By Liz Goodwin, Hunter Walker and Jon Ward
Donald Trump, under fire for lewd comments he made in 2005 about sexually assaulting women, offered a perfunctory apology and then promised to drag the second presidential debate scheduled for Sunday night into the gutter. Trump’s mea culpa came in a brief video that he released shortly after midnight on Saturday.
The Republican presidential nominee referred to the recording of him talking about grabbing a woman’s genitals as a “10-year old video” and said his comments on the tape “don’t reflect who I am.”
“I said it. I was wrong and I apologize,” Trump said.
Trump’s apology came several hours after the Washington Post published a clip from 2005 with audio of him discussing his efforts to “try and f***” a married woman and boasting that he subjected women to uninvited kisses and “grab[bed] them by the p****” because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” The audio was recorded when Trump filmed a segment with the show “Access Hollywood.”
After expressing regret for his remarks, Trump quickly turned his focus to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Trump concluded his statement by hinting very strongly that he will make attacking the Clintons for past sex scandals a centerpiece of his debate appearance on Sunday evening.
“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday,” Trump said in the video, which was released shortly after midnight on Saturday.
Trump has toyed publicly on several occasions with bringing up sordid aspects of Bill Clinton’s past. After the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, Trump praised himself for not bringing up President Clinton’s infidelities almost immediately after he walked into the spin room and began talking with reporters. Trump declared that he held back because he knew the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, was in attendance at the debate.
President Clinton has admitted to conducting multiple affairs during his marriage. He has also been accused of rape and other abusive behaviors. The New York Times a week ago published an article chronicling the ways in which Hillary Clinton encouraged and oversaw efforts in the 1990s to sully the reputations of women who were publicly claiming to have had affairs with her husband.
Trump’s performance in the first debate was widely panned and his standing suffered in the polls. Leading up to the second debate, which will take place in St. Louis on Sunday, members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign suggested they thought bringing up the dirty laundry would be a bad move for Trump.
“I don’t think it’s a smart strategy for Donald Trump to come after her with these kinds of personal attacks,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters earlier this week.
Mook was responding to Trump’s prior threat to invite one of President Clinton’s former paramours to the first debate. Mook further said he didn’t believe the real estate tycoon would bring up anything “salacious.
“We do not necessarily expect him to come with the kind of personal and harsh attacks that he has been threatening,” Mook told reporters again Thursday. “We expect a more focused, prepared Trump at this debate.”
But if anything could prod Trump into bringing up President Clinton’s sex scandals it might be the Clinton campaign telling him not to, which they have done several times in the past week.
Before the firestorm over Trump’s comments about trying to “f*** and “grab” women, Republican Consultant Liz Mair told Yahoo News the Clinton campaign was likely trying to goad Trump.
“The Clinton folks probably do think they’re baiting him, or are hoping so, but the reality is that baiting or not, Trump is very likely to walk into this trap anyway,” Mair, who ran a SuperPAC opposing Trump. “Self immolation on live TV: It’s what he does.”
Conventional wisdom ahead of Trump’s latest controversy was that making sex scandal-based attacks would be a disastrous tactic, especially given Hillary Clinton’s role as the aggrieved spouse. Trump’s resurfaced remarks would make the move even riskier. But Trump’s inner circle seemed divided about how to proceed.
Last month, Trump came from behind in the polls after adopting what his campaign called a “more disciplined” approach and talking about policy issues. He has since slipped. Following the vice presidential debate last Tuesday, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway indicated a clear preference for how her candidate should behave.
“I do appreciate when he talks about the issues,” Conway said.
Yet Trump is at his most unpredictable when he is cornered. And so the revelation of the sexually aggressive behavior Trump bragged about in the 2005 video may have ironically made it more likely that Trump gets down in the mud during the debate.
Trump came under intense, and unprecedented, criticism from members of his own political party Friday evening after his comments were reported. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker both insisted that Trump back out of a scheduled appearance with them in their home state on Saturday, according to news reports. Two different sources had told Yahoo News earlier Friday that Ryan and his advisers were not happy about Trump’s appearance in Wisconsin, and that it was not their idea. Ryan said in a statement late Friday he was “sickened” by Trump’s comments in the video.
While Ryan and most Republicans maintained their endorsements of Trump, a few prominent Republicans withdrew theirs. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, was the first sitting congressman to unendorse Trump. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, did the same.
And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had not endorsed Trump, called on the Republican nominee to withdraw from the race. Trump, in his statement, attempted to downplay his 2005 comments by saying they were “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues were facing today.”
Lee took great offense to that remark, and with his voice rising he spoke directly to Trump in his own Facebook video: “With all due respect, sir — you, sir are the distraction. Your conduct, sir, is the distraction … from the very principles that will help us win in November,” Lee said. “I respectfully ask you, with all due respect, to step aside. Step down.”
The political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also called on Trump to exit the race. Others called on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to withdraw from his place on Trump’s ticket as vice presidential nominee.
Pence was scheduled to appear in Trump’s place at the Wisconsin event with Ryan and Walker. Trump issued a statement saying he would be spending the time preparing for the debate.
“Governor Mike Pence will be representing me tomorrow in Wisconsin. I will be spending the day in New York in debate prep with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Jeff Sessions, and then flying to St. Louis on Sunday for the 2nd Presidential Debate,” Trump said.
Trump’s staffers and advisers have gone radio silent since the video apology was released.
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