One of the quotes from the 2016 presidential campaign that has stuck with me came from an unidentified Donald Trump supporter who shared his appraisal of the “Access Hollywood” tape on an episode of Showtime’s “The Circus.”
Having heard Trump boast on the tape about groping and kissing women without consent, this man told host Mark Halperin (oh, the irony) that the billionaire is “just like the rest of us: He likes guns, and he likes women. He had the power. He has the prestige. Why wouldn’t you take a little advantage?”
Voters who cast ballots for Trump — whose third wife, Melania, was pregnant at the time of the “Access Hollywood” recording — were willing to look past his self-professed propensity to “just start kissing” beautiful women and “grab them by the p---y.” Some, such as the man in the clip below, actually endorsed Trump’s behavior, seemingly agreeing that access to women’s bodies is a perk of wealth and fame.
The answer: They probably don’t care. This adds an unusual twist to media coverage of Trump’s alleged infidelities. Most male politicians — even nonreligious ones — work to project the consummate family-man image. Disclosure of an affair often tarnishes or even shatters that image, revealing that a politician is not the person voters thought he was.
For example, Anthony Weiner, who with Huma Abedin appeared to form a picture-perfect Washington power couple, resigned from Congress in 2011 after admitting that he sent lewd photos of himself to other women. John Edwards’s political career did not seem over when he suspended his presidential campaign in January 2008, but it was finished seven months later when he acknowledged having an affair with an aide while his wife battled cancer.
Trump is different: He had a long history of having affairs before ever seeking political office. His affair with actress Marla Maples when he was married to Ivana Trump was a tabloid sensation. Melania Trump told GQ that Trump first sought her phone number when he was still married to Maples — at a party to which he brought a different woman as his date. Howard Stern once asked Trump in a radio interview if it is true that he has had sex with “some of the greatest beauties on the planet.”
“True,” Trump answered proudly. “Some of the greats in history.”
For most of his public life, Trump’s desired image has been ladies’ man, not family man. Daniels’s and McDougal’s accounts of sexual relationships, even if accurate, don’t expose anything about Trump that voters did not already know.
Yet McDougal’s and Daniels’s stories are not irrelevant.
For one thing, Trump denies the alleged affairs (though he and his spokesmen have chosen their words so carefully that sexual encounters of some kind seem not to be ruled out). The question is not merely whether he is a cheater, but also whether he is a liar. Sleeping with a porn star and a Playboy Playmate is certainly consistent with Trump’s self-described lifestyle. His supporters might not mind such conduct, but lying — if that is what the president is doing — could be another matter. Trump never pretended to be a Puritan, but he did bill himself as a teller of hard truths and a keeper of promises.
Beyond the denials are the coverups. Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, admitted this week that he paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet during the campaign. National Enquirer publisher David Pecker has said he hired McDougal in 2016 so that she would not talk about her claimed affair. If nothing else, the efforts of Trump allies to suppress bad coverage are clearly newsworthy.
Another consideration is whether Trump’s womanizing days are behind him. Bill Clinton was president when he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, seemingly abusing the power of the presidency to engage with an intern. Affairs that occur when a politician holds or seeks office more obviously rise to a level of journalistic merit than those from private life because they often involve misuse of authority and public resources.
Trump’s alleged affairs as a businessman and reality-TV star might be less significant if not for the double-digit accusations of sexual harassment and assault leveled against him, which he also denies. When evaluating those more serious claims, reporters naturally examine the way Trump treats women more broadly.
It also does not help his cause to be in a position imbued with moral authority during a period of national reckoning with sexual misconduct.
The disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which came out in the final weeks of the presidential race, did force Trump to try to repair his public image a bit. He sold himself as being a different person.
“I’ve said and done things I regret,” Trump said a video statement, “and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. ... I’ve traveled the country talking about change for America, but my travels have also changed me.”
Trump’'s alleged affairs with Daniels and McDougal occurred more than a decade ago. If their stories were to draw out more recent claims, however, then the “changed man” narrative could unravel.
And speaking of Graham and Falwell: Coverage of Trump’s alleged affairs is not only about the president and his supposed partners. It is also about the standards of his backers. Evangelicals’ willingness to give Trump a pass for his personal conduct is a remarkable development in U.S. politics. The shifting mores of a significant voting bloc is an important story unto itself.