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Donald Trump Defiant as Top Republicans Flee Candidacy

A defiant Trump pledged to finish out the race as a stampede of GOP politicians denounced his behavior and a number openly called on him to quit.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during a meeting with members of the National Border Patrol Council at Trump Tower, Friday, Oct. 7, in New York.Evan Vucci / AP

A defiant Donald Trump pledged to finish out the race on Saturday as a stampede of Republican politicians denounced his behavior toward women and a number openly called on him to quit.

"I'd never withdraw," Trump told The Washington Post. "I’ve never withdrawn in my life."

Trump also told The Wall Street Journal there is "zero chance I’ll quit.”

"The support I’m getting is unbelievable, because Hillary Clinton is a horribly flawed candidate," he added.

Trump has weathered plenty of storms in the past, but the severity of the response from his own party over and the timing, just 30 days before the election and one day before the second presidential debate, left his campaign fighting for its life on Saturday morning.

Even Trump's own running mate, who dutifully represented Trump at last week's vice presidential debate, distanced himself from the remarks.

“As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the eleven-year-old video released yesterday," Pence said. "I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them. I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people. We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”

Notably, the statement did not reaffirm Pence's support for the nominee or include any of the counterattacks on Clinton that Trump emphasized in his own response.

Melania Trump, the nominee's wife, issued a rare statement decrying her own husband's behavior in stark terms but vouching for his broader character.

"The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me," she said. "This does not represent the man that I know. He has the heart and mind of a leader. I hope people will accept his apology, as I have, and focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world."

Trump's taped apology just after midnight on Friday night, which promised a new war on Bill Clinton's sex scandals, did little to stem the bleeding, which appeared to worsen as multiple prominent Republicans and conservatives withdrew their endorsements.

"Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately," Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership, tweeted.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the 2008 GOP nominee who Trump famously said was "not a war hero" because he was captured in Vietnam, withdrew his support on Saturday in a detailed statement.

In addition to excoriating Trump's "boasts about sexual assaults," McCain also cited his recent claim that the "Central Park Five" were guilty of a notorious 1989 rape despite DNA evidence exonerating them.

He and his wife, he said, "will write in the name of some good conservative Republican who is qualified to be President.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had not weighed in on the election, also came off the fence to denounce Trump.

"Enough!" she wrote on Facebook. "Donald Trump should not be President. He should withdraw."

Among those who dropped their support for Trump on Saturday morning alone: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV), Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), and radio host Hugh Hewitt, who had been a prominent Trump supporter. In the case of Roby, Crapo, and Hewitt, they called on Trump to drop out. Moore Capito said Trump should "reexamine his candidacy." Ayotte said she would write in Pence on her ballot.

As the day continued, the response threatened to spread into a panic. Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), running for an open senate seat, delivered a speech in Las Vegas demanding Trump withdraw and allow the GOP to select a replacement. Similar statements followed from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), all of whom called for Pence to lead the ticket.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), a rising star in the party, also threw his weight behind a Pence takeover: "I cannot and will not support someone who brags about degrading and assault women," he said in a statement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) tweeted that Trump "forfeited the right to be our party's nominee."

Trump, for his part, told the New York Times he was unaware of the burgeoning movement to force him out of the race.

“I haven’t heard from anyone saying I should drop out, and that would never happen, never happen,” Trump said. “That’s not the kind of person I am. I am in this until the end.”

With just a month left to go, replacing Trump is not an easy task. Ballots are already printed, voting has already begun in some states, and the party's rules would require Trump to voluntarily leave the race before officials could pick another candidate. Legally, it would require a sweeping state-by-state effort to change the official ticket for voters. Politically, it would set off a civil war between party leaders and Trump's most passionate supporters and give the party little time to pick a consensus alternative and introduce them to the public.

Supporters of the GOP nominee gathered outside Trump Tower in New York, where Trump and his staff were holed up planning their next move, to cheer him on in his moment of crisis. Tump emerged briefly to greet his fans and reassure them he would stay in the race.

"It's his personal conversation, it's nothing," Trump voter Malka Shahar told NBC News. "He doesn't have to apologize, he's a great man and leader, and I want to see him as our next president."

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 on Friday, adding they had "no idea" how to spin the story in their favor.

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

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

In the immediate term, the tape is threatening to decisively break 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 on Friday. "Ever."

Speaker Paul Ryan condemned Trump as well on Friday and announced the nominee would no longer attend his scheduled event with 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."

Shortly afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell followed suit with a statement of his own blasting Trump's "repugnant" comments.

"As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape," he added.

Priebus has stood by Trump through previous crises while Ryan and McConnell have often stayed quiet rather than criticize him, making their 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.

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

Republican candidates, in particular, rushed to condemn Trump.

  • 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." The next day she announced she would no longer vote for him.
  • 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." Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) said they were "offensive and wrong."
  • "No woman should ever be victimized by this kind of inappropriate behavior," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement. "He alone bears the burden of his conduct and alone should suffer the consequences.”
  • In Colorado, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), who holds a competitive seat, said Trump should leave the race "for the good of the country" and to improve the GOP's chances against Clinton given his "almost certain" defeat.
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who has made no secret of his disdain for Trump, called on Trump to withdraw from the race. “Character matters,” Sasse tweeted, adding that Trump “is obviously not going to win. But he can still make an honorable move: Step aside & let Mike Pence try.”
  • Sen. MIke Crapo (R-ID), who had previously endorsed Trump, withdrew his support over his "disrespectful, profane, and demeaning" behavior and cited his work on domestic violence prevention as a factor in the decision. He called on Trump to drop out and allow Pence to take over.

The Trump audio also prompted indignant statements from former Trump rivals like John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who recently endorsed Trump after pointedly refusing to do so at the GOP convention, condemned the video as "disturbing and inappropriate," but did not withdraw his support. Neither did Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who nonetheless called Trump's remarks "vulgar, egregious [and] impossible to justify" on Twitter.

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.

With Trump's latest statements that no longer looks to be the case. On Friday, he responded to the latest news initially by claiming, "Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course" and went into further detail about the former president's personal scandals in his video statement. On Saturday, Trump twice retweeted Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Clinton of sexually assaulting her decades ago. Clinton was never charged and denied the accusation. It seems likely Trump will bring the topic up early and often on Sunday night.

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.