Donald Trump urged US voters on Friday to check out the supposed "sex tape" of a former Miss Universe backing his rival Hillary Clinton, provoking the Democrat to label him "unhinged" in a surreal new turn to the White House race.
In a pre-dawn tweet-storm guaranteed to grab attention, the Republican nominee accused Clinton of helping Alicia Machado obtain citizenship in order to exploit her story against him.
The Venezuela-born Machado, who claims the billionaire bullied her mercilessly after she won the Trump-owned beauty pageant in 1996, has shot to public attention since Clinton raised her case at this week's presidential debate.
"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?" said Trump, in one of a series of virulent tweets.
Clinton had lashed out on the debate stage at Trump's history of abusive remarks about women that included humiliating Machado over her weight gain and Latina origins, nicknaming her "Miss Piggy" and "Miss Housekeeping."
The Democrat was quick to seize on Trump's overnight attacks on the former beauty queen as new evidence that he is lacks the steadiness to be president.
"This is... unhinged, even for Trump," Clinton said in her own series of pointed tweets in response to his sex tape allegation.
The three am call
Addressing supporters at a rally later in Florida, Clinton hammered her point home: "Who gets up at three o'clock in the morning to engage in a Twitter attack against a former Miss Universe?"
"It proves, yet again, that he is temperamentally unfit to be president and commander in chief."
Trump sought to limit the damage, tweeting back that "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!"
But with five weeks left in an increasingly vitriolic race, Team Hillary -- by bringing Machado into the political sphere -- succeeded in provoking Trump into a potentially damaging outburst.
The Machado issue stands to help Clinton among both women and Hispanic voters, who could make the difference in a vital battleground state like Florida, where the Democrat was campaigning Friday.
Clinton's spokesman Nick Merrill said the former first lady called Machado from the campaign trail to offer her support as the row turned ugly.
She thanked the former beauty queen "for all she had done and the courage she has shown," Merrill said.
Machado meanwhile accused Trump in a new press release of issuing "slanders and false accusations about my life in order to humiliate, intimidate and unbalance me."
She repeated her pledge of "absolute support for Secretary Clinton, on behalf of all women."
Unable to resist
Trump has often seemed to make provocative outbursts as a way to deflect media attention -- in this case from the widespread sense that he fared poorly in Monday's debate. He has also hinted at plans to attack Clinton over her husband Bill's past infidelity.
But he has also seemed unable, at times, to let any criticism go unanswered. Observers saw Clinton's mention of Machado as a plain attempt to bait Trump -- and one he was unable to resist.
"It is not apparent to us why he simply can't stop attacking her," a Clinton spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri, told reporters Friday in Florida.
Palmieri said neither her boss nor anyone in the campaign had helped Machado get citizenship.
According to the fact-checking website Snopes, Trump's sex tape allegation appears to refer to Machado's appearance on a reality TV show in which she is shown in bed with another participant, under the covers.
Machado was also pictured in Playboy magazine. But a pornographic video circulated in recent years purporting to star the former Miss Universe was debunked as a fake.
Trump, addressing his nearly 12 million Twitter followers, said Machado had "duped" the Clinton campaign.
"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!" he wrote.
The former beauty queen has seen her profile raised considerably by the controversy.
During a news conference call this week, speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, Machado heaped contempt on Trump for his past mistreatment.
"It was evident that maybe he doesn't remember an 18-year-old girl, whom he insulted and offended and mistreated a thousand times. But I'll always remember," she said.