By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump escalated his attacks on a former beauty queen with a vague and unsubstantiated allegation about a sex tape in predawn Twitter posts on Friday that prompted Democratic rival Hillary Clinton to denounce him as “unhinged.”
Trump’s refusal to drop his invective against Alicia Machado, the Miss Universe he criticized for gaining weight after she won the crown in 1996, threatened to damage his already weak standing among women and Hispanics.
With less than six weeks to go until the Nov. 8 election, Trump made reference – without giving evidence – to a sex tape involving the Venezuelan-born Machado, who had publicly denounced him all week as a humiliating bully. His attacks provided critics with new fodder to question his temperament for the White House.
“Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?” Trump said in his Twitter messages in the early hours of Friday. He did not elaborate on his allegations beyond saying that the Clinton campaign was unaware of the beauty queen’s past and had been “duped” by her.
Politico reported that Machado has starred in racy reality TV programs and posed naked for Playboy’s Mexican version, but said media outlets have found no evidence that she has starred in pornographic films.
Machado, now a U.S. citizen, dismissed the fresh attacks with a message on Instagram, calling them “cheap lies” from a man intent on defaming her.
“By way of his hate campaign, the Republican candidate insists on discrediting and demoralizing a woman, which is clearly one of his most frightening characteristics,” she wrote in her post in Spanish, next to a photo of herself draped in an American flag.
Clinton’s campaign said in a Twitter post under the candidate’s name that, “This is … unhinged, even for Trump.”
“When something gets under Donald’s thin skin, he lashes out and can’t let go. This is dangerous for a president,” another post said, praising Machado for standing up to Trump.
Campaign spokesman Nick Merrill said Clinton called Machado on Friday to thank her for the courage she has shown.
TEMPERAMENT AT PLAY
Clinton raised Trump’s treatment of Machado during their first presidential debate on Monday night as an example of how he views women. Clinton said Trump, the former owner of the Miss Universe pageants, had called Machado “Miss Piggy” and also “Miss Housekeeping” because she was a Latina.
The New York real estate mogul attacked Machado the following day in a television interview as he sought to rebound from a debate that Clinton was widely viewed as having won. He also promised to hit Clinton harder in their next debate, on Oct. 9, suggesting he might attack Clinton on the infidelities of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Speaking to Fox News on Tuesday, Trump said Machado had gained a “massive amount of weight” after her pageant win and that it was a “real problem.”
Critics said his offensive this week raised questions about Trump’s character. The former television reality star has never run for office before and his habit of making off-the-cuff insults has alarmed many in the Republican Party establishment.
“When one of the two presidential candidate finds himself in a Twitter war with a former Miss Universe and is attacking her throughout the night … not only does it demonstrate a lack of restraint but almost an incapacity to control impulses,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who is not a Trump supporter, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
“That aspect of character, applied to the test of presidential temperament and comportment and the expectations that voters have about how the most powerful person in the world should behave under pressure, will not help him.”
In taking the bait Clinton dangled on Monday, Trump echoed his August entanglement in a days-long public dispute with the parents of a Muslim Army captain killed in Iraq. That incident caused anguish among many Republican leaders concerned that he had nothing to gain by attacking a grieving family.
Trump’s remarks on Friday could hurt him further with women and Hispanic voters, both groups that favor Clinton in opinion polls. Clinton, 68, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state, is the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party and has led Trump in opinion polls.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos national tracking poll, released on Friday, showed Clinton leading by 43 percent to Trump’s 38 percent among likely voters.
On Friday afternoon the Republican candidate tweeted a sarcastic reference to the sort of important 3 a.m. calls that White House incumbents receive and that were made famous in a 2008 Clinton presidential campaign commercial.
Trump has criticized Clinton as being asleep and missing such a call during the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state.
“For those few people knocking me for tweeting at three o’clock in the morning, at least you know I will be there, awake, to answer the call!” Trump said in his tweet.
Clinton mocked Trump this week after he complained that he had a faulty microphone during Monday’s debate.
The Commission on Presidential Debates said on Friday that, “Regarding the first debate, there were issues regarding Donald Trump’s audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall.â€
The sound was not affected for the record-setting audience of 84 million people who tuned into the 90-minute exchange.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Florida, Steve Holland in Michigan, Alistair Bell in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry)