Waves of aides and surrogates have fanned out in recent days to defend Donald Trump after the release of a video in which he brags about forcing himself on women and subsequent allegations that he groped or kissed multiple women without their consent.
But in trying to justify or dismiss the reports, many of Trump’s defenders only seem to be making the situation worse.
Trump’s top supporters, many of them middle-aged or older men, have tried to explain away Trump’s behavior in terms that range from puzzling to offensive — angering people in both parties and complicating the Republican nominee’s attempts to move past the controversies.
Trump and his surrogates have brushed off his crude remarks about sexual assault on the 2005 videotape as “locker room” banter, infuriating many who say it is not how most men actually speak to one another. Some, including former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, have described Trump’s comments on the video as typical male behavior in general.
Others are also attempting to discredit the women accusing Trump of assault.
“The New York Times goes back over 30 years to find somebody who had a bad airplane flight,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, referring to a woman who alleges that Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt on a flight around 1980 when she was 38.
And some of Trump’s male supporters seem more than willing to lecture women on how they should put up with sexist talk.
“Ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So if you're offended by it, grow up. Okay?” actor Scott Baio said on Fox News.
Baio added: “And by the way, this is what you guys talk about over white wine when you have your brunches. So take it easy with your phony outrage.”
On the tape, which was released by The Washington Post on Friday, Trump tells “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush he could grab women “by the p---y” because he is a “star” and bragged about trying to have sex with a married woman. Campaigning Tuesday in Colorado, Trump’s son Eric said conversations like that are “what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence.” Eric Trump also said his father’s behavior wasn’t right and does not reflect his true personality.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its surrogates.
Some Trump defenders, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have said that Trump’s comments on the video do not describe assault.
“I don’t characterize that as sexual assault. I think that’s a stretch,” Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general, told the Weekly Standard.
Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer, when asked if Trump’s declaration described sexual assault, said: “I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.”
On Tuesday, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) suggested he might still support Trump if the Republican nominee said he liked raping women; he quickly apologized.
Jerry Falwell Jr., a lawyer and chancellor of Liberty University, said he would still vote for Trump even if the allegations against him are true. He and others instead went after the New York Times, calling it biased against Trump. Liberty students are now protesting their school’s association with Trump.
The candidate’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., said on WBT radio Thursday that he believes most Americans brushed off his father’s comments on the tape because they have said similar things.
“I’ve had conversations like that with plenty of people where people use language off color. They’re talking two guys among themselves ,” Trump Jr. said. “I think it makes him a human. I think it makes him a normal person, not a political robot.”
These varied attempts at defending Donald Trump have angered some Republicans, particularly many women.
“Jeff Sessions says that he wouldn’t ‘characterize’ Trump’s unauthorized groping of women as ‘assault.’ Are you kidding me?!” tweeted Wisconsin conservative activist Marybeth Glenn in declaring that she was leaving the Republican Party. “I’m sooo done. If you can’t stand up for women & unendorse this piece of human garbage, you deserve every charge of sexism thrown at you.”
In an impassioned speech at a Thursday rally for Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama said she has been shaken by Trump’s comments.
“This was not just a lewd conversation,” she said. “It was not just locker room banter. This was a powerful individual talking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior.”
One theme that has emerged from Trump’s surrogates over and over again is the contention that men routinely talk in boorish terms about women — and shock that many others do not agree. Giuliani and CNN host Jake Tapper, for example, got into a heated exchange this week when Tapper said he had been in many locker rooms and a fraternity, but had never heard a man talk like Trump on the tape.
Retired neurosurgeon and Trump backer Ben Carson said this week that when he was growing up, men were constantly boasting about their sexual exploits.
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard that, I really am,” Carson said to host Brianna Keilar.
“I haven’t heard it, and I know a lot of people who have not heard it,” Keilar said to Carson.
“Well maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s the problem,” Carson said.
The real problem, according to Republican strategist Katie Packer, is that Trump’s supporters do not grasp the reality that millions of women have been sexually assaulted or harassed and that it should not be taken lightly.
“I just think that these guys don’t get it, so they should quit talking about it,” Packer said. “For women in our party and decent men in our party, it’s an affront.”
Some of Trump’s female supporters have also taken up the cause of defending his behavior. Former New York lieutenant governor Betsy McCaughey tried to compare Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” video to lyrics sung by Beyoncé, an artist Hillary Clinton admires.
On CNN earlier this week, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes said Trump’s remarks were appropriate in a culture where the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” sold millions of copies and the movie “Magic Mike” about male strippers was successful. Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who opposes Trump, scoffed at the comparison.
“To compare running for president to an erotic film or an erotic movie, an erotic novel, it’s crazy,” Navarro responded. “If he wants to be held to that standard, great. Then go write ‘The Art of the Groping.’”
Others have taken umbrage at the idea that men in locker rooms talk about grabbing women without their consent.
“Just for reference. I work in a locker room (every day). . . That is not locker room talk. Just so you know,” tweeted Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley.
Trump’s top evangelical supporters have stood by him during the tape fallout. They include Falwell, Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who said his support of Trump has never been based on shared values.
Their defense of Trump has caused some Christian women to denounce both the Republican nominee and his evangelical supporters.
“Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal,” tweeted Beth Moore, an evangelist who said that she was one of many women who had been “sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”
Katelyn Beaty, editor at large of Christianity Today, said it signals a divide between the leaders of evangelicalism and those in the pews, and a failure to take the experience of women in the pews into account. Many evangelical Christians have been leery of Trump, a thrice-married, brash-talking New Yorker.
Now, with fallout from the tape plunging the Republican Party into an unprecedented crisis, Packer said she does not understand why certain people are being allowed to defend it publicly.
“I don’t know where they get these surrogates from,” Packer said. “They have better people than this.”