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Analysis: Deconstructing Donald Trump's Apology Video

There’s a lot going on Trump's 90-second statement, so let’s go by it line by line.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall-style forum, Oct. 6, in Sandown, New Hampshire. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Just after midnight, Donald Trump released a brief video responding to a 2005 video of an Access Hollywood shoot in which he said he used his celebrity status to approach women and "grab 'em by the p---y," ogled a woman on set, and recounted an unsuccessful attempt at seducing one of the show’s co-hosts.

There’s a lot going on this 90 second statement, so let’s go by it line by line.

I’ve never said I’m a perfect person nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret and the words released today on this more than a decade old video are one of them.

This is, by our count, the first time this campaign Trump has apologized or expressed regret for a specific statement or action. He expressed broad regret in a speech in August for remarks that caused "personal pain," but never said which instances he was referring to.

There’s some danger here as a result. He’s built up an awful lot of "apology debt" from his continuous refusal to admit wrongdoing. If he’s willing to apologize for grotesque comments about women in 2005, what about more recent cases? What about prior episodes like his attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s "Mexican heritage," or his feud with the Khan family, or the time he falsely claimed thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrated 9/11, or the time he said Senator Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination, or the time...You get the idea. This could create a lot of difficult follow-up questions, perhaps starting in Sunday’s debate.

Anyone who knows me, knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it. I was wrong and I apologize. I’ve traveled the country talking about change for America, but my travels have also changed me.

Along with his reference to the tape being "more than a decade old," Trump is trying to make the case that the 2005 remarks were from another time. But Trump has a long history of derogatory comments toward women, most recently last week when he tweeted in the wee hours of the morning that voters should "check out [a] sex tape" by former Miss Universe Alicia Machado that did not appear to exist. Pressed by Hillary Clinton about his past insults towards women over their first debate on September 26, Trump responded with an unprompted and enthusiastic defense of his decade-old fight with actress Rosie O’Donnell, who he called a "pig," a "slob," and "fat."

RELATED: GOP Leaders Slam Trump Over Crude Remarks on Women

I’ve spent time with grieving mothers who’ve lost their children, laid off workers whose jobs have gone to other countries and people from all walks of life who just want a better future. I have gotten to know the great people of our country and I’ve been humbled by the faith they’ve placed in me. I pledge to be a better man tomorrow and will never ever let you down.

In courting more traditional Republicans, Trump has long argued that he will become more calm and dignified over time and this statement seems to be of a piece with that. "I will be so presidential," he told NBC’s Today Show in April shortly before he locked up the GOP nomination. "You will be so bored. You'll say, 'Can't he have a little more energy?'" No one has been bored since.

Let’s be honest, we’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today. We are losing our jobs, we’re less safe then we were 8 years ago, and Washington is totally broken. Hillary Clinton and her kind have run our country into the ground.

A classic in the political scandal response genre: The pivot to indignantly suggesting the current "distraction" is preventing everyone from addressing the real issues voters want to hear about.

This particular line provoked a strong response from one Republican critic, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who recorded a message asking Trump to drop out of the race. "With all due respect sir, you sir, are the distraction, your conduct, sir, is the distraction," Lee said.

I’ve said some foolish things but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday.

And here’s the big turn. If the first part of Trump's video sounds nothing like his usual style, then the last part is as Trump as it gets.

After the first debate, Trump and his campaign went after former President Bill Clinton hard over his sex scandals, with surrogates arguing that Hillary Clinton deserved blame as well for scattered reports over the years mostly about her helping manage the stories politically. Trump even suggested at a rally in Pennsylvania last weekend that his opponent had cheated on her husband, offering no evidence for the claim.

Many Republicans argued this was a bad move that would make Hillary Clinton look more sympathetic based on years of focus group and polling research and even some Trump surrogates sounded uneasy. Looking to calm their nerves, Trump told the New York Post he would not raise the topic at the debate. That restriction no longer holds, based on the video.

In addition to the political risks of going after Clinton through her husband, there’s some danger for Trump here in making a distinction between "words and actions," a likely reference to women like Juanita Broaddrick who have accused the ex-president of nonconsensual sexual behavior decades ago (Clinton has denied these accusations).

While it hasn’t come up much in the campaign, Trump has also been accused of "actions" against women himself. He was sued for attempted sexual assault in 1997 by a makeup artist named Jill Harth and her description of his behavior sounds eerily like what Trump discussed in the 2005 Access Hollywood video. Trump denied the charges and Harth withdrew the lawsuit and has a complicated history with Trump, but she gave an interview to The Guardian and more recently to the New York Times this year standing by her original story. If Trump goes down this route, it’s likely there will be a lot more attention to his own past.