In this context, it’s fitting that a new account has emerged of Trump’s own biggest brush with political death over his own sexual misconduct: the controversy over the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump boasted of repeatedly committing sexual assault with impunity.
The new account of that affair — which shows that to a greater degree than previously known, leading Republicans privately thought Trump had disqualified himself, only to abruptly fall in line behind him — is deeply revealing as to Trump’s grasp of today’s GOP, and more broadly is depressingly symbolic of today’s culture of elite impunity.
Acosta has defended his handling of the Epstein case as U.S. attorney in Florida — in which Epstein ended up doing a scant 13 months for sex crimes — arguing it was the best prosecutors could do. But calls for his resignation are mounting. The Miami Herald, which revealed many questionable details about the case, just excoriated Acosta for failing to show “an ounce of sympathy for the vulnerable girls Epstein sexually exploited.”
Trump says he feels “very badly” for Acosta. Two senior officials tell the New York Times that support for Acosta could quickly disappear if more emerges, and CNN reports that Acosta’s fate may turn on what Trump thinks of the “media coverage” of the controversy.
All of this basically means Trump is trying to see whether he can keep Acosta on. Which brings us to the new revelations about the “Access Hollywood” tape.
- After the tape became public, scores of top Republican lawmakers, donors and activists — far more than did so publicly — privately urged then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to push Trump out and replace him with Vice President Pence at the top of the ticket. This included then-House Speaker Paul Ryan.
- Pence hunkered down and prayed with his wife, Karen, who furiously warned him that she would no longer appear in public if Pence remained Trump’s running mate. Pence hinted to advisers that he might have to stop campaigning with Trump.
But the key revelation is what happened next. At the next debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump ferociously attacked back, blasting Bill Clinton’s history with women and even threatening to unleash law enforcement on Hillary Clinton, saying that with him as president, Clinton would “be in jail.”
Alberta recounts what then transpired:
Within 48 hours the bleeding had stopped: Republicans ceased their calls for his withdrawal, Pence dutifully returned to the stump and his campaign went on as though nothing had happened.
With this, Trump displayed a remarkable, if perhaps instinctual, grasp of how to survive in today’s GOP. While he did issue a video apology, what really rescued Trump was going ferociously on the attack, which crucially included threatening to put the real enemy in prison.
Timothy L. O’Brien, who wrote a biography of Trump, told me this gut instinct on Trump’s part goes back to his earliest days, and is a function of his worldview, which O’Brien described as “eat or be eaten.”
“Trump’s view that life has only winners and losers comes directly from his father,” O’Brien said. “Fred Trump came through the rough-and-tumble of early- to mid-20th century real estate industry and clubhouse Democratic politics in New York. It was a ruthless, eat-or-be-eaten world.”
As Michelle Goldberg argues, Epstein’s light sentence the first time, combined with the fact that the architect of that sentence remains as labor secretary, exposes a culture in which “the very rich” often enjoy “impunity for the most loathsome of crimes.”
That culture of impunity, of course, involves both major parties and many industries outside of politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled that Democrats will not take investigative action against Acosta, a baffling and inexplicable decision.
Still, Democrats have of late been more aggressive in policing sexual misconduct in their ranks than Republicans have been. And Pelosi — and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer — have called on Acosta to resign, something we’re not hearing from many Republicans.
In all kinds of ways, of course, Trump himself demonstrates how deeply the culture of impunity has penetrated the GOP. We’ve seen bottomless self-dealing and a refusal to show minimal transparency on his business holdings; extensive and potentially criminal efforts to derail the Russia investigation; the refusal to hold the Saudis accountable for the dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi; maximal resistance to any and all congressional oversight; the turning loose of Attorney General William P. Barr on his political critics; Acosta’s potential survival; and so much more — much of it with nary a peep from Republicans.
What Trump seems to have developed here is a kind of full-saturation, totally unabashed flaunting of impunity as something to be worn as a badge of honor. In retrospect, that remarkable closing of ranks behind Trump despite the lewd video foreshadowed much of what we’re seeing now.