2005 tapes: Trump on the ropes

2005 tapes: Trump on the ropes

MICHAEL BARBARO and AMY CHOZICK

It was Donald J. Trump’s chance to sound contrite and mature, to explain away the sexually predatory boasts he was caught making on tape and to persuade Americans that — for all his no-apologies braggadocio — he was, in fact, capable of feeling shame.

Maura Cotter, 22, a senior at the University of Notre Dame, was shocked at what Mr. Trump did instead in Sunday’s debate: repeat, over and over, that what he had said on the 2005 recording, about forcing himself on women and grabbing their genitals, was simply “locker-room banter.”

It was, Ms. Cotter said, “not an apology — no reason to believe he’s changed at all.”

A classmate, Abigail Wilson, who is a registered Republican, listened closely to Mr. Trump and was reminded, she said, of the time she was groped by a stranger. The Republican nominee, she said soberly, “may not have physically harmed anyone with his words, but he has the power to do so by example.”

Whether they love Mr. Trump or loathe him, many female voters interviewed across the country seemed to watch Sunday’s historically nasty debate through the same inescapable prism: a raunchy three-minute recording in which Mr. Trump told of kissing and touching women however he pleased. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he said, loud and clear, on the tape.

Colette McLafferty, 42, a Democrat, had been been planning to vote for Jill Stein. The latest comments from Mr. Trump began to sway her toward Hillary Clinton. “I know the way boys talk,” she said. “What he said really took it to a new level.” Credit Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

That is Mr. Trump’s new, agonizing and self-created reality: He may have uttered words about unfair trade deals or threats to national security, but what these voters heard instead was his voice on that searing recording, casually and excitedly explaining that he could sexually assault strangers with impunity.

Some said they were so upset by what they had seen — over and over — that they could barely bring themselves to turn on the television and watch him in the debate. Others dismissed the tape as entirely beside the point, a decade-old distraction with no bearing on the presidency.

“We’re all human,” said Gayle Mason, 73, a retired kindergarten teacher and a Republican in West Covina, Calif., who watched the debate on Fox News over iced tea. “When he becomes president, you’re not going to see stuff like that.”

But on this, the voters interviewed all agreed: The sound of Mr. Trump at his most obscene lingered over Sunday night’s confrontation like an unbudging cloud.

Several voters tuned in for the sole purpose of watching Mr. Trump explain his lasciviousness aboard the “Access Hollywood” bus.

Joey Elliott, 63, who lives in South Bend, Ind., said she wanted “to see how he tries to squirm out of it.”

From the debate’s opening moments, Mrs. Clinton grabbed hold of the recording and turned it into a rhetorical battering ram. In a measured but firm tone, she seized on Mr. Trump’s claim that the tape did not really represent who he was.

“I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it,” she said. “It represents exactly who he is.”

It was a striking and singular tableau: a male candidate for president being asked, by the first woman to share such a stage, to defend crude comments in which he had seemed to reduce her gender to its anatomy.

Despite his best efforts, Mr. Trump could not quickly put the issue to rest. A moderator, Anderson Cooper, pressed him about the tape four times, wondering if Mr. Trump understood the gravity of what he had said, and whether he had ever carried out the lewd actions he had described. No, Mr. Trump said. Eventually, the debate moved on.

After saying he was sorry but doing little to demonstrate remorse, Mr. Trump instead sought to turn the ugliest phase of his campaign into an attack on Bill Clinton’s past sexual trespasses — by turning Mrs. Clinton into a wife who had abided, aided and abetted her husband’s misdeeds.

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