Republicans were quick to condemn Donald Trump Friday. But pull back their endorsements? Not so much.
In the hours after The Washington Post published a vulgar video of Trump bragging about his ability to grope women as a benefit of his celebrity, Republicans were slow to rescind their endorsement of Trump.
By the end of the night, only two Utah politicians pulled their support of Trump: Gov. Gary Herbert and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz. Others, including Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, who never endorsed Trump in the first place called on him to drop out of the race.
But other high-profile Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, haven’t backed away from their endorsements of Trump even as they blasted his comments.
That could change in the coming days as Democrats and Hillary Clinton are sure to increase the pressure on the GOP to cut ties with their nominee.
Trump has survived so many shocking moments this year that most pundits have stopped predicting his downfall. But many Republican strategists said Friday evening that the tape — with Trump’s casual suggestion that he could get away with sexual assault — could be a death blow to his campaign. Trump made the first step toward recovery early Saturday by issuing a defiant apology.
“I said it, I was wrong and I apologize,” Trump said in a video in which he also doubled down on his criticism of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
It was in many ways the final chapter of the uncomfortable waltz that Republicans have carried on all year with Trump. In key battleground states, candidates and their advisers have agonized over how to deal with Trump, straining to find language that shows they respect the will of the Republican voters, while trying to shield themselves from the stain of his more controversial comments.
Republican leaders across the spectrum seemed mostly horrified by Trump’s breezy descriptions of potentially criminal conduct in his conversation with Billy Bush on “Access Hollywood,” which was captured on a hot microphone in 2005 and released by The Washington Post.
In the most telling sign that the GOP may be on the verge of a break with Trump, Ryan said in a statement that Trump would no longer be attending a Republican unity event with Ryan in Wisconsin Saturday, and that he is “sickened by what I heard today.”
“Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests,” Ryan said in his statement. “In the meantime, he is no longer attending tomorrow’s event in Wisconsin.”
Ryan’s message was a clear signal to the many vulnerable House and Senate Republicans that it was fair game to criticize Trump in harsh terms. But it remained unclear Friday night whether any would go so far as to cut ties with the Trump campaign.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte is a vulnerable Republican incumbent and was among the first to weigh in Friday, calling Trump’s comments “totally inappropriate and offensive.”
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who has pledged to support the GOP nominee, said Trump’s comments were “offensive and wrong and he was right to apologize.”
Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey called Trump’s remarks “outrageous and unacceptable.” Nevada Congressman Joe Heck, who is in a close race for Senate, said he condemned Trump’s comments “in the strongest possible terms” and that the language he used was “disgraceful.” Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who has been critical of Trump, called him a “malignant clown — unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States.”
Priebus, who had been set to appear with Trump and Ryan Saturday in Wisconsin, said in a statement that “no woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”
Still, Priebus isn’t cutting ties with the campaign. He plans to join Trump Saturday in New York for debate prep with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Dems blast GOP
Democrats were quick to charge that Republicans weren’t going far enough. Democratic operatives made it clear that their strategy in the days ahead would be to force GOP candidates not just to say whether they condemned the comments, but whether they believed Trump should still be commander-in-chief.
A number of strategists predicted Friday that the emergence of the “Access Hollywood” tape would make it much easier to sever ties with Trump.
John Weaver, a strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, urged Republicans in a tweet to “Cut Trump loose. If u have endorsed, rescind. U work for campaign, can resign. #Two Paths.”
“Condemning Trump’s comments while still endorsing, supporting him is outrageous,” Weaver later tweeted. “#TwoPaths are available. Choose the right one.”
Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who advised 2008 presidential candidate John McCain, noted that the Trump campaign has been in a spiral since the last debate.
“At a time when poll numbers are collapsing, this is a comportment and temperament issue. It’s devastating,” Schmidt said, noting that the new revelations come a week after Trump was “hate tweeting” at a former Miss Universe at 3 am.
“Most every Republican has tried to accommodate the nominee of the party despite things they find deeply awkward. We’re moving into a new phase here,” Schmidt said.
He noted that Trump has given little indication that he is preparing for the second debate, suggesting a strong possibility of another flubbed performance.
“If the election were held tomorrow, Republicans are down seven Senate seats, so by Monday morning you’re going to see Republicans all over saying Hillary Clinton is going to win the election and we need to have divided government to keep a check on her,” Schmidt said. “And people will be jumping off the boat like it’s the end of the Titanic.”
Trump said Friday night he would do debate prep Saturday instead of attending the event with Ryan.
Shock at Trump’s comments
Beyond the big names, many Republicans expressed shock at Trump’s comments, particularly those who formerly worked for Ted Cruz, and did not appreciate the Texas senator’s recent endorsement of Trump.
Cruz strategist Jason Johnson tweeted Friday: “Just another Friday in #2016. Can’t even watch the news with my kids.”
Cruz also criticized Trump, along with other former Trump primary rivals such as Jeb Bush.
“As the grandfather of two precious girls, I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women,” Jeb Bush tweeted.
While Trump had few defenders on Friday, some of his advisers said they believed he could ride out the controversy.
Faith and Freedom Coalition Founder and Chairman Ralph Reed, who sits on Trump’s religious advisory board, said that he believed people of faith would pay more attention to where they aligned with Trump on the issues like abortion, Planned Parenthood and the economy.
“I think a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with at TV talk show host ranks pretty low on their hierarchy of their concerns,” Reed said, adding that the tape did not change his opinion of Trump. “Everybody falls short of a standard of perfection, but Donald Trump’s been married to Melania for 10,11, 12 years now. And he has a great family and has a tremendous relationship with his children… I think this case is ancient.”