Hands down, the nearly two-week span between the first two presidential debates culminated in probably the most disturbing and extraordinary weekend in all of presidential campaign history. What set it all off was the release Friday afternoon, October 7, via The Washington Post, of a tape, mainly audio, of the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States bragging about how he sexually assaulted women. “You grab ’em by the pussy,” he said in the 2005 recording—talking into a hot mic while on a bus supplied by Access Hollywood that was taken him to the taping of a soap opera, in which he was to make a brief appearance. The shock-horror with which a significant number of Republican politicians—by the following day, about a third of the party’s members of Congress—reacted to the airing of the Donald Trump tape was reminiscent of how their political predecessors behaved upon reading the transcripts showing Richard Nixon’s vulgarity in the Oval Office. In both cases it was one thing to be vaguely or not so vaguely aware of a troubling obsession of a very major politician and quite another to be confronted with it.
Trump, who had observed few boundaries in this race, smashed even more of them, reaching the nadir shortly before Sunday’s debate, when he produced for the gathered press three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexually exploiting them and Hillary Clinton of having verbally threatened them. A fourth woman said she’d been raped at the age of twelve and Hillary Clinton, then practicing law in Arkansas, had been her attacker’s court-appointed attorney. It was later reported that Trump’s plan had been to seat the women in the Trump family box, and to have them confront Bill Clinton as they all entered the hall, but the debate managers got wind of this and thwarted that part of the juvenile trick. The unsubtle point was to attach Bill Clinton’s well-known peregrinations to Hillary. Trump had been threatening to go down this road since the first debate and his exposure on the tape threw him into a fury. Hunkered in Trump Tower with a few advisors over most of the weekend, Trump plotted his vengeance. In the debate hall as Trump’s surprise guests were ushered to their front-row seats Bill Clinton looked none too happy. Our election system had come to this.
One can safely say that never before had the kind of talk on the Trump tape been heard in a national political setting. As he rode along on the bus chatting with Billy Bush, then the co-host of Access Hollywood, Trump was oddly obsessed with talking of his exploits—even if the story he told was of having failed to make it with a married woman (“I did try and fuck her”); to talk about any failure is unusual for him. Trump portrayed himself as the animal that numerous women had described, a man who attempted to have sex with, it seemed, practically every attractive woman who crossed his path. Further shock came when it was discovered by CNN on Saturday that Trump had said in 2004 that it was fine with him if Howard Stern, on whose program Trump frequently appeared, called his daughter Ivanka “a piece of ass.” Trump’s objectification of women was legendary but up to this point we hadn’t heard him bragging about it.
Barack Obama may have had the ultimate word on Trump when he said in an appearance in Chicago on Sunday that Trump’s remarks on the tape suggested that he’s “insecure.” I think there’s a lot to that: this is a man from Queens who despite his wealth wasn’t accepted in Manhattan’s high social circles; a man who tried to buy socialites’ attention by purchasing Mar-a-Lago, the jewel of Palm Beach; someone who’d married models and had to brag about his sexual prowess, even if, as described on the tape, it amounted to assaults, which are a crime. “One of the most disturbing things about this election is just the unbelievable rhetoric coming from the top of the Republican ticket,” Obama said in Chicago. “Demeaning women, degrading women, but also minorities, immigrants, people of other faiths, mocking the disabled, insulting our troops, insulting our veterans…It tells you that he’s insecure enough that he pumps himself up by putting other people down. Not a character trait that I would advise for somebody in the Oval Office.”
The flight from Trump of many Republican politicians was only partly a moral reaction; it was also a matter of self-preservation. They had to make the agonizing choice between offending their constituents who would be appalled by Trump’s comments and offending those who were part of Trump’s base and would be enraged at any turning against him. Some went so far as to say Trump should leave the race; others simply set more distance between themselves and him. Senators up for reelection were in both groups. This was the third time this year members of the party panicked over Trump. The first was just before the primaries ended when they stewed over whether he could be stopped at the convention; the next was in August after a series of blunders by Trump—the most serious his ongoing vendetta against the Khans, Gold Star parents. The politicians keep running into not only Trump’s determination and pride but the reality of the party’s rules. By the weekend of the tape, there was no realistic way to force Trump to quit. (The party would have to convene and choose a new presidential candidate for an election that was less than a month away. Even if that were feasible, such a move would tear the party apart even more. Other practical considerations are that early voting has begun in a number of states and the ballots for almost all states have been printed, with Trump’s name at the top.)
In the debate on Sunday, Trump showed that he’s willing to destroy the Republican Party if it gets in his way. If any of the party leadership thought that they’d see a contrite Trump on the stage in St. Louis they didn’t understand him. Trump doesn’t do contrite. His so-called apology, in a ninety-second videotape just after midnight on Friday night, was as far as he would go. It was almost furtive—“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said, adding, “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” Calling the furor over the tape a “distraction,” he detoured into his new favorite target, the Clintons, saying, “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.”
The idea that Trump should apologize for the tape was odd. If one drops a brick on someone else’s foot one apologizes. But Trump was being asked to apologize for being what he is. All the pipedreams of aides that they could make him “presidential” had by now faded. He concluded the Friday night statement ominously: regarding his comments about the Clintons, he said, “We will discuss this more in the coming days.”
As the debate began, Clinton’s look was frosty—she was clearly bothered by Trump’s stunt, which put her in the position of debating with her husband’s accusers looking upon her. Most unusually for her, she seemed a bit rattled, which Trump had wanted. Unlike in the first debate, she didn’t look like she was having a good time. While Trump was better prepared this time, that didn’t mean he knew what he was talking about. He had scraplets of information that didn’t cohere. Other times he flat-out lied or took evasive action. Asked about the human catastrophe in Aleppo he responded by talking about Fallujah—in a different country, but never mind—about which he knew a couple of things. (At least he no longer said that the US should somehow have taken Iraq’s oil.) Trump’s confusion was evident when he suggested that the US should throw in with Assad, Iran, and Russia in Syria because they’re killing ISIS. (Where to begin?) He charged that “we know nothing about” the Syrian refugees who are accepted into the United States, though there’s a rigorous vetting process in place that can take two years. He demanded that Muslim Americans share their suspicions about fellow Muslims planning violence. The FBI has said that they already do. Among his lies were his flat-out denial that he’d called on reporters to find a nonexistent sex tape made by Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe.
Undoubtedly the most bizarre and also degrading question ever asked in a presidential debate came early on when Anderson Cooper, doing his job, asked Trump, “Mr. Trump, about the tape that was released on Friday….You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Trump began his response with an obvious lie—why he would even try this was puzzling though it showed how easily the lie comes to him (a trait he has projected onto, for example, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton)—“No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk.” Though I’ve never been in a men’s locker room I’m confident that the men I know at all well don’t talk that way. (For the record, in the debate Trump did issue another apology: “I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it,” and then he swerved to talking about ISIS: “I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”)
Cooper pursued the question, asking Trump if he was saying he didn’t engage in unwanted kissing and groping. This produced one of Trump’s more ludicrous lines: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” Cooper persisted: “Have you ever done those things?” Trump replied, amazingly, “No, I have not. And I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe. We’re going to have borders in our country, which we don’t have now. People are pouring into our country, and they’re coming in from the Middle East and other places.”
Trump undoubtedly thrilled his most ardent followers when he said to Clinton, tinhorn-dictator-wise, that if he won, “you’d be in jail.” (It may be recalled that the dominant cry of the audience at the Republican convention was “Lock her up!”—and now this has been revived in his rallies.) As is his wont, Trump backed into the matter by saying, “I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it, but if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” He included in the subjects to be investigated Clinton’s destruction of 33,000 emails that he charged, incorrectly, had been subpoenaed by Congress. (These deletions occurred before there was any subpoena and Clinton maintained that she’d ordered her lawyers to destroy her non-work-related emails.) The problem with Clinton’s story about those emails that she’d said were about Chelsea’s wedding, her mother’s funeral, and her yoga lessons is that she’s made it difficult to completely believe her.
Clinton still stiffens when she gets the inevitable question about her private server and her handling of classified emails. She was on the defensive a few times, including about the Wikileaks release on Friday of emails from the account of her campaign chairman John Podesta. On Friday the Obama administration also formally accused the Russian government of hacking various Americans’ computers in an effort to influence the election, presumably to elect Trump, whom, for understandable reasons, Putin is said to prefer over Clinton. In the debate, Trump said, oddly, that he didn’t “know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking.” However, in July, Trump had suggested the Russian government could locate Clinton’s emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
When in the debate Trump was asked about his reported business dealings with Russia he replied, “I don’t know Putin,” adding, “I know nothing about Russia.” (Trying to take it back, he added, “I know about Russia, but I don’t know about the inner workings of Russia.”) Last November Trump was trumpeting that he’d got to know Putin “very well”—a statement based on the fact that they were both on 60 Minutes at the same time, but each in his own country.
The Podesta files revealed by Wikileaks contained excerpts of some of Hillary Clinton’s unreleased paid speeches to Wall Street companies. As expected there was little in them that was attack-worthy but inevitably her flattery of her hosts led to some suggestive lines, such as “The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people that work in the industry.” Among a couple of other passages that campaign people were warning Podesta might be problematic, were, for example when she told her Wall Street audience that sometimes it was important for a politician to have “a public and a private position” to get something done. When in response to a question about this Clinton resorted to using Abraham Lincoln as an example Trump unsurprisingly pounced. “She lied,” he said, “and now she’s blaming the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln.” By citing Lincoln (even if it was based on the eponymous movie), Clinton had left herself open to that response, but her point was hardly controversial; politicians speak two languages all the time.
As her surrogates had over the weekend, Clinton asserted that since the Russians and Wikileaks had handled the material there was no knowing if it was accurate, but this seemed an artful fudge. The day after the debate, thousands of new emails from Podesta’s account were released by Wikileaks, ranging back several years and offering insights into various deliberations by Clinton’s campaign staff: there was the less than astonishing warning to Podesta from an outside source that he’d heard concern from someone in the Clinton camp that Bill’s apparently strenuous sexual wanderings could sink Hillary; how to have Hillary Clinton publicly acknowledge the existence of her private server and talk about what she turned over to the State Department and what she didn’t; how to leak that she now opposed the Keystone pipeline; and how she should come down on reinstitution Glass-Steagall (some of Clinton’s staff worried that if Clinton didn’t support it, Elizabeth Warren might endorse Sanders).
So much was flying around in the second presidential debate that almost immediately forgotten was Trump’s confirmation of the conclusion suggested by a New York Times story a week earlier about his tax returns. Based on three pages of Trump’s 1995 tax returns that had been mailed to a Times reporter, the story showed that Trump had somehow managed to claim $916 million in losses that year, which would enable him to avoid paying federal income taxes for eighteen years. Asked if he’d in fact used that loss to avoid federal taxes, Trump responded, “Of course I do. Of course I do. And so do all of her donors, or most of her donors.”
The problem with Trump’s debate performance was that once again he did nothing to expand his following and without that he couldn’t possibly win the election—but that’s been known for a long time and something in Trump refuses to bow to it. He has contempt for various establishments and their advice—including the establishment of the Republican Party, which he had run against. What made them think that they could tame Trump, make him behave as they wished him to? Various Republicans have attempted to do so futilely. After the debate there was much chatter by Trump sympathizers to the effect that, his back to the wall, he’d done what was necessary to shore up support. But Trump when it mattered had never done otherwise.
In fact, Trump was widely seen as losing the election even before the tape surfaced. After a brief period in September when the polls once again tightened—at the time that Clinton had fallen ill—Clinton regained the lead in national polls and was ahead in enough battleground states to deny Trump a path to winning the necessary 270 votes in the Electoral College. After the tape exploded on the political scene the widespread consensus was that Trump was cooked. The passing idea on the part of some conservative House Republicans that he should leave the race was momentarily strengthened by the fact that those against him now had an alternative—Mike Pence, the conservative Christian vice-presidential candidate, with whom Trump by now had a strained relationship. In one of those misinterpretations of debates that can take hold, Pence was deemed by most of the press to have bested Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, in their debate on October 4, when a wound-up Kaine uncharacteristically interrupted Pence frequently in the early portion while Pence kept calm. (I’ve never put much stock in the idea that someone wins or loses these debates, judgments often made on a superficial basis. To the extent these events have merit it’s because they let the viewers see the contesting candidates side by side. )
The thing about Kaine is that it’s difficult to find anyone in Washington who will speak ill of him. Even the Republican talk show host Joe Scarborough is an unabashed admirer. A Democratic senator said to me after the vice-presidential debate, “Kaine took one for the team.” The vice-presidential candidate is often assigned the role of “attack dog”; Kaine tried gamely and it didn’t come off to his credit. However, on substance Kaine was much stronger than Pence, for among other reasons he’s a wiser and deeper thinker. Among conservative Republicans in the House Pence had been considered a bit inauthentic and also a bit of a joke for his habit, perhaps as a former radio announcer, of speaking hyperbolically. But such was the relief that Mike Pence seems normal that he began to take on presidential dimensions in the minds of those seeking an escape from Trump.
Already, much of the press has deemed Pence a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2020, which is somewhat ridiculous given the number of Republicans eyeing that race. Overlooked in all this talk was that last year Pence was a laughing stock when as governor of Indiana he signed into law a bill giving any business or individual the right to refuse to serve gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people—all in the name of “religious freedom.” Such was the national uproar over this that the state legislature rewrote the law to ban discrimination against such groups, but Indiana still lacks comprehensive protections on the basis of sexual identity. Memories are short.
Pence’s perceived success left him in a dangerous position. Trump’s skin is notoriously thin and he wasn’t likely to take well to his running mate receiving so many hosannas—especially when contrasted with him. Further, in a clean break from Trump, Pence had called Putin, at that point a well-known Trump crush, a “small and bullying leader.” Pence also suggested, as if it wasn’t the radical and inflammatory position it was, that the US should use military force in Syria to combat Russian “provocations.” In Sunday’s presidential debate, when asked whether he agreed with Pence on Syria, Trump replied gruffly, “He and I haven’t spoken, and he and I disagree.”
By Sunday, Trump was aware that Pence was being discussed among Republicans as a replacement for him. Meanwhile such party elders as the Washington lobbyist and Republican strategist Vin Weber suggested to reporters that Pence should withdraw from the ticket—his thinking went that this surely would bring Trump down. But those who thought that Pence might break with the man who’d put him on the ticket—at the time Pence was seen as likely to lose reelection as governor of Indiana—and carry the flag of the traditional Republican party were to be disappointed. Pence surfaced on Sunday in time to fly to St. Louis on Trump’s plane, and after the debate he wrote a toadying tweet that said, “Congrats to my running mate @realDonaldTrump on a big debate win! Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA” (for Make America Great Again).
On Monday, Paul Ryan, who’d agonized over his relationship with Trump for much of the year, told a conference call of House Republicans that he could no longer defend Trump and wouldn’t campaign with him. (After the tape was revealed Ryan had uninvited Trump to an event to be held with him that night in Wisconsin and Pence was to come instead, but then Pence, caught in the maelstrom over the tape, cancelled.) Ryan told the House members that he would only campaign for Republican House candidates. He had his majority in the House to save. The Speaker’s statement stopped just short of withdrawing his endorsement of Trump but the Trump campaign took it badly—Trump tweeted, “Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee.”
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted over the weekend and released on Tuesday afternoon, in a four-way race Clinton led Trump 46-37, an unusually wide margin for a presidential race. By now Trump and some of his top aides were threatening Republicans who dared abandon him. Trump was like a raging king in his castle, warning that his troops would march behind him and conquer any foe. The Republican civil war was on. Until the past weekend the Republican chances of maintaining control of the Senate were considered 50-50 and hardly anyone thought that the Democrats could retake the House, which would require the Republicans to lose thirty seats. But since the furor over the tape, the possibility arose that the House could slide into the Democrats’ hands. As the headline in The Washington Post read, “It’s Every Person For Himself or Herself.”
Visiting Pennsylvania on Monday, Trump had threatened a scorched earth approach to the election, picking up on a menacing warning he’d started to toy with last August. In Wilkes Barre, Trump said, “We have to make sure that this election isn’t stolen from us.” He told the crowd, “the media is crooked, the polls are rigged.” The possibility that Trump could stir up his followers to cause trouble at the polls or descend into violence then or later was all too clear.
Trump also issued a threat of another kind. Implying that the Clinton campaign was behind the leaks of evidence of Trump’s obscene boorishness—though he had no proof, Trump said, defiantly and to the delight of the crowd, “If they want to release more tapes of me saying inappropriate things, I’ll continue to talk about Bill and Hillary Clinton doing inappropriate things —and everybody knows what I’m talking about.” Trump had to be aware that a trove of other damaging comments by him other existed. It was well known that news organizations were competing to explore that trove. (Already on Monday of the previous week, an AP story said that Trump was given to vulgarity about which people on the set he wanted to “fuck,” and went on quite a bit about the body and desirability of one female camera operator.) Since then, transcripts from the set of The Apprentice containing Trump comments that weren’t to be aired (and weren’t, but they remained in some transcripts) were in great demand; but so far they’ve been barred from release through non-disclosure agreements, threats of lawsuits, and the continuing loyalty to Trump of the show’s producer, Mark Burnett. But the Huffington Post published one colorful example on Monday, in which Trump commented on the poor skin of a woman on the show.
On Twitter Tuesday, Trump warned that “the shackles have been taken off me” and ranted about “Disloyal R’s…I will teach them.” He was heading off the deep end. If Trump was going down he would take as much and as many as he could with him. All bets were off. Already, not just the Republican Party but our body politic have sustained a serious blow. Now, there’s a new sense of peril—whether we will get through this election without chaos and violence. Much is in the hands of the outsider who came in, broke all the understood rules, and took over the party he’d chosen for the furtherance of himself. At some moments in our history our democracy can seem fragile. This is one of them.
Elizabeth Drew, a regular contributor to The New York Review, is writing a continuing series on the 2016 election for the NYR Daily. (August 2016)