One by one, they had trickled out of the conference room on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. It was Friday, October 7, 2016, two days before the second presidential debate, and the Republican nominee’s brain trust had spent the morning running a carefully simulated rehearsal session. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, playing the role of Hillary Clinton, was stationed adjacent to his opponent at a conference table; Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, acting as the moderator, was positioned directly across from Donald Trump. The rest of the observers—press secretary Hope Hicks, campaign chief executive Steve Bannon, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, deputy campaign manager David Bossie, son-in-law Jared Kushner and the nominee’s children, among a few others—listened critically, offering occasional feedback.
Hicks had left the room first. The rest of the team, more glued to their smartphones than usual, began taking turns excusing themselves. Priebus, Christie and Trump pushed onward with the debate prep. Finally, looking up and realizing that it was only the three of them remaining, Priebus paused the proceedings. “OK,” he told Trump. “When the entire staff leaves the room, something’s up.”
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Trump hadn’t noticed, either. Now he glanced from side to side. To his right, through the glass-plated doors, he could see the members of his team huddled outside the conference room, whispering in hushed tones. “Yeah,” Trump said, breaking from his practiced debate cadence and barking toward the door. “What the hell’s going on out there?”
A few agonizing moments passed before the door opened. In walked Hicks, carrying a stapled packet of papers. She handed them silently to Trump. A former Ralph Lauren model known for her sharp looks and confident mien, Hicks was now ashen-faced. Trump eyed the top sheet and began reading. “Uh huh,” he said, flipping to the next page. “Mmm hmmm.”
Priebus was growing impatient—and fearful. “What is it?” he said. “Tell me what’s happening.”
Trump ignored him. Turning to a new page, he scanned the print and then stopped suddenly, his expression and tone shifting at once. He looked up at Hicks. “This doesn’t sound like me.”
Priebus raised his voice in uncharacteristic fashion. “Someone tell me something, please!”
Trump looked at him, put the packet on the table, and slid it across. The party chairman began to read, the room now filling around him with the rest of the team. They had all seen it: an email exchange with Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who claimed to have an old audio recording of Trump making exceedingly lewd remarks about women and boasting of his ability to get away with sexual assault. Fahrenthold had sent over the alleged quotes and was requesting comment from the campaign for a story that would run later that day.
“Wow, this isn’t good,” Priebus said, his eyes fixed on a single line. “This is really, really bad.”
The group was paralyzed with silence. Finally, Kushner piped up. “You know, I don’t think it’s all that bad.”
“Jared, what are you talking about?” Priebus said, burying his head in his hands. “This is as bad as it gets.”
Trump, talking to no one in particular, repeated himself. “This doesn’t sound like me.”
Two of the nominee’s advisers spoke up in support of that theory. Conway and Bossie vouched for Trump, saying they had never heard him use any such language to describe women. This wasn’t his style.
Priebus was struck by an impossible bolt of optimism. He told Trump that maybe it was all a mistake; he recalled the time he was misquoted after a speech, when the chairman had used the phrase “hates us” and a reporter wrote that he had said “racist.” Tape recordings were tricky things, Priebus said. Maybe this entire thing was a foul-up.
Just then, Bossie pulled out his iPad. Fahrenthold, the Post reporter, had sent the audio file. With the nominee’s team clustered around him, Bossie pressed Play. They listened. And then, Trump spoke up. “Well,” he said, “that’s me.”
The room fell hushed. “It was a moment of humility and vulnerability,” recalls Conway. “He legitimately did not remember saying that.”
It was just before 4 p.m. in the nation’s capital when the Washington Post published an “October surprise” for the ages.
Fahrenthold’s story told of an exclusively obtained audio recording of Trump, 11 years earlier and newly married, boasting of his sexual exploits to television host Billy Bush. The two were riding together on a bus, preparing to shoot a segment for the NBC show Access Hollywood, when Trump recalled how he’d once tried to sleep with Bush’s co-host, Nancy O’Dell.
“I moved on her and I failed. I’ll admit it. I did try and fuck her. She was married. And I moved on her very heavily,” Trump said on the tape. “In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, ‘I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.’ I took her out furniture—I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married.”
Then, when the two men spotted a young woman awaiting them outside the bus—actress Arianne Zucker—Trump told Bush, “I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
Trump added, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
The fallout was apocalyptic.
House Speaker Paul Ryan had been scheduled to make his first joint appearance with Trump the next morning at Fall Fest, the annual beer-and-bratwurst political rally in his district. Preparing to speak at a fundraiser for a congressman in Cleveland, Ryan was pulled aside by his longtime aide, Kevin Seifert, who showed him the story. Ryan, the Boy Scout, burst into a fit of cursing just outside a roomful of wealthy donors.
He phoned Priebus immediately. “He cannot come here,” Ryan said. “You need to tell him.”
Priebus relayed this to Trump, who promptly shot the messenger. “Oh no,” the Republican nominee replied, “I’m coming.”
The party chairman called Ryan back with Trump’s reaction. “You’re gonna have to publicly disinvite him, Paul.”
“Fine, then he’s disinvited. He ain’t coming,” the speaker said, raising his voice to Priebus for the first time in their decades-long relationship. “This isn’t something I’m intimidated by.”
A short while later, Ryan’s office blasted out a news release saying he was “sickened” by Trump’s remarks and announcing the presidential candidate’s banishment from the Wisconsin event. Priebus understood but was nonetheless distraught. He had started Fall Fest years ago as the Wisconsin GOP chairman. Saturday’s event was supposed to be a homecoming for him and a harmonious breakthrough for the party. All of them—Priebus, Trump, Ryan—were meant to take the stage together, at long last projecting a united front entering the final weeks of the campaign.
Up until that point, despite Trump’s self-destructive antics, Priebus believed his party had a chance. Clinton was so deeply flawed, and the Democratic base had been made so complacent by the combination of her candidacy and eight years in power, that Priebus clung to the belief that Trump somehow, in some way, might just win the White House.
Everything changed when he heard the Access Hollywood tape. And it wasn’t just the party chairman’s own gut reaction. Over the next 36 hours, Priebus fielded scores of phone calls from the most prominent people in Republican politics: congressmen and senators, governors, donors, activists and his own RNC members. Every single person was telling him the same thing: Trump was doomed. The party needed to replace him with Mike Pence atop the ticket.
Reconnecting by phone later that night, Ryan demanded that the national party take action to excommunicate Trump. “This is fatal,” he told Priebus. “How can you get him out of the race?”
Priebus had to explain—to Ryan and to everyone else—that there was no mechanism for removing Trump. But this answer proved inadequate. The voices on the other end of the line demanded that something be done. Many suggested that he, the RNC chairman, publicly renounce Trump and ask for him to step aside as the nominee for the good of the party. (Even some of the people endorsing such an ultimatum knew how silly it sounded. Trump cared nothing for the party; he had not belonged to it until signing his name to a piece of paper a year earlier.)
For his part, Trump had agreed after some cajoling to offer a nonapology apology, issuing a statement to the Post that read, “This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”
But his team quickly realized this would not suffice. By Friday evening, Trump’s campaign appeared on the brink of collapse. There were rumors of an imminent mass exodus of Republican officials who would publicly withdraw their support for the party’s nominee. The first departures came that very night.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, whom Trump had recently named to an extended list of potential Supreme Court nominees, called on Trump to drop out. So did his colleague Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who asked the RNC to “engage rules for emergency replacement.” Jason Chaffetz, the Utah congressman and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told a local TV station, “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”
Trump’s campaign was in scramble mode. He and Clinton were scheduled to debate Sunday night in St. Louis. Convinced that a thorough, videotaped apology was their only chance to survive the weekend, his senior aides set about staging the production. Some tinkered with the text, debating how much emphasis to place on the Clintons’ past scandals involving women. Others prepared for the most important video shoot of the celebrity’s career, cycling between four background screens: daytime Manhattan, nighttime Manhattan, campaign signage or a flat, unassuming blue.
Trump seemed mystified by the blur of manic activity. “I’ve never taken anyone furniture shopping!” he laughed, throwing up his arms. His staff members traded disoriented looks.
Just after midnight, on Saturday, October 8, the campaign posted a 90-second video clip to Trump’s Facebook page. Against a dark superimposed horizon of illuminated skyscrapers, Trump looked directly into the camera. “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person, nor pretended to be someone that I’m not. I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me know these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said.
Trump added, “I’ve said some foolish things, but there is a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday.”
Not for a moment would Trump consider quitting the race. He was unmoved by the rebukes of the Republican lawmakers who were piling on with excoriating statements; most of them, he scoffed, were the same people who had opposed his candidacy from its inception. Trump cackled as one of his aides read aloud the rolling list of disavowals from the likes of Ryan and Mitt Romney. He could not have cared less what they had to say.
There was one politician whose reaction Trump worried about: Pence.
Their ticket had been a shotgun marriage, one of convenience more than love. Yet Trump had grown unusually fond of Pence. There was a sincerity to his running mate that he thought rare and endearing. Certainly, Trump found Pence a bit alien: the way he was always praying; the way he referred to his wife, Karen, as “Mother”; and the way the couple was constantly holding hands. (“Look at them!” Trump would tease. “They’re so in love!”) But he appreciated the earnestness with which Pence seemed to believe, as so few in the party did, that Trump was a decent person. Trump had worked hard to earn that faith. On the night of the October 4 vice presidential debate, he even left a voice mail for Pence letting him know that he would be saying a prayer for him.
Speaking in Ohio just after the Access Hollywood bombshell dropped, Pence had initially dismissed the news as just another media hatchet job. Yet soon after, he called Trump from the road, checking in as he did daily, sounding upset. He advised Trump to offer a sincere apology. That was the last anyone had heard from the VP nominee. Pence had gone back to Indiana and bunkered down, cutting himself off from the outside world, praying with his wife about what to do next and telling his advisers that he wasn’t sure he could continue with the campaign.
To the extent Trump felt regret, it was over disappointing the Pences.
“Oh boy,” he said Friday afternoon after hanging up with his running mate. “Mother is not going to like this.”
The apology video did little to stanch the flow of defections. On Saturday morning, another tranche of Republicans—congressmen, senators, governors, former primary rivals—announced their renunciations of Trump. The list also included GOP luminaries such as Bill Bennett, the former education secretary, and Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, whose name was being tossed around inside the RNC as a potential substitute running mate if Pence took over the ticket.
By midday Saturday, October 8, more than two dozen Republican elected officials had abandoned Trump (counting only those currently in office). Many were calling for Pence to replace him as the GOP nominee. Among them were Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership, and Ann Wagner, the Missouri congresswoman and a former co-chair of the national party committee.
Priebus continued to swat away the suggestion. As the former general counsel of the RNC, he knew better than anyone that no trigger existed for forcing out the party’s nominee—especially not at this late stage. When he received a call Saturday morning from Wisconsin’s national committeeman, Steve King, informing him that some RNC members were mulling an organized mutiny, the party chairman told King the same thing he was telling everyone else: “It’s not going to work. We need to ride this out.”
But Priebus worried, as did just about everyone else he spoke with, that another shoe was soon to drop. There had been rumors in recent weeks that a lethal opposition-research blast was imminent. Now that it had arrived, Republicans felt certain there were more to follow; that somewhere there existed a veritable treasure trove of old tapes revealing Trump’s greatest hits: misogyny, racism and all sorts of other uncouth talk from the set of his NBC show. (Reporters raced unsuccessfully to reach Mark Burnett, producer of The Apprentice, sensing that he possessed the power to swing an election.)
While the party chairman saw no path to removing Trump, he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of Trump stepping aside. Having gotten the sense from Pence’s advisers that the Indiana governor would be willing to take over if Trump quit, Priebus talked into the wee hours Friday night with trusted allies—Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as top staffers and party lawyers—discussing the logistical hurdles to replacing a nominee one month before Election Day. It wouldn’t be easy: Early voting had begun in some states, and ballots had been printed in most others.
The biggest obstacle, of course, was Trump. It would be tricky enough rejiggering the ticket to pair Pence with a new running mate; doing so without Trump’s blessing would be impossible.
Shortly before 11:00 a.m. Saturday, the Republican nominee convened the campaign’s high command in his residence on the 64th floor of Trump Tower. Everyone looked withered. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor and one of Trump’s staunchest campaign loyalists, wore a Yankees cap low over his eyes. Priebus hadn’t shaved. Christie, dressed in jeans and a Mets jacket, had already informed the group that he needed the rest of the weekend off and would not fly to Sunday’s debate with Trump as planned.
“So,” Trump began, looking to Priebus. “What are you hearing?”
The RNC chairman had spent the past day defending Trump’s rightful claim to the party’s nomination, dismissing calls to expel him and urging calm amid the commotion. But Priebus was not going to sugarcoat the situation. He had long been nauseated at watching all the nominee’s sycophants telling him whatever would keep him happy and upbeat. Trump needed to hear the truth for a change.
“I’ll tell you what I’m hearing,” Priebus said. “Either you’ll lose in the biggest landslide in history, or you can get out of the race and let somebody else run who can win.”
Nobody said a word. Trump’s many loyalists who had gathered—his children, Hicks, Bannon, Conway, Christie, Bossie, Giuliani—were shocked by the blunt assessment. Yet none was eager to push back on it. When Trump went around the room, asking what people thought his chances were, he heard a lot of throat-clearing. Even Bannon, who made it a habit of always saying “100 percent” whenever Trump asked the question, dodged it this time.
Trump tried humor. “So, what’s the good news?” he said.
The meeting lasted 30 minutes longer, most of it spent pushing Trump to sit for an interview that afternoon with David Muir of ABC News. His team said it would be best to discuss the comments fully, and repent for them, ahead of the debate. Trump agreed and the meeting broke up. But then he abruptly changed his mind. Complaining that he would look “weak” by subjecting himself to a journalist whose sole purpose would be extracting as many apologies as possible, he told Hicks the ABC interview was off.
The Republican Party was going to live or die with Trump; if his team couldn’t persuade him to do a network television interview, they certainty weren’t going to convince him to step aside as the nominee. Whatever fantasies of a Pence-Rice ticket danced through the heads of party elders were officially dashed on Saturday afternoon. “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly,” Trump tweeted. “I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA.”
Pence himself was nowhere to be found. Ryan had asked his old friend to attend the Saturday rally in his district in lieu of Trump. Pence had accepted. Accommodations were made; a Secret Service checkpoint, waved off at the news of Trump’s disinvitation, was reerected outside the event in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. But then Pence didn’t show up. There was no notice, no courtesy call from the VP nominee’s staff. Ryan dialed his old friend’s cell number and got voice mail. Pence was AWOL.
Instead of returning Trump’s calls, or Ryan’s calls, or flying to Wisconsin, the Indiana governor spent Saturday at home. He mostly prayed with his wife, Karen. She was apoplectic, warning her husband that she would no longer appear in public if he carried on as Trump’s running mate. He, in turn, hinted to his advisers that his time on the trail might be up. Feeling moved to communicate his inner anguish, Pence wrote Trump a letter spelling out what hearing that audio had done to him and his wife. (Trump confirmed to me that he received Pence’s note.) When two of Trump’s advisers learned of the letter, they worried they had seen the last of his running mate.
Meanwhile, Ryan was left to fly solo in Elkhorn—no Trump, no Pence and no Priebus.
“There is a bit of an elephant in the room,” the speaker said, taking the stage in Wisconsin. He referenced his statement from the previous day and how “troubling” the situation was. Then, announcing that he wasn’t there to talk about said elephant, Ryan pivoted to his homily about “ideas” and “conservative principles” and his vision for being a “proposition party.” But it was hard to hear over the boos. Chanting the nominee’s name, Trump’s supporters in the audience heckled Ryan throughout his speech. “Shame on you!” they shouted.
The women flanked Trump, two of them on each side, seated behind rectangular folding tables draped in olive fabric. The small conference room, on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, was barren save for the tables, some black coffee mugs, bottles of water and an American flag. Reporters rushed into the room. Cameras started rolling. Jaws hit the floor.
It was less than two hours until the start of the October 9 presidential debate, a spectacle that would draw tens of millions of eyeballs, and the GOP nominee was putting on a surprise pregame show. Without advance warning, Trump held an impromptu news conference alongside a group of women who had publicly accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
There had been speculation for months that he could invite one of the former president’s accusers to a debate, perhaps having them sit in the front row to unnerve Hillary Clinton. Trump’s campaign always dismissed the rumors. Priebus, who joined Trump on the flight to St. Louis to help with last-minute debate prep, had heard nothing about the planned stunt; the only gossip from the plane ride was Trump railing against Giuliani’s performance on the Sunday shows, yelling repeatedly through the cabin, “What the fuck is Rudy doing? Get this guy off the television!”
Inside the debate hall, when co-moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz introduced them, Trump and Clinton entered from opposite wings of the auditorium looking steeled for a street fight. They approached one another, only to stop abruptly and stand several feet apart. There would be no handshake—a first, it was believed, in the annals of presidential debating.
After a schoolteacher in attendance asked the opening question, about whether the candidates felt they were modeling good behavior for the nation’s children, Cooper sensed a natural segue to ask about Trump’s remarks. The Republican nominee offered an answer rehearsed again and again on the plane ride from New York: “I’m not proud of it,” he said, “but this is locker room talk.” Pressed on what his comments meant, Trump replied, “I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” There were audible groans from the audience.
When the moderators turned to Clinton, she, like Trump, commenced with a clearly practiced soliloquy. “With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them … but I never questioned their fitness to serve,” Clinton said. “Donald Trump is different.”
Trump attacked and counterattacked throughout, bringing up Bill Clinton’s history of being “abusive to women” and aggressively prosecuting Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state, an issue he had failed to raise during the first debate. “If I win,” Trump declared, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there have never been so many lies, so much deception.”
“Everything he just said was absolutely false,” Clinton responded when given the floor, adding, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump shot back. Some audience members gasped. Others cheered.
It was, without question, the ugliest and most vitriolic presidential debate in the mass-communication era. And it was exactly what Trump needed. Facing pressure unlike any White House hopeful in memory, the Republican nominee didn’t just get off the mat; he came up swinging. It made all the difference. Within 48 hours the bleeding had stopped: Republicans ceased their calls for his withdrawal, Pence dutifully returned to the stump and his campaign went on as though nothing had happened.
“What were the odds? Like 50-50, will he show up?” Trump says, looking back on Access Hollywood weekend and his performance in St. Louis. “That debate won me the election.”
From the forthcoming book AMERICAN CARNAGE: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump by Timothy Alberta. Copyright © 2019 by Timothy Alberta. To be published on July 16, 2019 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.