A 2005 recording of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump making lewd comments about women surfaced Friday morning, putting a sour cherry on top of an already unpleasant week for the G.O.P. nominee. You can read the full transcript of his comments in the video here, but here’s a quick (and uncensored) summary from The New York Times:
In the three-minute recording, which was reported by The Washington Post, Mr. Trump recounts to the television personality Billy Bush of the program “Access Hollywood,” how he once pursued a married woman and “moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” expressing regret that they did not have sex. But he brags of a special status with women: Because he was “a star,” he said, he could “grab them by the pussy” whenever he wanted.
I joined Kate Dolgenos, a contributor to the Project, to discuss this latest revelation and its impact on the 2016 presidential race.
What do you think about these comments? In terms of political fallout, do they change anything?
It still might blow over, just like his previous gaffes (though can they be called gaffes when they appear not to hurt him?). But what’s different about this case is that Republican leaders issued strong criticisms of him immediately after the tape’s release. Even Reince Priebus1, who helped Mr. Trump crush anti-Trump delegates at the Republican National Convention, gave a harshly-worded statement. He said, “it is never appropriate to condone unwanted sexual advances or violence against women.”
I cannot believe that statement is about a presidential candidate of a major political party.
I think this explosion was inevitable. Republican leadership has consistently failed to respond meaningfully to their nominee’s disgusting comments. They have scolded him for some of his worst statements, but no action ever results from their criticism.
The political fallout might be big from this. What do you think?
I agree. It seems to me that the immediate reaction from nearly every major figure in the Republican Party, from Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, and Mitch McConnell, means that this video is more damaging than anything the Trump campaign has had to deal with so far in this campaign. But I honestly don’t see this scandal moving Trump’s numbers very much. I think it drastically shrinks the number of voters he can win over, which is a devastating blow so close to the election, but we likely will not see a major change in the polls from this controversy.
“I am sickened by what I heard today. Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.”
— House Speaker Paul Ryan (R)
And rightly or wrongly, party leaders are engaged in a constant political calculus. They disliked Donald Trump from the start, but they swallowed his candidacy since the costs—alienating his significant following and almost certainly forfeiting the election—would have been high. But now, with so much on the line and so little time remaining before voters go to the ballot box, these grudging supporters are realizing just how big of a problem Mr. Trump really is for the party’s image.
The G.O.P.’s leadership is in a real bind. Paul Ryan was set to make his first appearance with Mr. Trump this weekend in Wisconsin, but he rescinded his invitation along with his harshest rebuke yet of his party’s nominee. Regardless of his uninvitations, however, there is a real problem here. Once you endorse a candidate, you own him until and unless you rescind your endorsement, and it doesn’t seem like Mr. Ryan or Mitch McConnell—the Senate majority leader—are ready to do that.
What do you think it would take for Ryan and McConnell to rescind their endorsements? Trump has said so many things like this during this election, and yet they apparently still plan to vote for him.
Like I said, Ryan and McConnell are political creatures, like almost everyone in Washington. They are looking at this situation in terms of how it will affect their party and its ability to win elections. If Mr. Trump becomes a major liability—by, say, dropping several points in national polls over the next few days—I think the pressure on him to exit the race will become very, very strong.
But as you mentioned, Mr. Trump has made offensive comments in the past. For all we know, it will just blow over like the rest—though this time feels different.
How do you think this affects Hillary Clinton’s calculus, and what would you say is her best strategy as this story unfolds?
I actually don’t think this changes Hillary Clinton’s strategy at all. Her campaign has already been capitalizing for months on her gender and the historic nature of her candidacy. On her official online store, you can order a bright pink “Woman Card” or a $30 T-shirt that says “Deal Me In.” She will continue to emphasize her gender as the election nears, and Trump’s comments will help her amplify her message—that she is the better candidate for women in 2016—to even more women voters across the country.
The contrast between her campaign against Donald Trump and her 2008 primary run against Barack Obama is striking. Back then, she downplayed the feminist aspect of her campaign. She wanted to be seen as more of an individual than an identity, so she emphasized her toughness and experience rather than her gender. There were no “Woman Cards” back then. Now, with her opponent bragging about groping women in private conversations, Mrs. Clinton’s choice to harness her identity is paying off. Her campaign has already deployed a lot of imagery related to her gender; at the Democratic National Convention, they had a video montage of all the past presidents that ended with an image of Hillary smashing a glass ceiling. As a woman, that aspect of this election has been very exciting for me.
Do you think this incident will change Donald Trump’s strategy? Will he start talking more about Bill Clinton’s past and casting doubt on Hillary Clinton’s credentials?
I think those are good observations, though part of the reason for Mrs. Clinton’s reticence to be “dealt in” back in 2008 had a lot to do with the fact that with his unique background, then-candidate Obama had an ace of his own.
I do not really know what Trump can do to fix this strategically. Mrs. Clinton will almost certainly bring up the comments at Sunday’s debate, and Trump will be hard-pressed to defend himself unless he expresses real regret, which will require him to acknowledge just how offensive his comments were. But even then, what he said remains inexcusable. It’s hard to see how even the requisite apology would play out under the hot lights of the debate stage.
If I were his campaign advisor, I would not recommend that he go after former president Clinton. It draws attention to his own temperament, which voters already dislike, and such an aggressive strategy will not attract crossover voters and moderates.
Last question: What are the chances Donald Trump surrenders his position as the Republican nominee?
Zero. That man has never relinquished the spotlight voluntarily.
However, I am sure that Ryan, McConnell, and Priebus are working overtime to make that happen. Former Republican primary candidate Jon Huntsman already said he wanted Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential nominee, to lead the Republican ticket, and I’m sure Paul Ryan has someone else picked out to be the new V.P. I just don’t think that Trump is likely to succumb to their threats.
I’m a little less certain. I think there’s about a 5 percent chance he bails. If Mr. Trump bombs Sunday night’s debate and his poll numbers collapse, he might withdraw to save face.
One thing we can agree on: If this disaster continues to play out, Hillary Clinton will win this race easily.
Amen to that.
The original transcript of this chat has been lightly edited for clarity.
- The chairman of the Republican National Committee. ↩