Donald Trump responded to new allegations of sexual assault by stepping up his tour of angry rebuttals and threats Thursday, blaming a cabal of media, special interests and Hillary Clinton’s machine for trying to destroy his reputation in order to maintain their grip on power.
Trump cast himself as a martyr, “taking the slings and arrows, gladly, for you,” as a reprisal for turning against a rigged system in which he once thrived.
“I’m being punished for leaving the special club and revealing to you the terrible things that are going on having to do with our country,” Trump said during a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla. “There is nothing the political establishment will not do, no lie that they won’t tell.”
The rally epitomized his penchant for engaging his critics at his own expense, in that Trump spent most of his time delving into the accusations of sexual misconduct lodged at him over the prior 24 hours that have further undermined his campaign, which had already been sliding in the polls.
It included an attack on the looks of a People magazine reporter who accused him of an unwanted advance, renewed claims that the FBI is corrupt for declining to prosecute Clinton over her private email server, and a qualified promise to release “substantial evidence” to rebut accusations from female accusers in an “appropriate way and at an appropriate time.”
That followed several days in which he has fought with fellow Republican leaders who failed to come to his defense and has lashed out at other perceived enemies, including the obscure panel that oversees presidential debates.
Trump’s larger message about the economy, immigration and taxes has been swallowed by his list of grievances. His top supporters and advisors have warned against this tack. But as Trump has shown for more than a year, he is unable or unwilling to restrain from firing back at those who he believes have crossed him, regardless of who they are and the harm it may do to his campaign.
“I do not think it’s smart for Donald Trump to get sucked in on these personality fights and he doesn’t seem to be able to resist it,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News. “If he could discipline himself to stay big, he would win this election by a shocking margin.”
“He falls in the polls when he gets distracted by shiny things,” said anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
Republican strategists are concerned that the campaign is seeing its opportunity to win the election slip away amid infighting and Trump’s lack of discipline.
Trump’s campaign blindsided the director of the Virginia GOP on Wednesday night by declaring during a daily conference call that it was withdrawing resources from the crucial battleground state, according to a Republican official who would not be named recounting private discussions. The official said that Trump’s team had resisted calls from the national party to pull out of the state in August, forcing more resources to be wasted over the last two months.
That puts added pressure on Trump to win Pennsylvania, where his remarks about women have made him “toxic” in the Philadelphia suburbs, which have a large concentration of affluent educated women, the official said.
“He has no path,” the official said. “It’s math. He can’t get to 270” electoral votes needed to win the election.
Democrats have been more than happy to continue the battle with Trump on their terrain, as he gets caught up in a steady series of sexual allegations that followed last week’s release of a 2005 video in which Trump bragged in vulgar terms that celebrities like him can grope women at will. Trump denied during Sunday’s debate that he had ever kissed or groped women without their consent.
First Lady Michelle Obama delivered an impassioned address in New Hampshire just before Trump’s Florida speech, calling Trump’s words about women “disgraceful” and “intolerable,” adding that even a 6-year-old knows “that is not how decent human beings behave.”
“I can’t stop thinking about this,” she said. “It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.”
Multiple women recounted being kissed and groped by Trump without their consent in reports published Wednesday, saying they came forward because the GOP presidential nominee dismissed his lewd comments caught on tape as “locker room talk,” not actual sexual aggression, and because of his denial during the debate that he had done the things he boasted about.
Two spoke with the New York Times. Jessica Leeds, 74, said that Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to slip his hand up her skirt in the first-class cabin of a plane more than three decades ago.
“He was like an octopus,” Leeds told the paper. “His hands were everywhere.”
Trump threatened to sue and his attorneys demanded a retraction, saying the article was “reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel.”
Times attorney David McCraw responded forcefully Thursday in a statement that essentially dared Trump to sue, saying that he had tarnished his own reputation and that failing to publish the story would be a “disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself.”
“If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight,” McCraw wrote.
The Palm Beach Post published a report from a 36-year-old woman who said Trump grabbed her posterior when she was assisting a photographer friend hired by the businessman to document a Ray Charles concert at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate 13 years ago.
And People magazine published an account from one of its former writers who described being mauled by the GOP nominee when she went to Mar-a-Lago to interview Trump and his wife, Melania, for a story about their first wedding anniversary.
Natasha Stoynoff wrote that when Melania, then pregnant with son Barron, went upstairs to change, Trump offered to give Stoynoff a tour of the mansion. He guided her into a room, closed the door, pushed her against a wall and shoved his tongue down her throat, Stoynoff wrote. She added that she tried to “unpin” herself, but Trump stopped only when a butler interrupted to say that Trump’s wife was returning.
Trump, discounting the report during Thursday’s rally, took a shot at the writer’s appearance.
“Look at her, look at her words, you tell me what you think,” he said, gesturing with his hands. “I don’t think so.”
And in a December 1992 wire brief in the Chicago Tribune, Trump is described as having spotted a youth choir singing Christmas carols at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. He asked two girls how old they were. When they said they were 14, the article says, Trump, then 46, replied, “Wow! Just think — in a couple of years, I’ll be dating you.”
Some of Trump’s core supporters said they were unbothered, agreeing with him that the accusations amount to propaganda from the left.
“He didn’t rape nobody,” said Mark Breaux, a contractor from Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., who attended a Trump rally in Panama City this week. “He touched somebody on the hiney.”
Diane Fudge, a 55-year-old travel agent who went to a Trump rally in Ocala, Fla., on Wednesday, doubted the accusations, but said Trump wins on the issues regardless.
“The sex allegations against him — you’re putting Bill Clinton back in” the White House, she said. “He did have sex in the Oval Office! So that’s kind of a wash.”
Will Ritter, a former aide to Mitt Romney, said Trump is caught in a vise of his own making, having spent decades promoting himself in the public eye as “a low-rent Hugh Hefner rich guy.”
“Donald Trump won the primary campaign by distracting voters away from actual issues with interesting sexy attacks,” Ritter said. “And now the same thing’s being done against him. And he has no idea what to do.”
Bierman reported from Washington, Mason from Cincinnati and Mehta from Los Angeles.