ST. LOUIS ― Donald Trump takes the stage Sunday night with his entire presidential campaign likely riding on his ability to accomplish two things that he may be incapable of: apologizing, and sounding like he actually means it.
“Asking him to show self-awareness, contrition, sincerity and remorse is like asking a turtle to fly,” said Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. “He is now an extinction-level threat to the party of Lincoln.”
“It’s a tall order,” acknowledged Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia who hopes his party mates will give Trump an opportunity to make things right. “I think everybody should take a deep breath, see what the next 48 hours hold.”
Just two mornings ago, Trump was positioned to enjoy a boost from the second presidential debate, thanks to his dismal showing in the first debate two weeks earlier. Trump was almost certain to do at least a little better in the “town hall” format, with the opportunity to interact with questioners from the audience rather than exclusively with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Asking him to show self-awareness, contrition, sincerity and remorse is like asking a turtle to fly. Matt Mackowiak, Texas-based GOP consultant
That alone was almost certain to generate media and public perceptions that Trump was the winner of round two, setting up the final debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 19.
But that entire scenario disintegrated over the span of a few hours starting late Friday afternoon, when The Washington Post published a leaked recording of Trump from 2005. In it, Trump bragged that his fame permitted him to make uninvited advances on women, including by grabbing them by their genitals. Even Trump supporters acknowledged this constituted sexual assault ― a serious felony punishable with prison time ― although they suggest that perhaps Trump was just bragging and hadn’t actually done it.
“How much exaggeration was involved in that, I don’t know,” Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani told ABC News on Sunday morning. “I do know there’s a tendency on that part of some men at different times to exaggerate things like this.”
Trump over the course of the previous year had already accused undocumented Mexican immigrants of being rapists. He mocked prisoners of war for getting captured. He said a federal judge of Mexican descent was unable to preside fairly over a fraud trial against his Trump University real estate courses. He called for a blanket ban on Muslims from entering the country. He lashed out at the Muslim family of an American soldier killed in Iraq.
But Republicans who countenanced all of those episodes decided that this latest ― a 59-year-old man bragging about his ability to grope women with impunity ― was unforgivable. Some two dozen Republican members of Congress withdrew their support from Trump or called on him to drop out. Others gave him one last chance to make things right.
“Donald doesn’t have much choice at this point: He needs to throw himself on the mercy of the American people tomorrow night. He needs to take full responsibility for his words and his behavior. He needs to beg their forgiveness, and he needs to pledge to finally change his ways,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R) told an Iowa audience Saturday. “If he doesn’t do those things, if he won’t do those things, then he should step aside and allow the Republican Party to replace him with an elder statesman who will.”
For Trump to beg for forgiveness, though, could require him to learn a brand-new behavior at age 70. He has bragged on the campaign trail about never apologizing, and declared in a news conference that he had no interest in changing who he was.
While his two statements thus far since the release of the 2005 audio both used the word “apologize,” neither appeared to show contrition. In a written statement, Trump apologized to those who were offended by the tape. A video statement released later that night showed a defiant ― even angry ― Trump, who ended his 90-second recording by attacking Clinton for the sexual predations of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
“We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday,” Trump said in closing.
Whether Trump follows through with that threat will set the course of the remaining month of the campaign ― and likely determine whether other Republicans hang with Trump through Nov. 8 or continue their exodus.
“If he’s going to try to come back with attacks on Hillary that focus on her husband’s bad behavior instead of sounding contrite and remorseful, he will accelerate his campaign’s uncontrollable death spiral,” said Ryan Williams, a former aide to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. “It’s like a snowball rolling down a ski slope. It’s gaining momentum and getting bigger.”