On Friday afternoon, as everyone was anticipating Sunday's presidential debate, the Washington Post dropped a video that changed the entire tenor of the weekend and the entire campaign: a never-aired bit of footage in which Donald Trump detailed his efforts to "move on" a married woman and bragged that he was so famous he could kiss women on the mouth and "grab them by the pussy."
So naturally, moderator Anderson Cooper's first question directed at Trump wasn't even a question but an accusation. In what started one of—if not the—ugliest exchanges in the 2016 election cycle, the CNN anchor said, "You called what you said locker room banter — kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?"
"No, I didn't say that at all," Trump replied. "I don't think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk. I'm not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I'm not proud of it. But this is locker room talk."
He went on, pivoting immediately to his core message that the world is a terrifying place, so what was a bit of bragging about pussy-grabbing among friends? "You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads," he said. "Where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven't seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world."
The argument, as pointed out by CNN commentator Van Jones just after the debate, was basically, Yeah, well at least I'm not as bad as ISIS. He also took a page from his running mate Mike Pence's playbook with the "I didn't say that at all" line—it's hard to argue against a flat denial, after all.
The debate moved on to other topics, including Syria and Russia and what each candidate admired about the other, but the tape was the kernel of the night's most important exchange. "Grab them by the pussy," grotesquely, could become the 2016 version of Mitt Romney's infamous comments in 2012 dismissing the "47 percent" of people who don't pay federal income taxes—an off-the-cuff remark from a Republican candidate that symbolizes neatly everything that many voters distrust about them. And Trump didn't likely do enough to convince everyone to move past that.
Trump's claim that "nobody has more respect for women than I do" was ridiculous on its face given his long history of making nasty comments about women. Female voters could very well decide this election, and in Hillary Clinton's most effective moment of the night, she used the Trump recording discussion as a springboard into a summation of Trump's overall toxicity:
"We have seen him insult women. We've seen him rate women. On their appearance. Ranking them from one to ten. We've seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms, so, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. But it's not only women, and it's not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president. Because he has also targeted immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, Muslims, and others, so, this is who Donald Trump is, and the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are."
This was clearly the focus of her debate prep, but Trump had a counter ready, one that dredged up every nasty report about the Clintons that has circulated on conservative media:
"If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse—mine are words, and his was action. His was what he's done to women. There's never been anybody in the history politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women. So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women.
"Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously. Four of them here tonight. One of the women, who is a wonderful woman, at 12 years old, was raped at 12. Her client she represented got him off, and she's seen laughing on two separate occasions, laughing at the girl who was raped. Kathy Shelton, that young woman is here with us tonight."
The Shelton case is much more complicated than Trump makes it out to be—Clinton did represent a rapist as a defense attorney, and he did earn a plea bargain because a crime lab mishandled evidence, though Clinton never laughed at the victim—but Trump's game plan was clearly to turn the debate into a vicious orgy of nasty accusations, however inaccurate. He was playing to his base and trying to draw attention away from himself with stunts and bluster. The real estate mogul preluded the debate with a press conference that included Shelton and several women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. He then sat them in the front row of the audience, just within earshot of Bill and Chelsea, and mentioned Paula Jones, one of the women, when he tried to retake the high ground:
"So don't tell me about words. I am absolutely—I apologize for those words. But it is things that people say. But what President Clinton did, he was impeached, he lost his license to practice law. He had to pay an $850,000 fine to one of the women. Paula Jones, who's also here tonight.
"And I will tell you that when Hillary brings up a point like that and she talks about words that I said 11 years ago, I think it's disgraceful, and I think she should be ashamed of herself, if you want to know the truth."
Essentially, Trump tried to minimize the flames of his own dumpster fire by pointing to someone else's blaze. He repeatedly apologized, and said it was just words, but instead of showing humility, he went on offense. This is who Trump is, and it's what we'll get from him for the rest of the campaign. Republicans had warned Trump not to bring up Bill Clinton's scandals, with some calling it a "distraction," but with so many in the party walking away from Trump after the video leak, maybe the candidate figured, why not? Or maybe it's simpler: He just thinks Bill Clinton's misdeeds are worse than his and hates not getting the last word.
The difficulty Trump faces is that even if his diehard fans love this stuff, he needs to persuade undecided voters too, and they may be scared off by all of his nastiness. And oh yeah: There are reportedly more tapes of Trump with a hot mic, including one that supposedly has Trump saying the N-word.
There's a very good chance that, by the third and final presidential debate next week, there will probably be another cache of unearthed statements that he'll have to deflect questions about. What these new controversies will be and how they'll play is anyone's guess. But what the first 20 minutes of the second debate provided us with was a blueprint of how Trump will handle these sorts of things. Election day can't come fast enough.
(Debate transcript via the New York Times.)
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