WASHINGTON (AP) – Hours before a critical presidential debate, a damaged but defiant Donald Trump seized on never-proved sexual allegations against Hillary Clinton’s husband as a growing group of Republican leaders called on the New York businessman to abandon his troubled presidential bid.
The Republican presidential nominee tweeted a link Sunday to an interview with a woman who Trump says “relives brutal rapes.” Juanita Broaddrick’s lawsuit against Bill Clinton accusing him of rape was dismissed in 2001 and criminal charges were never filed. Clinton has denied the allegations.
The tweet was backed by statements from a top Trump surrogate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He equated sexually aggressive language from Trump caught on a newly surfaced recording to the actions of Hillary Clinton in the 1990s when Bill Clinton struggled through the fallout of his own sexual transgressions.
Over the objections of CNN anchor Jake Tapper, Giuliani insisted that Hillary Clinton “was the leader of the attack” against “the women who Bill Clinton sexually assaulted, sexually abused.”Related: 5 Storylines to Watch at Sunday Night’s Presidential Debate
Giuliani, as Trump had the day before, declared that the Republican nominee would never quit the presidential race despite calls for him to step aside after his vulgar descriptions of sexual advances on women were revealed in a recording.
With just a month remaining before the election, Trump’s task in Sunday night’s debate is enormous, and perhaps insurmountable. Even before the recording of his remarks were made public, the businessman was lagging behind Clinton after an undisciplined first debate and struggling to overcome deep skepticism among women about his temperament and qualifications to be commander in chief.
Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges said that for Trump, “The debate is now everything.”
Trump has long hinted he may turn the debate into a referendum on Clinton’s marriage. In what was billed as a videotaped apology for his actions, Trump over the weekend said “Bill Clinton has actually abused women” and Hillary Clinton “bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated” her husband’s “victims.”
On Sunday morning, Giuliani said Trump is counting on voters to forgive.
“He’s going to apologize for what he did. He is going to explain to people that is not the man he is today. And he’s going to count on the fact that the American people are fair and decent people, and when someone asks for forgiveness, they usually give it,” Giuliani said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Outside Trump’s small cadre of advisers, support for the businessman was scarce following Friday’s release of the 2005 videotape in which he can be heard detailing his attempts to have sex with a married woman. In an extraordinary rebuke, Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, declared he could neither condone nor defend the remarks.
“We pray for his family,” Pence said.
Several other Republicans did take the extraordinary step of revoking support for their party’s nominee one month from Election Day and with early voting already underway in some key states. Among them: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte – both are running for re-election – and the party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who said Trump’s behavior made it “impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.”
Many went further and called on Trump to quit the race altogether.
Republican leaders have scheduled a rare Monday morning conference call for House GOP lawmakers, who are out of town for Congress’ election recess. The email obtained by The Associated Press doesn’t specify the topic for the call, but rank-and-file lawmakers believe it’s about Trump.
The political firestorm was sparked by a 2005 video obtained and released Friday by The Washington Post and NBC News. In the video, Trump, who was married to his current wife at the time, is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. He also brags about women letting him kiss them and grab their genitals because he is famous.
“When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump says in the video. He adds seconds later: “Grab them by the p—-. You can do anything.” He said of his impulse to kiss beautiful women: “I don’t even wait.”
While still publicly backing Trump, the Republican National Committee is considering how to move forward.
One possibility: re-directing its expansive political operation away from Trump and toward helping vulnerable Senate and House candidates. Such a move would leave Trump with virtually no political infrastructure in swing states to identify his supporters and ensure they vote.
Election law experts suggest it would be logistically impossible to replace Trump on the ballot altogether, with early voting underway in some states and overseas ballots already distributed to military servicemen and others.
The release of the recording and ensuing backlash almost completely overshadowed the release of hacked emails from inside the Clinton campaign that revealed the contents of some of her previously secret paid speeches to Wall Street. The Democratic nominee told bankers behind closed doors that she favored “open trade and open border.” Such comments were distinctively at odds with her tough talk about trade and Wall Street during the primary campaign.
Clinton running mate Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine deflected questions about the hacked emails and focused instead of Trump’s vulgar comments.
“I think there’s kind of a piece of the jigsaw puzzle missing in Donald trump where he does not look at women and consider them as equal to himself,” Kaine said on CNN.
AP writer Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.
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