ST. LOUIS — He beamed in just after midnight Saturday like a captive in his own gilded cage. A man who demands the best of everything was speaking to America from a dimly lit, home-built studio against a fake backdrop of the Manhattan skyline he likes to call his own.
Donald Trump was a beleaguered candidate delivering conflicting messages: one of apology, insincere as it seemed to many viewers, and one of defiance. It was not clear that either message could rescue him after The Washington Post published a video Friday showing Trump making crude remarks about sexual assault.
Trump’s extraordinary campaign has been guided by his own instincts, and on Friday, his instinct was to hunker down and fight. Trump spent the next 24 hours in New York mostly ensconced in Trump Tower with only his most loyal advisers, steadfastly refusing to accept or recognize the full reality of what was happening outside.
Republican governors and members of Congress were calling for him to step aside — only a few at first, and then a rush — but Trump, talking to The Post by phone from the grandiose confines of his penthouse apartment, described an alternate universe.
“People are calling and saying, ‘Don’t even think about doing anything else but running,’ ” Trump said. “You have to see what’s going on. The real story is that people have no idea about the support.”
For the entirety of his campaign, Trump has lived in a bubble that he helped create. Inside that world, Trump could do no wrong and was forgiven for virtually all of his transgressions.
But this controversy was different. His vice-presidential running mate, Mike Pence, who has perfected the art of explaining away Trump’s missteps while trying to preserve his own reputation, on Saturday left Trump to clean up his own mess. The Indiana governor backed out of attending a GOP festival in Wisconsin as Trump’s substitute, and the statement he issued — under his own letterhead — offered no comfort to his running mate.
Pence, his wife and his aides were “absolutely apoplectic” about Trump’s comments about women on the 2005 video, according to one Republican close to the Trump campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “They’re melting down . . . They’re inconsolable.”
As Trump grappled with the emerging crisis Friday afternoon, the circle around him was relatively small, and few of them had long-standing ties to the candidate. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were there urging a swift apology, as were Trump’s top campaign aides, including chief executive Stephen K. Bannon and manager Kellyanne Conway.
“Priebus and Christie just went at him and said, ‘Donald, you’re going to have to apologize for the first time in your life, right now. Right now. You’ve got to do it,’ ” said the Republican close to the campaign, who was briefed on the discussions.
If Trump were under the impression that an apology would get him past the worst of the crisis, he was mistaken. As the country waited for a promised video, the intensity of the condemnations gathered more strength. By the time Trump’s taped apology finally came, the content and delivery proved inadequate, and by midday Saturday, Republican leaders in red states and blue states alike were abandoning him.
As he watched the final minutes of the Texas-Oklahoma college football game Saturday, Trump ally William J. Bennett was pained as he spoke about the nominee.
“It’s a shame, a crying shame, but he can’t win,” he said. “He should step down.”
Bennett, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary and has informally advised Trump on policy, said that the Republican Party “has to make a coldhearted calculation because of what he’s done. It just can’t stand.”
“It’s over,” Bennett said with a sigh. “I hate to say it, but it’s over.”
Inside Trump Tower, the candidate and his confidants were seeing things through a different lens. Trump said in his interview with The Post that he would be able to keep Republicans united because of their common foe: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“It’s because she’s so bad. She’s so flawed as a candidate. Running against her, I can’t say it’d be the same if I ran against someone else, but running against her makes it a lot easier, that’s for sure,” Trump said.
Trump spent much of Saturday working the phones, talking with family, advisers and friends from a sprawling network of business and political associates. Well-wishers flooded him with advice, by phone or by emails sent to his assistant.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who spoke with Trump at length Saturday by phone, said Trump has appreciated the outreach from his supporters but has been dismayed by leaks and the calls for him to drop out.
“He’s been going through a lot,” Carson said. “He’s weathering it just fine. He’s gung ho, and he understands why this all is happening. His enemies have ammunition, and they’re dripping it out. He gets it, but he’s not frustrated. He’s not a quitter.”
Late Saturday afternoon, Trump emerged briefly from his tower to greet onlookers on Fifth Avenue. Flanked by Secret Service agents, Trump, wearing a suit and tie, pumped his fist and flashed a thumbs up. He shook hands with supporters, who were clutching cellphone cameras and shouting Trump’s name. Tourists aboard a double-decker bus gawked at the scene.
Even as Trump’s friends offered encouragement, some were buzzing behind his back about the long-shot notion of a ticket that no longer included him. Several of the candidate’s allies were discussing a Pence-Carson ticket, according to one person close to Trump.
“You’d keep Pence, and you’d bring the Trump people along with Carson, who they love,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private exchanges. “Right now, Donald isn’t going to go and doesn’t want to go. But we’ve been texting about it.”
Other people in Trump’s orbit advanced the idea that the crisis had been manufactured by Trump’s “enemies” in the media and at the Clinton campaign. Trump mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer issued a defiant statement saying Americans are disgusted with the political elite “who quake before the boombox of media blather.”
Carl Paladino, Trump’s New York state co-chairman, a former gubernatorial candidate who had his own scandals over sexism and racism, said Trump’s “gutter talk” was something “all men do, at least all normal men.”
“The only people concerned with this are Hillary people right now and the treacherous ones in the Republican Party,” Paladino said. “The people in America look at this and say it’s another day in the life of Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter to them.”
Some of Trump’s allies inside and outside the campaign wondered why he had apologized rather than own his past and punch back, a strategy that helped him survive previous controversies.
“Why didn’t he double down? If the apology was intended to stem the flow of dissent, to show that he’s sorry for what he’s said and done . . . that’s not what took place,” said one Trump friend who is close to the campaign and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser, said he was encouraging the Trump team to immediately make an issue of former president Bill Clinton’s womanizing past and “allegations of sexual crimes.”
“In order to blunt this really bad story — and make no mistake, this is DEFCON One — they need to pull the Clintons into the same mire where Clinton has dumped him, because in fact they do exist there,” Caputo said. “They’ve got to go nuclear. That’s all they have left.”
Sunday night’s debate, here in St. Louis, will reveal whether Trump sides with the hard-liners or those urging more contrition. Whichever course, Trump is guaranteed another huge audience.
“I’ve been here before, I’ll tell ya, in life,” Trump said in the interview. “I understand life and how you make it through. You go through things. I’ve been through many. It’s called life. And it’s always interesting.”
Costa reported from Washington. Matea Gold in Washington contributed to this report.