St. Louis (CNN)Donald Trump issued an unmistakable threat to Hillary Clinton Sunday night: I am willing to cross any line to make the next 30 days of your life hell.
Capping the most devastating 48 hours of his presidential campaign, Trump stunned the country on Sunday by convening a press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and calling the former president an abuser of women in a nationally televised debate.
The Republican presidential nominee’s decision to bring women from Bill Clinton’s past into the debate — both physically into the debate hall and into his verbal attacks against Hillary Clinton — signaled a remarkably defiant strategy anchored in some of the most electric allegations that have been leveled against the Clintons in their decades in public life.
It also guarantees that in the final, ugly month of the 2016 election, the country’s first female presidential nominee will be repeatedly subjected to the indignity of confronting the most painful moments of her marriage in public.
As Bill Clinton looked on from the front row with his daughter Chelsea — and with Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Clinton of rape, also sitting in the audience — Trump charged that the former president was “abusive to women.”
“There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
Appearing irritated, and at times even furious, Trump even claimed that Clinton would be “in jail” if he were president.
Throughout it all, Clinton showed a remarkable level of composure throughout the night. And the lines of attack may not have the impact Trump intended.
A CNN/ORC poll found 57% of debate watchers thought Clinton won compared to 34% who thought Trump came out on top. The poll only represents the views of people who watched the debate and has a slight advantage than average CNN polls of all Americans.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told NBC’s “Today” on Monday that Trump’s actions and language are the sign of a “spiraling campaign.”
“Hillary’s steady, she’s strong, she’s not going to get thrown off her game,” Mook said. “That’s what Donald Trump tried to do.”
Just hours before the debate began, Trump held a last-minute press conference featuring women who have accused Bill Clinton of inappropriate sexual behavior.
Broaddrick looked directly at a small group of reporters in the room and said: “Actions speak louder than words. Mr. Trump may have said some bad words but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
The spectacle continued even after the debate, with Bill Clinton’s accusers appearing in the spin room to speak with reporters.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, told CNN’s Dana Bash she’s been alone with Trump and he’s been “gracious and a gentleman.”
Sunday night marked a dramatic escalation in what had already been an extraordinary weekend in the 2016 presidential election.
A tape released on Friday from more than 10 years ago showed Trump describing in reprehensible terms the aggressive advances he made on women. (“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” Trump says in the tape.)
The revelation threw the Trump campaign into chaos and a flood of Republicans quickly turned their backs on their own party’s presidential nominee.
But rather than attempt to contain the fallout with sincere contrition, Trump signaled Sunday in the most sensational way imaginable that he will subject Clinton to the most agonizing personal indignities.
That strategy will do little to slow Trump’s crumbling support within the his own party, and could even spur more defections.
Veteran Republicans have long recoiled from dredging up accusations that have been leveled against Bill Clinton, considering it as a losing strategy that turns off voters.
Stephanie Schriock, the head of EMILY’s List, told CNN on Sunday that Trump’s decision to visit Bill Clinton’s past could “really backfire.”
“Even Republicans around this country making it clear that this is a bad strategy. He’s alienated the vast majority of women voters already and this will just seal the deal,” Schriock said.
“That we could get dragged down to this level on the night of a presidential debate in a very consequential election — to have it turned into a sideshow and a reality show is profoundly sad,” David Axelrod said on CNN.
Hillary Clinton and her top aides sought to engage as little as possible with Trump’s attacks on the former president.
After Trump’s press conference, spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said the Democratic nominee would be “prepared to handle whatever Donald Trump throws her way.”
“We’re not surprised to see Donald Trump continue his destructive race to the bottom,” Palmieri said.
“Hillary Clinton understands the opportunity in this town hall is to talk to voters on stage and in the audience about the issues that matter to them, and this stunt doesn’t change that. If Donald Trump doesn’t see that, that’s his loss.”
Clinton, meanwhile, simply declined to address Trump’s allegation that her husband has abused women.
Instead, she trained her fire on Trump’s vulgar comments caught on tape.
“What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women, and he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is,” she said. “But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.”
On the campaign plane late Sunday, asked whether she was surprised by the tone of the debate and the women Trump invited, Clinton responded: “Nothing surprises me about him.”