The Republican Party was in a state of turmoil on Friday night over revelations that Donald Trump once bragged in explicit terms about sexually harassing women, driving GOP leaders to denounce their nominee and even prompting calls that he leave the presidential ticket.
But while Trump and his senior aides huddled to strategize next steps, many Republicans felt paralyzed — stuck with a candidate few ever wholeheartedly embraced with only 31 days left until Election Day.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has had a lukewarm-at-best relationship with his party’s nominee, said he was “sickened by what I heard today.” And he made it clear that Trump was no longer welcome at a political event the speaker is hosting in his Wisconsin congressional district on Saturday – which was to be the first time the two appeared side-by-side.
“Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified,” said Ryan, widely considered the leader of the next generation of Republicans. “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.”
The dis-invitation opened the flood-gates for other high-profile Republicans to distance themselves from Trump.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz withdrew his endorsement, saying: “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”
Even Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who has emerged as a trusted Trump ally and adviser, scolded in scorching terms: “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”
The party’s past nominees were unflinching in their condemnation.
“Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world,” Mitt Romney, the party’s last GOP presidential nominee, wrote on Twitter. And Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 nominee, said Trump could have no excuse: “No woman should ever be victimized by this kind of inappropriate behavior. He alone bears the burden of his conduct and alone should suffer the consequences.”
Even within Trump’s own campaign, there was an overriding sense of doom. One aide expressed doubt that the GOP nominee, who has successfully weathered a number of scandals, would be able to ride the current firestorm.
There’s “absolutely no excuse to ever talk about women in such a crude and demeaning way,” Trump’s Texas chair, Dan Patrick, was quoted as saying.
As the hours passed, some Republicans began to call for Trump to step aside, leaving the presidential race to vice presidential nominee Mike Pence. Rob Engstrom, the Chamber of Commerce’s national political director, was the first to call for Trump to quit, followed by Rep. Mike Coffman, former N.Y. Gov. George Pataki, Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee said: “You are the distraction… I respectfully ask you, with all due respect, to step aside.”
At least one of the party’s top fundraisers declared that major GOP donors were “looking to fund an effort to back someone else as the Republican nominee”, and there were vague suggestions that the party brass might be looking into its options “in case” Trump isn’t the nominee.
But the party’s officials swiftly and aggressively rejected those suggestions. And one of its elite election lawyers argued convincingly that the logistical hurdles to replacing Trump made it next to impossible — to say nothing of the backlash the party would be tempting from a passionate base of supporters who seemed willing to forgive Trump the latest in a series of offenses that would have ended any other candidacy.
Beneath the flurry of conservative condemnation and the implausible replacement scenarios lay an uncomfortable reality for Republicans: They are stuck with Donald Trump for the final month, and things appeared likely to get worse for the party before they got better.
The rebukes mark an extraordinary turn in a campaign that has defied political norms. Rarely has a party directed so much scorn toward its nominee – with just a month until Election Day, no less. Republican strategists, many of whom are convinced the GOP is confronting a long and painful post-election rebuilding process, expressed concern that their nominee could be a stain on the party. Particularly concerning, they say, is that Trump is deepening his already sizable deficit with female voters – damage that may not be easily reversible.
While Trump has a mile-long list of controversial remarks, there was a sense that the newest headline – about recorded comments that were made during a private 2005 conversation with TV anchor Billy Bush – had the potential to damage not only Trump in this final phase of the 2016 contest but down-ballot Republicans hoping to survive a tumultuous election year as well.
“The comments were offensive and wrong and he was right to apologize,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, referencing a statement from Trump who said he apologized “if anyone was offended.”
Friday’s news was the latest blow for a candidate whose candidacy appears to be spiraling out of control. Over the last two weeks, Trump has come under fire for attacking the weight of a former beauty pageant contestant and over revelations that he may have avoided paying taxes for nearly two decades. Those developments followed a lackluster performance in the first presidential debate.
“When it rains it pours,” said Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster.
Republicans are growing increasingly concerned about what impact Trump will have on their congressional majorities. Pollsters, who have been checking for signs that the volatile GOP nominee will demolish their fragile hold on the Senate, say they’ve seen a precipitous decline in Trump’s numbers since the Sept. 26 debate. Asked about Trump’s comments, one top party strategist who is playing a key role in down-ballot races said, simply, “It sucks.”
Trump’s ousted primary opponents – many of whom warned that he would spell disaster for the party in a general election – teed off on the nominee.
“As the grandfather of two precious girls, I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Make no mistake the comments were wrong and offensive,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “They are indefensible.”
Not everyone was convinced the comments would be a deal-breaker, however. Some in the evangelical community, which has established a tenuous alliance with the brash New Yorker, rushed to his defense.
“I think it will have little or no impact. People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, grow the economy, appoint conservative judges and oppose the Iran nuclear deal,” said Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a Trump supporter. “In their hierarchy of concerns, an 11-year-old tape of a private conversation with a talk show host on a tour bus ranks very low.”
And Trump’s main booster in the conservative media, Sean Hannity, said it’s time for Trump to go after Hillary Clinton for her husband’s infidelity.
“@HillaryClinton Where were you with Paula, Juanita, Kathleen, and Monica? Sounds like selective moral outrage to me,” Hannity tweeted Friday night.
Kenneth P. Vogel and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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