Republicans have been left scrambling to respond to the latest crisis buffeting their presidential nominee’s campaign, after an audio clip emerged of Donald Trump making demeaning remarks about women that amounted to a description of sexual assault.
With the property developer preparing to face a second televised debate against Democrat Hillary Clinton this weekend, it seemed increasingly likely that many in his own party would begin to desert or disown his candidacy to salvage their own electoral prospects in November.
In the clip from 2005, published online by the Washington Post on Friday, Mr Trump can be heard boasting of his unsuccessful attempts to seduce a married woman. “I did try and f*** her,” he said, before referring to the woman’s “big phony t***s”.
“When you’re a star,” the then-reality TV star added, “you can do anything... grab them by the p*****.”
Amid reports that Republican National Committee officials were meeting in Washington DC to discuss the possibility of Mr Trump dropping out of the race, RNC chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement, saying: “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”
Mr Trump had been scheduled to appear in Wisconsin on Saturday alongside Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, a reluctant Trump supporter who has not shared a campaign stage with the nominee until now. But on Friday evening Mr Ryan disinvited Mr Trump from the event, saying he was "sickened" by the tape and that he hoped "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 the clip suggests."
The Trump campaign said his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, would join Mr Ryan at the rally instead. As the news of the tape's emergence broke, Mr Pence was eating lunch during a campaign swing through Ohio. His official pool of reporters was shooed back to the press bus before he left the café, and so deprived of a chance hear his response.
Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican who withdrew his support for Mr Trump in June, called for the nominee to quit on Twitter, urging the Republican Party to "engage rules for [his] immediate replacement."
Utah's Republican Governor Gary Herbert said following the release of the tape that he could no longer vote for Mr Trump, while former Utah Governor John Huntsman, himself a one-time GOP presidential hopeful, told the Salt Lake Tribune that he believed Mr Pence ought to replace Mr Trump at the top of the party's ticket.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, another Republican facing a tight re-election race in New Hampshire, was recently criticised for suggesting Mr Trump was a suitable role model for children. She described his comments as “totally inappropriate and offensive.”
Speaking to Politico, one House Republican aide said GOP congressional candidates would be forced to distance themselves from Mr Trump and campaign on the premise that they could be “a check” on an inevitable Clinton presidency. “You can’t defend this guy,” the aide said.
That did not stop some Trump backers from trying. Corey Lewandowski, the candidate’s former campaign manager, acknowledged that the comments were offensive, but told CNN: “We’re electing a leader to the free world, we’re not electing a Sunday school teacher.”
The condemnation from Democrats, meanwhile, was swift and unequivocal. “This is horrific,” Ms Clinton wrote on Twitter, adding: “We cannot allow this man to become president.” Her running mate, Tim Kaine, told reporters at a campaign stop in Las Vegas that the clip made him "sick to my stomach".
Mr Trump’s popularity has been on the slide ever since the first presidential debate on 26 September, with Ms Clinton currently holding a 4.7-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls.
That trend was exacerbated by the publication, last weekend, of pages from his 1995 tax return, which showed that he claimed a loss of more than $900m – which, the New York Times reported, may have allowed him to avoid paying federal income tax for the next two decades.
Mr Trump reacted to the “p****” clip with a non-apology, releasing a statement saying he apologised “if anyone was offended” by his remarks. He also tried to expand the scandal to the Clinton campaign, claiming: “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course."
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