'When You're A Star, They Let You Do It'

Four years ago, the "Access Hollywood" tape threatened Donald Trump's political career. Then he won anyway.
Photo: Getty Images

When Amanda Litman first heard the words, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy,” she was at Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.

It was Oct. 7, 2016, a Friday afternoon, and The Washington Post published a bombshell: Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, had boasted about sexual assault in 2005. And it was on tape.

“It was almost a feeling of ‘oh my god, we just won the election,’ complicated by the fact that so many of the women on our staff were deeply traumatized,” Litman said. She remembers female staffers listening to the audio over and over again, then leaving the office for 10-minute walks around the block. When they came back, they looked as though they had been crying.

The audio, taken from an “Access Hollywood” shoot, seemed like a turning point in the election. Republican politicians quickly condemned Trump, many of them noting that as fathers of daughters, they had to speak up. Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) reportedly urged the GOP chairman to get the nominee out of the race. Trump’s daughter Ivanka reportedly pleaded with him to offer a full apology. Karen Pence, the wife of Trump running mate Mike Pence, was reportedly livid, but her husband decided it was too late to leave the ticket.

In the 20 days that followed, 15 women came forward to say Trump had sexually abused them. Democrats thought this might be their shot to cement the election for Clinton, who would have been the first female president in U.S. history.

But come November, Trump won nonetheless. The same Republican politicians who claimed they couldn’t abide his words continued to back him. Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who said after the tape’s release that he couldn’t look his 15-year-old daughter in the eyes and still endorse Trump, announced 19 days later that he still planned to vote for the nominee. Once Trump became president, Ryan and other Republicans helped push through his priorities, which they shared. Trump went on to appoint Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault, to the Supreme Court.

Four years later, the “Access Hollywood” tape is buried under Trump’s record in office, including mishandling the coronavirus pandemic, dismantling the immigration system, derailing climate change efforts and much, much more. This September, when former model Amy Dorris accused Trump of sexually assaulting her at the 1997 U.S. Open, the charge was simply added to the list. Few, if any, Republicans spoke out, and the news cycle moved on.

But women haven’t forgotten. Activists and former Clinton staffers say that the “Access Hollywood” tape (and Republicans’ subsequent inaction) helped lay the groundwork for a seismic national shift in both the dialogue surrounding sexual abuse and the political mobilization of many women who had previously been passive observers.

“It’s one of the reasons why the Women’s March was such a galvanizing thing,” said Litman. “[Trump] didn’t just beat a woman candidate; he did so while denigrating women, which lays the cultural groundwork ― along with the work Tarana Burke had been doing for years ― for the Me Too movement.”

At Least He’s Not Clinton

When David Fahrenthold, the Washington Post reporter who first uncovered the “Access Hollywood” tape, reached out to the Trump campaign before publishing, they at first thought the transcript wasn’t real. “This doesn’t sound like me,” Trump said, according to a retelling of the weekend by Politico’s Tim Alberta.

Then the campaign received the audio, and it was clear that it was Trump speaking.

The campaign went into spin mode. “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago,” Trump said in a statement to the Post, before quickly turning to his opponent’s husband. “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”

That non-apology didn’t quell the public outrage after the story was published, and Trump appeared on video later that night to try again. In a markedly un-Trump-like performance, he said he never claimed to be a perfect person. “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said, before claiming the video was “a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today” and attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton for the former president’s sexual misconduct and alleged assaults, as well as accusing the former first lady of having bullied her husband’s victims.

One person faced swift consequences: Billy Bush, the “Access Hollywood” host who laughed along with Trump on tape, was suspended from his job at the “Today” show and fired a week and a half later.

It looked like Trump might face consequences too.

Republican after Republican issued statements condemning him. “As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the eleven-year-old video released yesterday,” Pence said in a statement, notably emphasizing that the remarks were made a long time ago. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Trump’s comments “repugnant, and unacceptable in any circumstance.”

Left to right: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and President Donald Trump looking chummy in 2017.
Left to right: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and President Donald Trump looking chummy in 2017.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Speaker Ryan uninvited Trump from a campaign event set to take place the next day. During a call with House Republicans on Oct. 10, he told the lawmakers that he would not campaign with Trump or defend him. If others wanted to, that was up to them.

“I’m going to spend the next 28 days working hard with all of our members to get reelected because we need a check on Hillary Clinton if Donald Trump and Mike Pence don’t win the presidency,” Ryan said at the time, according to audio later published by Breitbart News.

Some House Republicans agreed. Others didn’t ― and the ones who wanted to defend Trump were some of the loudest voices.

On the call, member after member said, “I don’t care how bad this is, you can’t let Hillary Clinton win,” according to a then-GOP aide. “It was very clear that everyone was still thinking in highly political terms.”

That was the calculus: Sure, what Trump said was bad. But at least he wasn’t Clinton.

“It demonstrated what was to come in terms of being able to rationalize anything as long as you compare it to Democrats,” the former GOP aide said.

Outrage, Pain And Motivation

The next episode of “Saturday Night Live” featured a sketch about the “Access Hollywood” tape that cut to Clinton campaign headquarters, where the candidate, played by Kate McKinnon, and her staff pop champagne.

But in reality, learning about the tape wasn’t a gleeful moment for the Clinton team.

“I was like, wow, they don’t usually get that wrong,” said Jess McIntosh, who was a senior communication adviser to the campaign. Today, McIntosh likens the moment to learning last week that the president had been diagnosed with COVID-19: a preelection shock that might impact the race, but certainly nothing to cheer over.

In fact, for many Democrats, the tape was a sobering reminder of just how much was at stake in the election. Both Clinton and vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine responded swiftly to the audio. On Oct. 7, Kaine told reporters that Trump’s words made him “sick to my stomach,” adding, “I’m sad to say that I’m not surprised.” Clinton tweeted the Washington Post story along with the comment, “This is horrific. We cannot allow this man to be president.”

Two days later, Trump and Clinton were in St. Louis facing off at the second presidential debate. When the tape came up, Clinton attempted to hammer home the idea that Trump’s denigration of women made him unfit to hold the highest office in the nation.

“With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them, politics, policies, principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve,” she said. “Donald Trump is different.” During the same debate, Trump stood behind Clinton and followed her across the stage ― a physical posturing that many compared to stalking.

Donald Trump lurks behind Hillary Clinton during the Oct. 9, 2016, presidential debate.
Donald Trump lurks behind Hillary Clinton during the Oct. 9, 2016, presidential debate.
Rick Wilking/Reuters

Democrats and activists alike were also grappling with the larger cultural implications of a Republican nominee for president who bragged about sexual assault. At 7:48 p.m. on the night the audio was published by The Washington Post, author Kelly Oxford tweeted, “Women: tweet me your first assaults. They aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.” Women began responding, many using the hashtag #NotOkay. According to NPR, within a day, 1 million women had responded to Oxford’s callout.

For so many, Trump’s words felt sickeningly familiar. They felt personal.

Jess Morales Rocketto, who was working on the Clinton campaign in 2016 and is now the civic engagement director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the executive director of Care in Action, told HuffPost that the Trump tape ― and working with fellow Clinton staffers to make people see the enormity of the moment ― pushed her to grapple with her own sexual assault.

“Engaging in that work ... is what enabled me to understand what had happened to me,” Rocketto said. “And to make it something that was not just about what had happened to me, and instead use it as fuel and transformation for keeping myself safe, and keeping other women like me safe.”

For Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, and other activists who focus on women’s and survivors’ issues, the “Access Hollywood” tape was a loud, clear and “rude awakening” to the ways that “American society continues to degrade women and reward people who abuse them.”

Thomas also saw an opportunity for a larger conversation to come out of Trump bragging so brazenly about sexual assault. Because as many pointed out in the days and months after the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped, sexually abusive “locker-room talk” was reflective of a cultural rot much larger than Donald Trump.

“I remember thinking like, that this was a pivotal exposure of what we knew was likely true about him and about his attitudes, but also the attitudes and the beliefs and behavior of so many men like him,” said Thomas. “And that it was a hugely important opportunity for having a national conversation about why that attitude and behavior is so toxic [and] so damaging.”

‘But Her Emails’ Takes Over

But the Trump campaign had a secret weapon. Trump and the campaign, via unofficial adviser Roger Stone, knew as of August that WikiLeaks had obtained hacked emails from Democratic Party staffers, including Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report published in August of this year. The hack was unrelated to Clinton’s previous email controversy, which had to do with her use of a private server for some official business as secretary of state. But given the sensitivity of “email” and “Clinton,” it could still be highly damaging.

According to U.S. intelligence, the hack was carried out by Russians, whom Trump had openly courted to find Clinton’s “missing” emails.

On Oct. 7, Stone learned about the “Access Hollywood” tape before its release and called Jerome Corsi, an infamous conspiracy theorist, to ask him to get in touch with WikiLeaks, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report. Stone “[w]anted the Podesta stuff to balance the news cycle,” Corsi told the committee.

“According to Corsi, Stone also told him to have WikiLeaks ‘drop the Podesta emails immediately,’” the committee report states.

Later that day, WikiLeaks did.

McIntosh, the former Clinton adviser, was dismayed at how quickly the media seized on the hacked emails even amid the news that Trump had admitted to sexual assault.

The media’s focus on the “Access Hollywood” tape “only lasted until everybody got into John Podesta’s risotto recipe,” McIntosh said. “They played journalists so perfectly with that release. They had that in their back pocket for their ‘break glass in case of emergency.’ This was clearly the emergency. They broke the glass and everybody scattered for it.”

In the following weeks, even as multiple women accused Trump of sexual assault, reporters continued to question him on other matters, which McIntosh found disappointing.

“I am pretty sure if Hillary Clinton had been accused of assaulting somebody, that would be the last time someone asked her about her climate change plan,” McIntosh said. “The only questions would be, ‘When are you going to drop out of the race?’ And that was simply not what happened.”

“They had that in their back pocket for their ‘break glass in case of emergency.’ This was clearly the emergency. They broke the glass and everybody scattered for it.”

- Jess McIntosh, a former Clinton staffer, on the WikiLeaks release of Democratic Party emails

About a week before the election, then-FBI Director James Comey released a letter saying the agency was examining more of Clinton’s emails ― an announcement that Clinton blames, in part, for her ultimate loss.

The Democratic candidate’s emails remained in the news. The same Republicans who had condemned Trump’s remarks continued to back him.

And then, a month and approximately 1 million news cycles later, Trump won.

Despite the polls, despite the “Access Hollywood” tape, despite the allegations of 15-plus women. The man who openly denigrated women, immigrants and people of color was going to ascend to the highest office in the nation.

Litman remembers thinking about Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments on election night as she watched the returns come in from the Javits Center in New York City.

“I could not stop thinking about what does this tell little girls and what does this tell little boys,” said Litman. “[For little girls], you can be talked about this way, you can be treated this way, you can be assaulted this way, and there will be no punishment. For little boys, you have to behave this way to gain power. What a horrible message.”

The Birth Of The ‘Pussy Hat’

However, after the initial shock and grief subsided, something else happened: Lots of American women who had once observed politics from the sidelines were angry. Furious, even. And they started organizing. Within four weeks, thousands of women had signed up for programs designed to help people run for political office.

Litman sees the mass, sustained effort as a response to the obvious lack of consequences for egregious behavior, like openly bragging about sexual assault, coupled with more than 15 women telling the country that this man had assaulted them. “He did this and then he got rewarded,” said Litman. “There were tapes. It wasn’t just a ‘he said, she said.’ He bragged about [assault] and then he got the highest office in the land. There’s no sense of justice.”

On Nov. 8, just hours after Trump was elected, retired attorney Teresa Shook posted on Facebook suggesting that women march on Washington. The post lit a spark that turned into the Women’s March ― the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Thanks to seasoned organizers Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, who stepped in early to help, the Women’s March brought an estimated 500,000 people to D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration. (The New York Times reported that crowd scientists thought the march drew a crowd three times larger than that on Inauguration Day.)

Throngs of people, many wearing pink "pussy hats," joined the Women's March in Washington on Jan. 21, 2017.
Throngs of people, many wearing pink "pussy hats," joined the Women's March in Washington on Jan. 21, 2017.
Shannon Stapleto/Reuters

Sister protests happened around the nation and the world. Many of the participants showed up wearing handmade pink “pussy hats,” a direct response to the president’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment.

Less than three months later, organizers showed up again, this time to protest the continued employment of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, after news broke that the network had settled five separate sexual harassment lawsuits on his behalf since 2002. On April 19, 2017, O’Reilly was officially ousted from Fox.

“There was a [new] opportunity for holding people in positions of power accountable for abusing or harassing their staff,” said Thomas. “We were ready. The survivors came forward, the evidence was overwhelming, but it was also Fox News. It was an important moment to demonstrate the public lack of patience and disinterest in continuing to see institutions protecting abusers from accountability.”

Trump’s GOP Takeover

The opposition from women didn’t seem to greatly affect Trump, who soon after his election began to suggest to Republican senators and other allies that the tape wasn’t real, The New York Times reported in 2017.

Trump went on to push policies that harmed women and to back powerful men in spite of allegations that they had harmed women. He supported GOP senatorial candidate Roy Moore of Alabama in 2017 as Moore faced allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, including against teenage girls. Trump stuck with Kavanaugh when the now-Supreme Court justice was accused of sexual assault. He defended his former aide Rob Porter after Porter resigned from the White House due to accusations he had abused his ex-wives. All three men have denied the allegations against them.

The “Access Hollywood” tape continued to come up. UltraViolet Action played the tape on loop outside the Capitol in 2018 to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Activists stress that there isn’t one straight line from the “Access Hollywood” tape to a movement, but that it is all connected.

“There’s no way of knowing all the ways this stuff ripples out,” Rocketto said. If the Trump tape hadn’t been exposed by The Washington Post, she’s not sure if she would have ultimately organized against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “I wouldn’t have confronted Senator [Ted] Cruz in an elevator,” Rocketto said. “You don’t have Christine Blasey Ford coming forward [about Kavanaugh] without Me Too. And you don’t have a wave of women being elected.”

During the 2018 midterm elections, 125 women were elected in House, Senate and gubernatorial races. And not only did women run for elected office, they also spoke out about their own experiences with sexual harassment and abuse. Litman, who is now the executive director of Run for Something, an organization that helps recruit and support young Democrats running for office, told HuffPost that the shift in candidates’ openness about surviving sexual abuse has been significant.

“We work with these candidates who incorporate their experience as survivors into their campaigns,” Litman said. “I don’t think that would have happened before four years ago.”

Four years after the “Access Hollywood” tape was revealed, Trump remains president and Republicans still control the Senate, where they are fighting to confirm a new Supreme Court justice who could put abortion rights at risk. Except now, we are also in the midst of a global pandemic, in which more than 200,000 Americans have died, millions have lost their jobs, and women ― especially women of color ― have been hit especially hard.

There’s still plenty to fight for.

“If you were scared by that tape, you should be really scared right now,” said Rocketto. “And if you’re scared, the only way to get past that is to do something about it.”

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