GOP leaders slam Trump over comments about groping women

Warning: Graphic language

For the second Friday in a row, Donald Trump's campaign is heading into the weekend in an existential crisis sparked by the candidate's behavior toward women — and Republicans may have had enough this time.

"It's over," a Republican strategist who has been supportive of Trump said. "Never seen anything like it. Never will."

The timing of newly obtained audio from 2005 in which Trump boasted how he used his stardom to approach women and "grab 'em by the pussy," could not be much worse for the nominee, whose standing with women in surveys has already been abominable throughout the campaign.

"This one matters," a Trump campaign staffer conceded, adding they had "no idea" how to spin the story in their favor.

Related: Trump Says on Hot Mic 'When You're a Star ... You Can Do Anything' to Women

In the immediate term, though, the tape is threatening to crack Trump's support within the GOP, whose leaders must weigh whether its worth it to defend Trump and risk poisoning the party brand or distance themselves and risk demoralizing their base.

Based on the early reaction, they're choosing the latter approach.

"No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner," RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "Ever."

Speaker Paul Ryan condemned Trump as well and announced the nominee would no longer attend a high-profile scheduled event with Ryan and Priebus in Wisconsin on Saturday.

"I am sickened by what I heard today," he said. "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. 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."

Priebus has stood by Trump through previous crises while Ryan has often stayed quiet rather than criticize him, making their twin statements especially dramatic.

They weren't the only ones criticizing Trump on Friday as the story started to look like a tipping point for his detractors within the GOP.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is in a tough race and has refused to endorse Trump, tweeted that Trump "should drop out" and that the GOP should move to organize an emergency replacement. He called Trump "a malignant clown — unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States."

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who is under fire in her home state for calling Trump a role model in a recent debate, immediately issued a statement on Friday calling Trump's comments "totally inappropriate and offensive."

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who supports Trump and also faces a difficult re-election, called Trump's comments "inappropriate and completely unacceptable"on Twitter. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) tweeted that they were "outrageous and unacceptable."

"I think the wheels just came off," a top staffer at a GOP super PAC said.

In addition to politicians in swing states, the Trump audio prompted indignant statements from former rivals like John Kasich and Jeb Bush.

"Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America's face to the world," 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who has denounced Trump throughout his candidacy, tweeted.

Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who recently indicated he would support Trump, withdrew his endorsement on Friday and called on Trump to leave the race.

At the same time, Trump did get some backup from prominent evangelical supporters who indicated a willingness to overlook his sins.

"I in no way condone [the comments] but I don't condemn him," Pastor Darrell Scott, a Trump adviser, said. He explained that Trump's 2005 remarks came before he had "spiritual influences" in his life.

Democrats, eager to fan the flames, are rapidly moving to demand more Republican candidates renounce Trump or be tarred by association. Hillary Clinton's campaign rapidly pushed out a video featuring the 2005 footage.

The news comes as Trump looks to bounce back in Sunday's town hall with Clinton after a difficult first debate last month that included withering attacks on his treatment of women — attacks Trump made dramatically worse the next week by feuding with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado and telling voters to "check out [a] sex tape" that apparently did not exist.

The sustained fight over Trump's treatment of women helped generate additional stories about his comments and behavior over the years, stories that will only get more attention now.

The Associated Press published a detailed exposé of his work on The Apprentice, with numerous sources recalling lewd and inappropriate remarks similar to the 2005 audio. The Los Angeles Times detailed complaints from Trump employees in a lawsuit that they had to hide staff he found physically unattractive to prevent him from firing them.

Just as Trump's attack on Machado helped shine a light on related stories about Trump and women, Trump's 2005 boasts about what sounds like nonconsensual behavior could bring back some darker claims that have so far stayed on the edge of the campaign.

Take Jill Harth, a makeup artist who once sued Trump in 1997 for allegedly groping her in a manner not dissimilar to Trump's 2005 comments. Trump denied the claim and she dropped the suit after several weeks, but she gave an interview to the Guardian standing by her accusation earlier this year.

The audio also could scramble Trump's strategy for the next debate. In response to the Machado story, his campaign launched a series of attacks on former President Bill Clinton's sex scandals and Trump suggested at a rally last weekend, without evidence, that the former Secretary of State had also cheated on her husband.

That tack, along with the Machado story, provoked a backlash from many Republicans, including some prominent Trump supporters who urged him to stop. Trump told the New York Post earlier this week that he would avoid the topic in the debate.

That may no longer be the case now. On Friday, he responded to the latest news by claiming "Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course" and it seems hard to imagine Trump restraining himself if he's cornered on the topic on Sunday.

Trump could try to seize on a new Wikileaks dump of apparent material from Clinton's private speeches dropped on Friday just hours after the Access Hollywood tape. But with so many damaging stories surrounding Trump and his campaign seemingly unable to control its message, it will be difficult to change the subject. With 30 days to go, every minute spent defending his behavior is a minute closer to a loss.

KGW


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