Donald Trump lashed out even before he took the debate stage.
In a dramatic move less than 90 minutes before the second presidential debate on Sunday night, Trump made a surprise move in St. Louis in a desperate attempt to shift the focus from his own bragging of sexually aggressive behavior by appearing with four women who have alleged they were victimized by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
It was the first shot in an increasingly ugly battle expected to play out on national television later in the evening before tens of millions of Americans.
Trump, flanked by the four women, ignored shouted questions by a small group of reporters ushered in for the photo-op, as he introduced them. “These four very courageous women have asked to be here and it was our honor to help them,” Trump said, “and I think they’re each going to make an individual short statement.”
One by one — Paula Jones, Kathy Shelton, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — spoke.
“Mr. Trump may have said some bad words but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there is any comparison,” declared Broaddrick, seated directly to Trump’s right.
Reporters briefly tried to press Trump on the tape scandal, with one asking, “Mr. Trump, does your star power allow you to touch women without their consent?” He did not answer.
Trump described the event on Facebook as part of his “debate prep.”
Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri quickly denounced Trump for “his destructive race to the bottom.”
“This town hall is to talk to voters on stage and in the audience about the issues that matter to them, and this stunt doesn’t change that,” Palmieri said. “If Donald Trump doesn’t see that, that’s his loss. As always, she’s prepared to handle whatever Donald Trump throws her way.”
The event — unannounced to the wider press corps — came after Trump had hunkered down on Sunday morning, including pulling back top aides from planned national appearances, as he previewed his plan to target Bill Clinton’s past infidelities and Hillary Clinton’s alleged bullying of those victims.
Only Rudy Giuliani was dispatched to inject the Trump campaign’s position into the national conversation during a round of Sunday morning news shows. Giuliani condemned Trump’s description of unwanted sexual advances against women — kissing and groping them — but also dismissed them as “talk” among men, and he attempted to pivot quickly to national issues.
“You know, you confess your sins and you make a firm resolution not to commit that sin again and the priest gives you absolution and then hopefully you’re a changed person,” he said. “I mean, we believe that people in this country can change.”
But even as Giuliani spoke, Trump signaled a potentially dark turn for the day leading into his second debate with Hillary Clinton, tweeting out a Breitbart interview with Bill Clinton rape accuser Juanita Broaddrick and swiping at Republicans who have begun to reject his candidacy.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama weighed in on the Trump tape for the first time, calling the Republican nominee “insecure.” “It tells you he is 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,” Obama said at a campaign event in Chicago.
The Trump campaign began the day by pulling back planned Sunday show appearances from campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Giuliani said on “Fox News Sunday” that Conway is still a strong Trump supporter and attributed her absence to “scheduling.” Conway later flew with Trump to St. Louis.
Giuliani said none of Trump’s inner circle would defend his comments but said his apology should be viewed as sincere — and that he’s likely to reissue it in the debate.
“I think he made a full and complete apology for it,” he said. “I think he’s going to do it again tonight.”
But Giuliani also struggled to defend Trump when pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“This is talk, and gosh almighty, he who hasn’t sinned, throw the first stone,” Giuliani said during a discussion of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump can be heard bragging about trying to sleep with a married women and forcing himself on women who he said don’t resist because he’s “a star.”
“Mr. Mayor, I have never said that, I have never done that,” Tapper interjected. “I am happy to throw a stone. I have been in locker rooms. I have been a member of a fraternity. I have never heard any man, ever, brag about being able to maul women because they get away with it.”
Democrats on Sunday also piled on Trump. Democratic National Committee interim chairwoman Donna Brazile on ABC’s “This Week” said that the tape, despite being more than 10 years old, truly reflects the real Trump.
“You can draw a straight line between what Donald Trump said in 2005 and what he’s been saying every day on the campaign trail over the last year and a half,” she said.
And Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, said he isn’t sure whether Clinton will bring up the video but added that participants in tonight’s town hall debate likely will.
“It’s really for Donald Trump to try to answer for it and take responsibility for it,” Kaine said on CNN. “It’s not just words, it really is … talking about a pattern of sexual assault.”
Sunday morning was dominated by news of Republicans bailing on Trump. A cascade of elected leaders — from deep-red state senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo to those in tough reelection fights like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte — indicated they could no longer back the nominee and would prefer he step aside for someone like his running mate, Mike Pence. Trump’s campaign was reportedly preparing to counterpunch forcefully Sunday. A New York Times reporter revealed that Trump surrogates had received talking points urging them to slam Republicans who break from Trump.
Ted Cruz, who has not yet rolled back his late-in-the-game endorsement of Trump, on Sunday morning appeared to place much of the blame on the media for Trump’s latest crisis. “NBC had tape 11 yrs. Apprentice producer says they have more & worse. So why not release in 2015? In March? Why wait till October? #MSMBias,” Cruz tweeted.
Trump’s ultimate fate could be sealed by his debate performance on Sunday night, with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a wait-and-see mode. While GOP leaders have publicly condemned Trump’s comments, they have not signaled any immediate plans to oust him, and House Republicans have scheduled a conference call for Monday with members to decide what to do next.
The controversy also overshadowed revelations in a new batch of leaked emails, allegedly from the personal account of Clinton adviser John Podesta, that included excerpts from Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street institutions. They included her suggestion about having different positions on issues in public and private, as well as her call for “open borders” trade within the hemisphere.
Podesta, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” wouldn’t acknowledge whether the emails were authentic, though he has acknowledged being hacked and has blamed the breach on Russian meddling on behalf of Republicans.
“You can pluck a few words — if that’s what she did say — out of context,” he said.
Shane Goldmacher, Edward-Isaac Dovere and Nolan D. McCaskill contributed to this report.
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