WASHINGTON ― Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a top Donald Trump surrogate, said on Sunday that even if the GOP nominee actually grabbed a woman “by the pussy,” as he bragged about in a leaked tape from 2005, that behavior would not amount to sexual assault.
“I don’t characterize that as sexual assault,” Sessions told The Weekly Standard in the spin room after Sunday night’s presidential debate. “I think that’s a stretch. I don’t know what he meant.”
“So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that’s not sexual assault?” the reporter asked Sessions.
“I don’t know,” the senator replied. “It’s not clear that he — how that would occur.”
Sexual assault is defined as any kind of unwanted sexual contact, which is exactly what Trump described in the recording. In a conversation with Billy Bush, then host of “Access Hollywood,” Trump boasted about how he could kiss and grope women without their consent because he was a celebrity.
“I just start kissing them,” Trump said on the tape. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Women reacted strongly to Trump’s comments, sharing thousands of their own stories of sexual assault on Twitter to underscore that what he said epitomizes rape culture in America. But when the GOP presidential nominee was asked during Sunday’s debate whether he understood that the actions he was describing were sexual assault, he said no. “It’s just words,” he said ― “locker room talk.”
While many Republicans have condemned their nominee’s violent and objectifying comments about women (at least those on the 2005 recording) ― and even Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani admitted that the candidate was describing “sexual assault” ― some party officials are still struggling to acknowledge the seriousness of Trump’s admissions. Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, would not answer the question of whether grabbing women by the genitals counts as assault.
“I don’t know,” he told The Weekly Standard after the debate. “I’m not a lawyer.”
Some journalists compared Sessions’ comments to those of former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who famously lost a Senate race in 2012 after saying that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape.” But Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who defeated Akin in that race, said Sessions’ comments are worse.
“That’s not fair to Todd Akin,” McCaskill tweeted. “No comparison. This much worse.”
UPDATE: Oct. 11 ― Sessions said on Tuesday that “assault is unacceptable,” and argued that his remarks had been mischaracterized.
“The Weekly Standard’s characterization of comments I made following Sunday’s Presidential debate is completely inaccurate,” the senator said in a statement provided to HuffPost. “My hesitation was based solely on confusion of the contents of the 2005 tape and the hypothetical posed by the reporter, which was asked in a chaotic post-debate environment.”
“I regret that it resulted in an inaccurate article that misrepresented my views,” Sessions’ statement continued. “Of course it is crystal clear that assault is unacceptable. I would never intentionally suggest otherwise.”
The story has been updated with Sen. Claire McCaskill’s response to Sen. Jeff Sessions’ comments.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.