Why Debate Night Won't End Trump's Nightmare

Donald Trump was unpersuasive in his attempt to minimize his predatory comments. Many voters don’t yet know about his accusers. And his attempt to exploit Bill Clinton’s accusers will likely fail.

Saul Loeb / Reuters

Going into Sunday night’s debate, Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency was in dire straits. Voters all over America were listening to a recording of the billionaire bragging, at age 59, “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

The public has long known that the billionaire is a vulgarian. These remarks were different, triggering many Republicans to formally break from his campaign and rescind endorsements, because they went far beyond mere vulgarity. As my colleague James Hamblin put it, “Talking explicitly about sex is different from bragging about forcing yourself on people.” I don’t even wait… for permission, was the subtext.

Inevitably, the crucial distinction between sex talk and predation came up in the debate, though the Republican nominee initially refused to acknowledge its relevance:

Anderson Cooper: We received a lot of questions online, Mr. Trump, about the tape that was released on Friday, as you can imagine. 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?

Donald Trump: No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was—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.

Trump did, in fact, brag about behavior that would constitute sexual assault. To defend himself by calling it “locker-room talk” is inadequate for at least three reasons:

  1. For most people, locker-room talk alludes to expressing vulgar equivalents of “I want to have sex with that woman” or “let me brag about the sex I had.” This is common enough behavior for men in their teens and 20s, but far less so from a 59-year-old with a wife and two-daughters (though Trump’s creepy “locker-room talk” about Ivanka, giving Howard Stern permission to call her “a piece of ass,” hardly suggests a typical paternal attitude.) But bragging about impulsively grabbing the genitals of women without their permission is not typical locker room talk, among men of any age. Had Hillary Clinton claimed otherwise a week ago, she would’ve been denounced by much of the right side of the political spectrum for slandering men.
  2. Trump wasn’t a teenage boy in a locker room! He was in a professional setting, past middle age, wearing a microphone, talking to a man that he barely knew.
  3. Locker room talk isn’t false by definition. Sometimes, it is men bragging about their actual “conquests,” though other times, it concerns fabricated behavior. It’s creepy enough to brag about kissing and groping women without their consent. At the very least, Trump’s comments left open the possibility that he actually assaulted women. Inevitably, this came up in the debate. I expected Trump would be eager to preemptively claim he was engaged in false bragging; in fact, it took being pressed multiple times to make that claim.

Let’s pick up the transcript where we left off. Without yet denying that he had kissed or fondled women without their permission, Trump veered off into talking about ISIS:

You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have—and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, 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.

And they look and they see. Can you imagine the people that are, frankly, doing so well against us with ISIS? And they look at our country and they see what’s going on.

Saying one’s bad behavior does not rise to ISIS-like levels is a strange defense, indeed!

Trump continued:

Trump: Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.

Cooper: So, Mr. Trump…

Trump: And we should get on to much more important things and much bigger things.

Cooper: Just for the record, though, are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?

Trump: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.

Cooper: So, for the record, you’re saying you never did that?

Trump: I’ve said things that, frankly, you hear these things I said. And I was embarrassed by it. But I have tremendous respect for women.

Cooper: Have you ever done those things?

Trump: And women have respect for me. And I will tell you: 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.

We’re going to make America safe again. We’re going to make America great again, but we’re going to make America safe again. And we’re going to make America wealthy again, because if you don’t do that, it just—it sounds harsh to say, but we have to build up the wealth of our nation.

So Trump ultimately denied ever doing those things, and urged that the topic be dropped.

It will not be dropped, not only because his rival’s campaign has every incentive to keep broadcasting Trump’s viscerally disturbing comments to swing state voters, but because the denial that Trump has ever engaged in this sort of behavior is undermined by three women who say that he kissed or groped them without their consent, exactly as he bragged about doing in his conversation with Billy Bush.

Quartz summarizes the three accusations:

Earlier this year, the New York Times interviewed dozens of women who’ve worked with Donald Trump. Temple Taggart, a former Miss Utah who was 21 when she met Trump in 1997, described Trump behaving exactly as he boasts in the recording.

“He kissed me directly on the lips. I thought, ‘Oh my God, gross.’ He was married to Marla Maples at the time. I think there were a few other girls that he kissed on the mouth. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s inappropriate.’”

This happened repeatedly, she said. In response, Trump told the New York Times he was reluctant to kiss strangers on the lips.

Since the recording was published, CNN anchor Erin Burnett said her friend had experienced the same behavior from Trump.

“That’s exactly what Trump did to me,” Burnett said, quoting her friend. “Trump took Tic Tacs, suggested that I take them also. He then leaned in … catching me off guard and kissed me almost on the lips. I was really freaked out.”

In 1997, Trump was sued for sexual harassment. The New York Times recently published details of the plaintiff’s allegations. Jill Harth, who regularly met with Trump in the ‘90s to form a business partnership, described how Trump repeatedly groped her, pushed her against a wall, and tried to kiss her.

In 1993, she said Trump was showing her around his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “I was admiring the decoration, and next thing I know he’s pushing me against a wall and has his hands all over me,” Harth told the New York Times. “He was trying to kiss me. I was freaking out.” She said Trump repeatedly tried to grab her and that she once vomited as a defense mechanism. Trump has denied these accusations.

It’s extremely hard to disbelieve all three of these women when Trump bragged about doing just what they say he did to them: kissing or groping them without their consent. And my sense is that many voters have not yet heard their allegations. Said Scott Adams in a reaction to the Trump tape, “Don’t assume that the women were unwilling. (Has anyone come forward to complain about Trump?)”

That is someone who has followed the election closely.

It is almost inconceivable that Trump’s words won’t be broadcast in attack ads right alongside the accusations of these women. Never has there been a more obvious spot.

And even setting those accusations aside, Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments––it’s jarring every time you see it, right?––combine with new attention to many hours of interviews that he gave to shock-jock Howard Stern (Virginia Heffernan masterfully analyzes them) to highlight another alarming character trait.

Josh Barro puts it thusly:

Donald Trump is a person who has instincts to behave shamefully, and who also has no shame. Trump is proud of his shameful actions. He thinks they make him manly and cool. He does not have the brake on his id that normal people do. That combination doesn't just make him tacky—it makes him dangerous. Shame is an important inhibitor. Sometimes, we want to do bad things, but we don't because we'd be ashamed.

Shame helps to save us from ourselves.

What does this mean he might do as president? We should never find out.

My assumption is that Trump knows this issue isn’t going away, and that he went along with his advisers’ plan to bring Bill Clinton’s  accusers back into the public eye—a decision that guarantees both men’s behavior will stay in the news—because the best he can hope for is to persuade voters that his opponent is just as bad or worse. Were he running against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, he’d have a case. Because he has previously defended Bill Clinton, and more importantly, because Hillary Clinton has certainly not groped or raped anyone, few outside the Breitbart.com bubble will conclude that her behavior in this realm is as bad or worse than his.

Some will find attacking a woman for her husband’s misbehavior off-putting.

Stephen Bannon, the Breitbart.com boss turned Trump campaign manager, who reportedly wanted to put Bill Clinton’s accusers in box seats next to him at Sunday’s debate, correctly senses hypocrisy on a partisan left that savaged Mitt Romney for waging a “war on women” and calls Trump unfit due to his comments, even while treating Bill Clinton and Kennedy as icons who deserve respect and admiration. He fails to see that majorities of voters have never cared much about that hypocrisy—and that there is no moral high ground in raising it on behalf of Trump, a serial misogynist who once told Fox News this about Bill Clinton’s accusers:

I don't necessarily agree with his victims. His victims are terrible. He is, he is really a victim himself. But he put himself in that position. These people are just, I don't know, where he met them - where he found them. But the whole group — it's truly an unattractive cast of characters. Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, I mean, this woman, I watch her on television. She is so bad. The whole group, Paula Jones, Lewinsky, it's just a really unattractive group. I'm not just talking about physical.

Is anyone in America less suited to successfully prosecuting the line of attack Trump has chosen?

As I wrote back in 2014, lots of people on the left and right believe that Hillary Clinton behaved badly in various ways, and “there's strong evidence for the proposition that she's treated various young women more shabbily then they deserved when they got in the way of her family's political ambitions.” But I always thought it was a political loser.

“Without endorsing any of Hillary Clinton's behavior, or minimizing any unfairness experienced by her husband's sex partners or alleged victims,” I argued, “it seems to me that asking a man or woman to react rationally and sympathetically to a person just as they're revealed to be having an affair with their spouse, or accusing their spouse of a crime, is to demand superhuman self-control and circumspection. Few could do it. In the first case, who wouldn't deeply resent a spouse's cheating partner, and be inclined to see them in the most unfavorable light? In the latter case, who wouldn't believe that their spouse was being wrongly accused, especially if the spouse really did have powerful enemies trying to destroy him?”

I added, “If Clinton's behavior toward her husband's accusers was deeply flawed—if amid the barrage of accusations, her judgment grew so skewed that she even wrongly disparaged women accusing another politician of sexual harassment—should we presume that this is evidence of a character unfit to be president? Or should we conclude that, but for the fact that she was going through a wrenching crisis in her marriage with the national media looking on, she'd have behaved better?”

Perhaps my analysis was wrong and Hillary Clinton was cold-hearted, calculating, and ruthless all along. There’s no way to know for sure. But there is no definitive evidence to confirm the least charitable explanation, it certainly doesn’t fit with Occam’s razor. Regardless, as Libby Nelson has pointed out, “Hillary Clinton’s approval rating climbed from 56 percent in December 1997, before the Lewinsky story broke, to what was then a historic high of 67 percent a year later. America loves Clinton as a working, activist first lady. They liked her more as a traditional presidential wife. They liked her even more as a betrayed presidential wife.”

Reminders of her husband’s indiscretions tend to humanize her for many. It is a political loser.

Perhaps most important of all, female voters, whoever they support, are not in denial about what to expect from a Donald Trump presidency. As Hillary Clinton said Sunday of her opponent’s “grab them by the pussy” comments, “I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. 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.”

Whatever the failings of the Clintons and the hypocrisies of the left, a Trump presidency would be one that normalizes attacks like this—where people will have to explain to their daughters why the president is calling a female adversary fat or ugly again.

He will be more openly unseemly than any president in the modern age.

And love or hate Hillary, there is simply no way that this would be true of her presidency. Whatever is in her unknowable heart, whatever transgressions lurk in her behind-the-scenes past, her public decorum will be worlds better than Trump, and her rhetoric and actions will almost very likely be more respectful to women. Certainly, no tapes will emerge of her bragging about unsolicited groping, she will not attack anyone based on their appearance, and she will not elevate people like Roger Ailes, who Donald Trump hired after he resigned in disgrace under shocking allegations of sexual misconduct. In short, she will set a better public example. Given the role of the presidency in American life, that matters.

It matters, substantively and politically. And nothing Trump said on Sunday changes any of her advantages on this issue. We’re likely to see her press it until election day.