One of Hillary Clinton's oft repeated attack lines against Donald Trump is that he's "a man you can bait with a tweet." It's now clear her campaign has been purposely baiting the Republican nominee with television ads.
"You know, he was a big part of our target audience. He consumes a lot of cable," admitted Clinton's communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, at a North Carolina rally Thursday.
Palmieri told NPR the deliberate goading started this summer. The campaign was airing an ad called "Role Models," in which children watch television as Trump delivers some of his most controversial remarks. Palmieri noticed Trump, in a speech, defending himself against the ad point by point.
"I was listening and I thought, oh my God, he must have been in his hotel, just watched 'Role Models,' and walked out onstage [and] then done his own refutation of it."
The unusual tactic has paid dividends for the Democrat's campaign, notably during the first presidential debate. Just as it was ending, Hillary Clinton said something that set Donald Trump off:
"This is a man who is called women pigs, slobs and dogs."
Clinton's 'Mirrors' Ad
She was echoing an ad her campaign had been running in swing states and on national cable leading up to the debate, called "Mirrors." In that ad, girls look at themselves in the mirror and on their phones as sad music plays. And you can hear (and occasionally see) Donald Trump delivering such insults as "I'd look right in that fat ugly face of hers," "She's a slob" and "She ate a like a pig."
With each of those three insults, Trump is talking about comedian Rosie O'Donnell. But here's the thing: Clinton never said anything about O'Donnell in the debate.
Still, when it came time for Trump to respond to what Clinton did say, he went straight to the ad.
Trump's Reaction To 'Mirrors'
"You know Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials, some of said in entertainment, some of it said — somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her," Trump said.
It seems quite likely Trump had seen the ad — and more — though his campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
By all accounts, Trump is an avid television viewer, especially cable TV. He tweets regularly about the cable networks, their anchors and their ratings. And he made it clear at that debate he did not like what he was seeing during the commercial breaks.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many which are absolutely untrue," said Trump. "They're untrue and they're misrepresentations. And I will tell you this, Lester, it's not nice and I don't, I don't deserve that. But it's certainly not a nice thing that she's done."
A Man Without A Curtain
"Part of what's just so compelling about the spectacle that we are seeing playing out is that there's sort of no curtain in front of Donald Trump," said Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at UCLA who observes political advertising closely.
What she means is that Trump's campaign apparatus doesn't consistently act as a filter between the public. Additionally, the candidate isn't sheltered from outside commentary, including advertisements from the opposing campaign.
"Typically, someone in the campaign would see that ad and there'd be three or four people talking about it in some hotel room somewhere," said Vavreck. "There'd be some reaction but you certainly wouldn't get the candidate or the principal going out there and saying 'and now I will react to all the advertisements.' "
Trump's Reaction To A Veterans Ad
But react the candidate has, including at a rally in Henderson, Nev.
"And then I saw today, I left the room and I saw a commercial where, it was really a nasty commercial, totally made up about me with vets," said Trump.
"There is nobody that loves the vets more or respects the vets more," Trump added. "They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on false commercials and it's a disgrace. So what we'll do? I guess we'll sue them. Let's sue them, right. Let's sue them. It's unbelievable."
Clinton's 'Sacrifice' Ad
In this case, it's not clear exactly which commercial Trump was referring to, though it could well have been a Clinton ad called "Sacrifice." The spot features wounded warriors watching Trump as he claims to know more about ISIS than generals. In it, Trump also says John McCain isn't a war hero because he was captured. The veterans wince as they watch.
Trump could also have been referring to this ad, from the pro-Clinton SuperPAC Priorities USA, that implies by avoiding taxes, Trump wasn't helping the nation's veterans.
Whichever ad it was that Trump saw, he certainly made his displeasure clear to an amphitheater full of people.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are spending big on television ads right now. And those ads are mostly intended for voters, as you'd imagine. But NPR's Tamara Keith has learned some of Clinton's ads are for a very specific audience, her opponent.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At a rally in Florida yesterday, Donald Trump was talking about the endorsements he's gotten from retired generals when he took a detour.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: I'm also honored to have the greatest temperament that anybody has because we know how to win.
TRUMP: She spends a billion dollars. She spends so much money. I see these ads. People that know me, they say, how can they say that?
KEITH: And this isn't the first time Trump has talked about watching Clinton's ads.
JENNIFER PALMIERI: You know, he was a big part of our target audience. He consumes a lot of cable.
KEITH: That's Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign's communications director. At a rally yesterday, with just a few days left to go, she finally admitted that the Clinton campaign has been trolling Donald Trump with TV commercials.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
TRUMP: I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks.
KEITH: It started this summer. The campaign was up with an ad called "Role Models," where children watch television as Trump delivers some of his most controversial remarks. And then, Palmieri noticed in his speech...
PALMIERI: I was listening and I thought, oh, my God, he must have just watched - he must have been in his hotel, just watched "Role Models" and walked out and staged - and then just done his own refutation of it.
KEITH: What started as an accident became a strategy.
PALMIERI: Obviously, the television audience is what's in our mind when we're producing an ad. But we also have Donald Trump in mind in thinking about where he may be and where he may be watching television and watching our ads. And they have an impact on him.
KEITH: And so it was. With 80 million people watching the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton echoed an ad her campaign had been airing in the lead up to the debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HILLARY CLINTON: This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs.
KEITH: In the ad, girls look at themselves in the mirror or on their phones as Donald Trump speaks.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
TRUMP: I'd look her right in that fat, ugly face of hers. She's a slob. She ate like a pig.
KEITH: With each of those three insults, Trump is talking about comedian Rosie O'Donnell. Clinton never said anything about O'Donnell in the debate. But listen to how Trump responded to what she did say.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2016 PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
TRUMP: Let me just you. Let me just tell you.
LESTER HOLT: Mr. Trump, can we just take 10 seconds and then we're going to have the final question.
TRUMP: You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it's said in entertainment. Some of it's said - somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her. And I think everybody would agree that she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her.
KEITH: Referring to the ad, Trump said, it's certainly not a nice thing. Lynn Vavreck is a professor of political science at UCLA, who observes political advertising closely. She says this is all very unusual.
LYNN VAVRECK: Typically, like, sure, someone in the campaign would see that ad, and there'd be three or four people talking about it in some hotel room somewhere. There'd be some reaction, but you certainly wouldn't get the candidate or the principal going out there and saying, and now I will react to all the advertisements.
KEITH: The Trump campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. And now Clinton's team is back up on the air with that spot from the summer, the one that first got under Trump's skin, perhaps in an effort to bait him into responding once again. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.