Donald Trump’s latest self-inflicted trauma — an 11-year-old recording on which he can be heard recalling his unwanted advances on a married woman and boasting that his celebrity allows him to get away with sexual assault — should not be remembered as the reason he lost this presidential race. It could fairly be considered the nail in his campaign’s coffin, but let the record show that on October 7, 2016, Trump was already well on his way to electoral defeat, trailing by 3.2 points in the RealClearPolitics national average; by 2.4 points in Florida; by 2.6 points in North Carolina; and by 6 points in Pennsylvania. He also is vastly out-organized in each of those three must-win states.
Nor should this October surprise be looked back upon as the episode that triggered a fatal decrease in Trump’s support among women voters. Here again, Trump’s fate was likely already sealed, thanks to an inept first debate performance followed by a six-day stretch in which the nominee ceaselessly ridiculed and shamed a former Miss Universe contestant, Alicia Machado, for no apparent reason other than to settle a personal grudge. A national Quinnipiac poll released on the day of that first debate, September 26, showed Trump down just five points among women. On October 7, having conducted a new national survey in the wake of those events, Quinnipiac released its findings: Trump was down 20 points among women. (This 15-point drop among female voters, in a period of less than two weeks, is also reflected in battleground state polling.)
No, what will prove most memorable from this incident — and potentially, most damaging in the long term — is how the party stood by Trump despite concrete evidence of extreme lewdness from its nominee.
“I moved on her, and I failed. … I did try and f*** her. She was married,” Trump says in the recording from 2005, which was taken aboard the “Access Hollywood” bus and obtained by the Washington Post. Trump continues to discuss the woman in question, “Access Hollywood” host Nancy O’Dell, claiming she enhanced her breasts. Then, when Trump and a fellow passenger spotted a woman outside, Trump says, “I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” Moments later, Trump adds, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab them by the p***y. You can do anything.”
This talk isn’t terribly surprising. Trump has a long, well-documented history of making crude comments about women, and he has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and news stories resulting from allegations of unwanted sexual conduct. But the newly released recording was jarring for its immediacy. After it went viral on Friday afternoon, GOP leaders scrambled to organize their responses.
Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest ranking Republican in the country, took considerable time in releasing a statement due to conversations with the Trump campaign about an event that was scheduled in Wisconsin for Saturday. Ryan, in his statement, said he was “sickened” by Trump’s remarks, adding: “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.” Ryan also announced that Trump wouldn’t be coming to Wisconsin, where the two were set to make their first joint appearance on the campaign trail. But the speaker — who felt compelled to endorse Trump despite their many differences, and has stuck by him through countless controversies — showed no sign of rescinding his endorsement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a similarly terse statement. “These comments are repugnant, and unacceptable in any circumstance,” he said. “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.” Like Ryan, however, McConnell gave no suggestion of withdrawing his support for Trump.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus offered his own brief rebuke: “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.” And yet there is no question the party chairman will continue to back Trump — in fact, a statement from the nominee’s campaign late Friday night said Priebus would be joining him in New York on Saturday for debate prep.
It’s not just the party leadership in Washington that’s showing no appetite for taking on Trump. A whole host of Republican senators, including nearly all of those facing reelection next month, issued statements Friday night expressing outrage at the nominee’s remarks. They came from: Arizona’s John McCain; North Carolina’s Richard Burr; Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey; New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte; and Ohio’s Rob Portman, among others. But not one of these senators announced any kind of opposition to Trump — whether by withdrawing their support or by calling on him to step down as the nominee.
A few Republicans, in fairness, did just that. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who’s facing certain defeat next month, tweeted: “.@realDonaldTrump should drop out. @GOP should engage rules for emergency replacement.” Utah Governor Gary Herbert tweeted: “Donald Trump’s statements are beyond offensive & despicable. While I cannot vote for Hillary Clinton, I will not vote for Trump.” Utah Senator Mike Lee posted a video calling on Trump to drop out. Another Utah Republican, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, withdrew his support for Trump. And two House Republicans — Mike Coffman of Colorado and Barbara Comstock of Virginia — called on Trump to step down as the Republican nominee.
However, this can hardly be considered a show of force. There are 246 House Republicans, 54 Senate Republicans, and 31 Republican governors. The small handful who announced their opposition to Trump on Friday, on top of the few who already had, amounts to a tiny fraction of the party’s national leadership.
Where this will prove stubbornly problematic for the GOP is in its efforts to distance itself from Trump on November 9, over the ensuing four years, and perhaps much longer. In Congress and on the campaign trail, Republicans will attempt to turn the page on an ugly chapter in their party’s history, and they will do so by arguing that they had nothing to do with Trump’s ascent. They will claim that he was never their first choice, that he wasn’t a conservative, and that they only supported him because it was a binary choice between him and Hillary Clinton. But it won’t be an easy pitch, given how many of them have been on record excusing and enabling his behavior — and how many more have refused obvious opportunities to abandon ship, including the tape incident of October 7.
Two groups should be especially concerned about this.
First, the House Freedom Caucus.
These tea-party inspired lawmakers have waged war on their own party’s leadership in the name of ideological purity and even forced Speaker John Boehner from office. But history will count them among Trump’s most loyal supporters. As National Review reported in August, even though only one of the group’s 39 members endorsed Trump during the primary, 38 of 39 were supportive once he became the de facto nominee — and none of them advocated for his ouster at the convention in Cleveland. Messages to several of the group’s leaders Friday night asking if they still support Trump went unreturned; the only member who responded, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, replied, “Yes.”
The Freedom Caucus already has a target on its back in Washington. By distancing themselves from Trump early and unequivocally, members could have made good on their rhetoric of putting principle ahead of party — and as a consequence, enjoyed greater credibility (and goodwill) within the House Republican conference come January 2017. Instead, they’ll face the same criticisms being leveled at the broader GOP.
Second, the 2020 presidential field.
Ted Cruz withheld his endorsement of Trump in Cleveland and was booed off stage for it, but he and most of his advisers believed the decision would be validated both by Trump’s predictable onslaught of provocations and by his eventual loss to Clinton. Had Cruz stuck by his original decision, he would look like the smartest man in the Republican party right now — someone principled (and prescient) enough to go against the grain in refusing to support Trump. Instead, Cruz gave into pressure and announced his support for his former rival in late September, just in time for the nominee’s campaign to implode. Cruz is going to have a difficult time explaining all of this come 2020, having angered both the pragmatic conservatives who demanded an endorsement in Cleveland and the purists who shuddered when he eventually caved and offered it.
Marco Rubio’s predicament is every bit as complex — and even more urgent. Having once called Trump a “con artist” who can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes, the Florida senator wound up walking back his criticisms after quitting the race. He eventually announced his support for Trump, and even taped a video message that was played at the convention. Rubio’s problem isn’t just that he’ll have to explain these contradictions if he runs in 2020; it’s that he’s running for reelection right now in a competitive battleground state. Polls have shown Rubio with a comfortable lead, but Trump’s latest controversy is likely to do serious damage down-ballot. To win his Senate race, Rubio needs ticket-splitters — and to get them, he’ll need to begin distancing himself from Trump immediately. His tweet Friday night — “Donald’s comments were vulgar, egregious & impossible to justify. No one should ever talk about any woman in those terms, even in private.” — is a start, but Rubio might soon feel the need to untether himself from Trump entirely.
Mike Pence might be in the biggest bind of all. On the one hand, Trump’s running mate turned in a widely-praised debate performance this week and showed himself to be an attractive spokesman for the party. On the other hand, well, he’s Trump’s running mate. Cruz and Rubio and anyone else angling ahead of 2020 has the realistic option of cutting bait; Pence does not. It’s an impossible position for the Indiana governor. He’s known as an old school, consummate gentleman — Pence wouldn’t let female staffers work late in his office on Capitol Hill to avoid even the appearance of impropriety — and is surely steaming at Trump’s recorded remarks. But at the same time, Pence has shown no willingness to buck the top of the ticket. Should he decide to take his own shot in 2020, this puts him in an extraordinarily difficult position, especially because some conservatives believe that his decision to partner with Trump renders him ineligible for their consideration in the first place.
There’s one Republican who’s a virtual lock to run for president in 2020 and who’s never supported Trump: John Kasich. He issued his own rebuke via Twitter on Friday night: “Make no mistake the comments were wrong and offensive. They are indefensible.” The Ohio governor has been so adamant in his opposition to Trump that he boycotted the party’s convention in his own backyard. That rubbed many Republicans the wrong way, but Trump’s collapse could certainly vindicate him — and, in the eyes of the party’s upscale, college-educated wing, it could make him the early favorite to face off against Clinton four years from now.
More than any individual politician, it’s the Republican party that stands to suffer most from Trump’s controversies after he leaves the campaign trail. It’s one thing to lose an election and cede control of the White House to the opposition party for four more years; it’s another for the GOP to be branded as the Party of Trump. Republicans across the spectrum have spent the past six months assuring themselves that it won’t happen, that it can’t happen, that parties take on the personality of their nominees every four years and that Trump will be remembered as an aberration and nothing more.
Perhaps. But after a campaign in which the GOP nominee gave unprecedented offense — calling Mexicans “rapists,” ridiculing John McCain for being captured, mocking a disabled reporter, proposing a ban on Muslim immigrants, launching racist attacks on a federal judge, feuding with a Gold Star family, and now, having “Grab them by the p***y” played on TV ads — it’s unlikely that Democrats will be letting go anytime soon. And Republicans who continue to stand by Trump aren’t giving them reason to. One month from Election Day, it seems likely that Trump’s lasting legacy — in addition to losing — will be saddling the GOP with baggage for years to come.