The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s backers have been reduced to suggesting groping may not be sexual assault

In this video from 2005, Donald Trump prepares for an appearance on 'Days of Our Lives' with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush and actress Arianne Zucker. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)
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This post has been updated.

Defending Donald Trump is a full-time job. And it's thankless. But rarely does it force Republicans to take such a tortured and ill-advised position as this.

Trump's defenders are now quibbling with the idea that his hot-mic moment — in which Trump said “grab them by the p---y" when talking about being able to do what he wanted with women — described sexual assault.

This includes Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a lawyer who was once the attorney general of Alabama and a U.S. attorney.

Here's an exchange with the Weekly Standard's John McCormack, who asked Sessions and others this question Sunday night:

MCCORMACK: But beyond the language, would you characterize the behavior described in that as sexual assault, if that behavior actually took place?
SESSIONS: I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch. I don't know what he meant —
MCCORMACK: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that's not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don't know. It's not clear that he — how that would occur.

Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer responded to the same question: "I don't know. I'm not a lawyer."

Update: Spicer disputed that quote, telling The Post, "I never said it." But McCormack provided The Post with an audio recording of a man who clearly sounds like Spicer, in the spin room, speaking those exact words.

Spicer responds: "While I was asked question about a matter of law, it is never appropriate to touch anyone in an unwelcome manner."

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "I think it's kind of pointless to talk about hypotheticals."

And Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway dismissed the comparison Monday morning on "Fox and Friends."

“When Anderson Cooper pressed Mr. Trump on sexual assault, Donald Trump shot back and said, ‘No, that’s not what this was. These are words,' " Conway said. "And I think there’s something there, because this term — ‘sexual assault’ — has been bandied about. And I will tell you as somebody who’s worked with and certainly has in my life, as I’m sure we all do, victims of sexual assault, it demeans them to equate that with this for political purposes.”

But this is deflecting. Cooper did not say that Trump sexually assaulted women; he said he was describing it.

"You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault," Cooper said to Trump. "You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?"

For the record, here's what Trump said on the hot mic: "I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab them by the p---y. You can do anything."

As Wonkblog's Danielle Paquette notes, this pretty clearly appears to meet the Justice Department's definition of sexual assault, which is "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."

In other words, even if the women in this situation were to let Trump do what he was doing, that does not mean it is not sexual assault. And Trump is clearly talking about a situation in which he does not obtain consent. "I don't even wait," he said in the 2005 video. "And when you're are star, they let you do it."

It's one thing to suggest that Trump was engaging in "locker room talk" about how he treats women and that he does not really do what he claimed he did. That's basically Trump's defense. ("No, I have not," he said, when pressed by Cooper as to whether any of the behavior he described in the video had actually taken place.) It's another to suggest or even entertain the idea that the act he was describing may not be sexual assault.

Of course Trump's backers don't want to grant the premise that he was describing himself sexually assaulting women. But now they are in the position of basically saying that groping and unwanted kissing is not sexual assault. For a party and a candidate who already struggle with women and how to talk about women's issues, it's not a great look.