Here’s the real story of how a Miss Universe became part of the presidential race

Alicia Machado, Miss Universe 1996, poses for a photo after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen Aug. 19, 2016.
Alicia Machado, Miss Universe 1996, poses for a photo after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen Aug. 19, 2016. MachadoOfficial via Instagram

Millions of Americans heard the name Alicia Machado for the first time this week in the final minutes of the most-watched presidential debate in history.

But there were actually a year’s worth of twists and turns, largely behind the scenes, that led Hillary Clinton to utter the name of the Latina beauty queen, turning Machado into a major figure in the final weeks of the presidential race.

American Bridge, an opposition research group, learned about the 1996 Miss Universe’s story last year. It sold the information directly to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee and passed it on to Correct the Record, a super political action committee, which also sold it to Clinton’s campaign, according to three people familiar with the transactions who were not authorized to speak publicly.

And Clinton’s campaign clearly made the strategic decision that what Machado had to say about her former boss, Donald Trump, would be far more beneficial to the Democratic hopeful than any questions raised about the pageant winner’s colorful past.

As Trump inched closer to winning the Republican nomination, Machado contacted the Clinton campaign herself to reveal that he had humiliated her for gaining weight, taunting her with names like “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”

“I know very well what he’s capable of, this man. And that’s why I am fighting to make the community understand, now more than ever,” she told reporters this week. She said she hopes “my story as Miss Universe with this person will open eyes in these elections. This is perhaps, the tip of the iceberg.”

Machado’s story wasn’t exactly a secret. Trump wrote about her in one of his books and she has been mentioned in numerous articles in the United States and Latin America, including by McClatchy. In July 2015, she announced she was writing a book about Trump.

It wasn’t until months after Machado’s experience became known to the Clinton campaign that the nominee brought up Machado’s name at the debate, knowing it could resonate with two key constituencies: women and Hispanics.

On Friday morning, four days after the debate, Trump – clearly still bothered about Machado – went on an early-morning tirade on Twitter, going as far as to suggest Clinton had helped the Venezuela-born actress become a U.S. citizen in order to use her in the debate. Clinton responded by calling Machado, an actress who is well-known in the Spanish-speaking world, and “thanking her for all she had done and the courage she has shown, particularly as this became elevated through a war of some pretty unpleasant words,” her spokesman Nick Merrill said.

“This week we have seen a perfect storm of events in which Donald Trump’s harassment of Alicia Machado has broken through because it feeds into people’s biggest concern about Trump – that he is temperamentally unfit to serve as president,” said Jessica Mackler, president of American Bridge.

Machado has been working with the Clinton campaign since the summer, which included campaigning for Clinton on Aug. 20 in Miami, but she didn’t become a major element in the race until Clinton said her name.

“One of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” Clinton said at the debate. “He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”

Trump interrupted Clinton. “Where did you find this? Where did you find this?” he sputtered.

“Her name is Alicia Machado,” Clinton continued.

The next day her campaign was ready. It released a two-minute video about Machado. Cosmopolitan magazine published a lengthy article, clearly already written, about Machado that included multiple photos of her draped in an American flag.

It’s not new for candidates to have outside groups working for and against them, though this year they appear to have more money, more staff and more ways than ever to get out their message.

American Bridge collected information on Machado as part of the first book of research the group put together on Trump late last year, back when many were still skeptical he could become the nominee, said Kevin McAlister, a spokesman for American Bridge. It also also found a video of Trump inviting reporters to watch Machado work out at a New York City gym, telling them, “This is somebody who likes to eat,” McAlister said.

Information about Machado was featured in American Bridge’s makeshift Trump museum, a loft the group rented a block and half from the site of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, McAlister said. It invited reporters to come learn about the Republican nominee.

American Bridge sold the information to the Clinton campaign as well as passed it to Correct the Record, a rapid-response organization it had been affiliated with. In May 2015, it split off and began working directly with the campaign.

Correct the Record was the first super PAC to coordinate with a campaign, and some campaign finance experts think it violates federal law. A group has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the issue, but no action has been taken.

“They are supposed to be independent,” said Larry Noble, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. “This undermines the rules. It’s a way to get information to the campaign.”

Outside groups are not allowed to provide the campaign anything for free, which would be considered a donation. Jason Torchinsky, an attorney who specializes in election law and campaign finance, said the Clinton campaign would have to pay “fair market value” for any report.

The Clinton campaign has paid Correct the Record $281,964 and American Bridge $22,211 for research, according to FEC reports. The payments are likely to cover a variety of information, including research on Machado. The DNC, which can share information with the campaign, paid American Bridge $216,000 for research, according to FEC reports.

This week, Trump and his top surrogates have continued to criticize Machado, ensuring her story remains an issue in the race just as Clinton’s campaign had hoped.

“Wow, Crooked Hillary was duped and used by my worst Miss U. Hillary floated her as an ‘angel’ without checking her past, which is terrible!” Trump tweeted.

Here are details of that past:

▪  In the 1990s, a Venezuelan judge accused Machado of threatening to kill him after he indicted her then-boyfriend for attempted murder. She had been accused of being an accomplice but was not charged, according to Politifact. She denied the allegation.

▪  In 2005, while appearing on a Spanish reality TV show she was filmed having sex with a fellow participant, former Mr. Spain Fernando Acaso, according to PeopleenEspanol.com.

▪  A secret witness under federal protection claimed that Gerardo Alvarez Vazquez, an accused kingpin known as “El Indio,” or “The Indian,” was the father of Machado’s daughter, Dinorah, born in 2008, McClatchy has reported. She denied the allegation.

“I have my past. Of course, everybody has a past,” Machado told CNN on Tuesday. “And I’m not a saint girl. But that is not the point now.”

On Friday, Machado slammed Trump in a statement issued through her publicist.

“The Republican candidate and his campaign are, once again, launching attacks, insults and are attempting to revive slanders and false accusations about my life, in order to humiliate, intimidate and unbalance me. These attacks are cheap lies with bad intentions,” she said. “This, of course, is not the first time the candidate insists on discrediting someone or insists on demoralizing women, minorities and people of certain religions through his hateful campaign. This is definitely one of his most frightful characteristics. Through his attacks, he’s attempting to distract from his campaign’s real problems and his inability to be the leader of this great country.”

All the allegations had been reported in the media before the presidential campaign started and would have been easy to find. A Clinton aide declined to say what was known about Machado’s background, saying only, “We’ve worked with Alicia the way we do with all of our surrogates.”

Doug Heye, a veteran Republican communications strategist who doesn’t support either candidate, said Clinton’s campaign wouldn’t talk about Machado’s background because that would take away from the story about Trump and his behavior. Clinton’s campaign, he said, successfully taunted Trump, who often has to have the last word.

“Donald Trump never misses an opportunity for a fight,” Heye said. “He took the bait.”