continuing to dwell on it in the following days and attacking Machado some more.

But the biggest problem for Trump may be something that is out of his control and that is the set up of the next debate on Sunday, October 9th. It is a town hall format where at least half the questions come from people in the room and some sent in online.. Unlike the first debate, where the people in the room were not the target audience, town halls call for a different approach. In town halls where the audience is pre-selected to support you, you can be aggressive and boisterous, treating it like a small rally. But here the people invited are independents, the setting intimate, and it calls for a low-key, folksy persuasiveness delivered in a conversational style. With media moderators, you can ignore the question and go on a rant. But when ordinary people ask you a question and you have to respond to them directly, you had better answer it respectfully and at least somewhat to the point.

If Trump wants to really mix it up with Clinton by being as aggressive as his supporters would like him to be, he may be forced to wait until the final debate on Wednesday, October 19th that has the same format as the first one. But he and his supporters may be too impatient to wait until then, thinking that the third debate may be too late to make amends. His supporters are thirsting for revenge and will be disappointed if Trump does not come out swinging next time. Trump may be too weak to resist the temptation.


  1. keithb says

    If Trump goes there in a debate, my advice to Clinton would be to say:
    “So Donald, if Melania tries to run for public office it would be fair game to bring up your record of infidelity?”

  2. Mano Singham says


    That may not be wise. Because if Trump says “Yes, it would be perfectly fair game to bring up my record” then she would look foolish. In a debate, one should not ask a question expecting a particular answer but should be able to deal with all possible answers.

    As lawyers know, one should never ask a question of a witness unless you already know the answer.

  3. keithb says

    I kind of expect that he would reply: “I have never cheated on Melania.” Then she could say “Given your history, it is only a matter of time, Donald.”

  4. says

    I think the most likely outcome of the second debate is either a tie or a close win for either of them. Both can be harmed badly by an unbiased audience with no reason to pull their punches for access (unlike the media personalities they have interacted with so far).

    It’s very much a 50/50 at this point if Donald Trump will attack Hillary on Bill’s infidelity. I think he won’t go there. On the one hand, he really is that classless. On the other, his prep team has made quite a bit of progress with him.

    Don’t forget the exchange on trade where Trump mentioned Clinton’s flip-flopping on the TPP, made her defend NAFTA, and had her against the ropes by asking her if she thinks Obama is wrong. He almost seemed smart, had me worried for a second.
    Fortunately, he wasn’t, and Clinton came out on top for the rest of the first debate. But that line of attack worked at the moment and I would expect more of that in the future.

    The real revenge trap would be doing what keithb is suggesting. If she were to bring up Trump’s infidelities (none of them anywhere near as high-profile as Bill’s), even as retaliation, she’ll only come across as hypocritical. She won’t be able to refer to it as inappropriate presidential behavior because she’s also engaging in it.

    The best course would be to own it. It’s one of the few topics where Hillary Clinton can unequivocally portray herself as the sympathetic victim. Bringing up Donald’s affairs on a presidential debate would essentially shame Melania and Ivana Trump in the same way she herself was shamed in the 90’s.

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    She could take another approach, like “but my husband didn’t pose nude like your wife”.

  6. says

    I strongly suspect that Hillary’s team already anticipated that is something Trump might do, and have already laid out a good response (probably a lot better than any of us have come up with).

    Now we just have to wait for the next debate to find out what that was . . .

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    The Trump attack may be slightly indirect, along the lines of “Hillary tried to damage women that Bill cheated with” rather than simply “Bill cheated on here.” This will be by way of making it justifiable, but I don’t know that Trump’s fans will be able to grasp the indirectness.

  8. DonDueed says

    If Trump brings up Bill’s affairs directly, I’d expect a response like: “Yes, there have been rough spots in our marriage, but we worked through them and came out stronger for it. We didn’t just give up and get divorced.”

    If he tries the indirect approach as Reginald Selkirk suggests, the response might be more like: “Of course I went after the women who were trying to break up my marriage. I wouldn’t give up the love of my life without a fight.”

  9. anat says

    If this were a rational debate, the correct answer to anything about Bill Clinton would be ‘In case you have forgotten, my name is Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton is not a candidate in this election.’ Alas, not how things work.

  10. Varun Kharwadkar says

    But Anat, surely the only reason she is in a position to run for President is that she was Bill’s wife? She is part of a ‘Clinton dynasty’, not totally dissimilar to the ‘Bush dynasty’.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    Varun Kharwadkar #11: But Anat, surely the only reason she is in a position to run for President is that she was Bill’s wife?

    1) Stop calling me surely
    2) Where have you been the last 16 years? Hillary Clinton has served in the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State. Take your sexism elsewhere.

  12. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    If I were coaching Ms Clinton, I’d prepare her to convert any Trump attack on Bill into an emotional moment: “Yes, Donald, twenty years ago my husband broke his marriage vows in a way that caused us both extreme public embarrassment. A lot of people would have ended their marriage over something like that. But we didn’t. We were able to find the underlying mutual respect and love, and we were able to exercise patience, and forbearance, and rise above our egos to take the long view. And today I’m proud to say that for forty-one years I have been the wife of William Jefferson Clinton. And let me just say that those qualities that saved my marriage — forbearance, patience, ability to rise above ego and take the long view — those are just as necessary in public office as they are in marriage.”
    I don’t have a lot of faith she’ll do it that way — they somehow forgot to hire me to coach her — but done right, she could flip a Trump attack into a major win.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Trump says that he is not at all worried if his attacks on Bill Clinton open up his own marital history for scrutiny because “I have a very good history.”

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