Two days before the second presidential debate, a video surfaced of Donald Trump with the host of the TV show Access Hollywood arriving on the set of the soap opera Days of our Lives. It was from 2005. Access Hollywood was doing a segment on Trump, who was taping a cameo on the long-running daytime serial.
As Trump and host Billy Bush approached the set in a bus, a live mike captured audio of their conversation. Trump is heard lamenting about being rebuffed by a married woman he had hit on. He too was married at the time, several months to Melania. “I did try and fuck her,” Trump says. “I moved on her very heavily.” He said he even “took her furniture shopping. I moved on her like a bitch but I couldn’t get there.”
Trump tells Bush he finds beautiful women irresistible and boasts how his celebrity status allows him to take advantage of them. “I just start kissing them,” he says. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Hours after the video was released, Trump aired a videotaped statement in which he apologized for his comments “if anyone was offended” and said “I was wrong.” But lest we think there was real contrition, in the next breath he was dredging up Bill Clinton’s past, accusing Hillary of bad-mouthing Bill’s victims and threatening to bring all this out at the next debate. “See you at the debate on Sunday,” he warned.
On Saturday – the day after the Access Hollywood video aired and the day before the debate – a tsunami of criticism was leveled at Trump, mostly from self-righteous Republicans denouncing their presidential nominee.
“I am sickened by what I heard today,” said Paul Ryan. “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.”
“These comments are repugnant and unacceptable in any circumstance,” said Mitch McConnell. “As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape.”
Of course, neither Ryan nor McConnell rescinded their endorsements of Trump, continuing to insist that Hillary Clinton would be worse. But more than a dozen other Republicans declared they would not be voting for Trump, among them Arizona Senator John McCain and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.
Some Republicans called for Trump to quit the race and be replaced by Mike Pence. But Trump had no intention of quitting and Pence continued to support him despite saying he could not “condone” Trump’s remarks “and cannot defend them. We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”
Ninety minutes before the debate on Sunday, October 9, Trump’s team choreographed a bit of dark theater. They assembled a group of Bill and Hillary’s past accusers to formally address the media at a nearby hotel. The four women flanked Trump behind a long table and took turns describing how they had been mistreated by the Clintons and were supporting Trump.
The women were Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton. The first three had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in the past. Shelton was a child rape victim whose attacker had been represented by Hillary Clinton way back when she was a court-appointed defense attorney.
These cases had all been publicized, investigated and closed years ago. Paula Jones, who claimed Bill Clinton made unwanted sexual advances toward her when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state worker there, was the only one who had received a financial settlement. Clinton paid her $850,000 in 1998.
Juanita Broaddrick had claimed Clinton raped her in 1978 when she was a volunteer for his gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas. She did not go public until years later, then changed her mind and signed an affidavit swearing Clinton did not rape her. Then she changed her mind again. Clinton always denied the charge.
Kathleen Willey was a former White House volunteer who claimed President Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office. Special prosecutor Ken Starr – whose relentless pursuit of Clinton during his presidency is what brought most of this stuff to light – could not find enough evidence to support Willey’s claim.
As for Kathy Shelton, Hillary Clinton was assigned to defend her rapist by the court. In our adversarial system of justice, she was obligated to provide an aggressive defense. She questioned Shelton’s emotional stability (she was 12 at the time) because she had “in the past made false accusations about persons.” But the Trump team released an audio in which Clinton is heard joking with colleagues about her client passing a lie detector test, causing her to lose all faith in lie detectors. It made her sound callous toward a child rape victim.
These women had all become stars on Breitbart News, the alt-right news outlet of Trump campaign chairman Stephen Bannon. They took no questions. After each had made her statement, they adjourned with Trump, who also invited the women to attend the debate. The whole production lasted about 10 minutes. It was awkward and unseemly. One journalist called it tragic. The word I’d have chosen was pathetic. Clinton called it “an act of desperation.” But this was right out of Bannon’s alt-right playbook. We could look forward to more of this stuff.
The debate was at Washington University in St. Louis. It was a “town hall” format. Clinton and Trump would answer questions from a studio audience of undecided voters. They each had a stool and small podium but could walk around with their hand-held mikes.
With the Access Hollywood video and Trump’s trotting out the four women to rehash decades-old charges against the Clintons fresh on people’s minds, this debate promised to be a particularly tawdry affair. The combatants did not shake hands when they were introduced and it did not take long for Clinton to bring up Trump’s comments on the bus tape when asked a completely unrelated question.
“It’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is,” Clinton said. She added that Trump’s lack of respect for women was consistent with the lack of respect he’d shown for Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, veterans and others, as well as the president of the United States. “He owes the president an apology,” she said, referring to Trump questioning Obama’s citizenship.
“You should be apologizing for the 33,000 e-mails you deleted,” Trump shot back. “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
He was chastising Clinton, threatening her directly and pointing his finger with disdain. Clinton smiled slightly and addressed the audience.
“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she said.
“Because you’d be in jail!” Trump shot back.
Co-moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN tried to give Clinton a chance to respond but every time she started saying something Trump would interrupt. He was being belligerent and rude. Trump then tried to shift the focus to Bill Clinton. He called him the worst abuser of women in the history of American politics. He also accused Hillary of “viciously” attacking and intimidating her husband’s victims.
Perhaps Republicans enjoyed this, hating the Clintons as they do, but Bill Clinton wasn’t running for president and this stuff was real old. And Trump looked like an ass. All he said about his own comments on the bus tape was that it was “locker room talk” and he preferred to move on and talk about “much bigger things.” Apparently these included Bill Clinton’s treatment of women.
Cooper then asked Trump the logical follow-up question: Had Trump ever done the things he bragged about on the bus tape – the groping and kissing of women without their consent – which, by the way, also would constitute sexual assault?
Trump didn’t answer. He rambled on again about it being “locker room talk” and how “nobody has more respect for women than I do.” Cooper asked again if Trump had “ever done those things” he described on the tape. More ramble.
Cooper asked a third time. In the middle of more mumbo jumbo as Trump again seemed to ignore the question, Trump stopped mid-sentence and interjected – “No, I have not” – then continued his rant. It was obvious to anyone with half a brain that Trump did not want to answer or spend time on that question.
All of this occurred in the first 30 minutes of the debate. The rest actually had some substance but was largely insignificant. What most will remember is Trump being an ass, prowling the stage like an angry bear with a permanent scowl on a pronounced pouty face satirized superbly by Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live.
And the denial: the denial by Trump that he had done any of the things to women that he boasted about on the tape. People would remember that.