For the legion of Republicans who abandoned Donald Trump on Saturday, recoiling in horror from comments their party’s White House nominee made about using his fame to prey on women, there is no escaping those questions.
For months, they stomached his incendiary remarks about Mexicans, Muslims, prisoners of war, a Gold Star military family and a Hispanic judge, along with offensive statements about women too numerous to count. Democratic critics argue that their silence—or the promise to vote for Trump, but not endorse him—amounted to tacit approval of misogyny and racism.
There were no good answers Saturday, and few Republicans attempted to offer any.
A steady stream of GOP officials revoked their endorsements or called for Trump to drop out of the race, condemning the New York billionaire in emailed statements and carefully crafted tweets. But some, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, stuck with Trump even as they condemned his comments.
“It is a troubling situation,” Ryan said.
Those fleeing from Trump may ultimately say it was the shock of hearing and seeing the businessman’s crudeness on video that prompted them to finally walk away. On Friday, The Washington Post and NBC News both released a 2005 recording of Trump describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. His words were caught on a live microphone while talking with Billy Bush, then a host of Access Hollywood.
Some may draw a distinction between Trump’s outrageous earlier comments about women, minorities and others by noting that this time, the businessman wasn’t just being offensive—he was describing actions that could be considered sexual assault. In the video, Trump is heard saying that his fame allows him to “do anything” to women.
“Grab them by the p—-. You can do anything,” he says.
But with a month until Election Day, and early voting already underway in several states, the truest answer to why Republicans are dropping Trump now—and why they’re dropping him over this—is likely political.
During the Republican primary, GOP officials worried that disavowing Trump would alienate his supporters and hurt the party in congressional races. In the general election, Trump’s crass behavior also seemed easier for Republicans to tolerate when stacked up against Democrat Hillary Clinton, a candidate so reviled by many in the GOP that virtually nothing Trump did seemed worse than the prospect of her becoming president.
But these new revelations come at a time when the White House race seems to be slipping away from Trump. He’s been unable to attract support beyond that offered by his core backers. His performance in the first debate was undisciplined and he followed it up by tangling with a beauty queen whom he shamed two decades ago for gaining weight.
“There were people who were just starting to feel like this ship was going down and now this gives people a good excuse to jump off,” said Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and led an unsuccessful effort to prevent Trump from becoming the GOP nominee.
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While some Republicans expressed astonishment and dismay over Trump’s 2005 comments, those who steadfastly refused to endorse him throughout the campaign suggested their party knew full well what they were getting with the brash real estate mogul and reality TV star.
“Nothing that has happened in the last 48 hours is surprising to me or many others,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was critical of Trump when he ran against him in the primary and has remained so for months.
Privately, even Republicans who didn’t formally revoke their support for Trump conceded there was little he could do to right his campaign at this point. Early voting is already underway in some key states and the comments aired in the video will likely be unforgivable with independent women—a constituency Trump desperately needs to win if he has any hope of defeating Clinton.
The last hope now for many Republicans is that an unimaginable election year will still end with the GOP in control of the Senate. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, both locked in tight races, joined the parade of officials Saturday who said they simply couldn’t stand by Trump anymore.
For Ayotte, the move earned her no quarter from her Democratic opponent, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.
“She has had one example after the next of Donald Trump’s despicable words and his despicable behavior as reasons that she should have disavowed him,” Hassan said. “It took her until now when the revelation of his comments from a decade ago were made to decide that politically she couldn’t stand with him anymore.”
Look for more of the same in races nationwide. Democrats made clear Saturday they would spend the next month trying to ensure they and other Republicans get no credit for walking away now.