A firsthand account of the drama that unfolded during Oct. 7-9, 2016, from the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape to the second presidential debate — and everything in between.
NEW YORK — It began as a relatively quiet day in the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were each holed up with their aides on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, preparing for the second presidential debate, scheduled for Sunday night. Hurricane Matthew, which was churning off the Florida coast, led the Friday-morning newscasts. The Chicago Cubs were beginning a quest for their first World Series title in more than a century. But by midafternoon three separate bombshells, all coming within the span of roughly 90 minutes, threatened to throw the race into chaos.
First, the top intelligence officials of the Obama administration announced their belief that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee earlier in the year. Then the Washington Post published the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Donald Trump bragged about forcing himself on women. And WikiLeaks dumped a trove of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign head John Podesta.
Yahoo News conducted nearly two dozen on-the-record interviews with top officials inside and outside the Clinton and Trump campaigns and the Obama administration, as well as major media figures in Washington, New York and beyond, to produce an exclusive oral history of the wildest 64 hours in modern political history.
The resulting documentary film and online feature present a firsthand account of three pivotal days in the campaign and paint a vivid picture of the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolded inside the Post newsroom, Trump Tower, Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, Clinton’s Westchester County, N.Y., hotel, and the debate site in St. Louis.
The accounts show how Clinton’s campaign team — staffed by some of the most experienced political operatives in the country — scrambled to stay ahead of the fast-moving events, as news poured in on their phones, computers, tablets and televisions. The wisdom of a key decision — to hold off commenting on the “Access Hollywood” tape for 48 hours — was hotly debated at the time. Meanwhile, the band of relative amateurs assembled by Donald Trump, guided by the candidate’s own implacable, unerring impulse for self-preservation, barreled ahead in the face of denunciations from all sides, including his fellow Republicans. Out of desperation, the campaign came up with the phrase “locker-room banter” to describe Trump’s remarks — and devised the masterstroke of bringing to the debate a gaggle of women who had famously accused Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties in years past.
The dizzying events of that weekend reflect some essential truths about the two candidates and their campaigns: Clinton cool, cautious and cocooned by staff; Trump instinctual, aggressive and unbound by propriety and convention. The same qualities that have so often gotten him in trouble were also the ones that rescued him from this crisis. An embarrassment that might have ended the career of a more conventional candidate somehow morphed into an opportunity for him to show off his resilience — a lesson the nation is still learning about the candidate who emerged triumphant from that one astonishing weekend, one year ago.
A guide to the cast of characters >>>
Contributors to this project >>>
5 a.m. ET: Hurricane Matthew is about 40 miles east-southeast of Cape Canaveral, Fla., heading north-northwest at 13 miles per hour. The National Hurricane Center in Miami warns that the Category 3 storm — which had already killed more than 300 people in Haiti — is expected to produce life-threatening conditions for those living along Florida’s east coast.
Matthew had already created political controversy. Earlier that week, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was criticized for buying ads on the Weather Channel timed to air during the storm. President Barack Obama was forced to cancel a planned rally for Clinton in Miami. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Trump supporter, denied the Clinton campaign’s request to extend the voter registration deadline in Florida.
Slideshow: Hurricane Matthew: A look back >>>
7 a.m. ET: “I’m focused on a storm,” Scott says on “CBS This Morning.” “I’m focused on making sure people, every life is — you don’t lose a life. That’s what I’m focused on now. We’re in the middle of a storm.”
David Fahrenthold, reporter, the Washington Post: I had been writing about Trump’s giving to charity for months. I was in the middle of reporting about claims that he was going to give money to charity, and trying to figure out whether he’d actually made good on them. So that was a long process that involved calling a lot of charities to see if Donald Trump had ever given the money. So, as I was planning that Friday, it was just going to be another day of sort of that reporting. I didn’t have any plans to write a big story that day.
Around 9:30 a.m. ET: Trump is at Trump Tower. While he has no campaign rallies, he hosts two “roundtable” photo ops in the morning, including one on border security in which he alleges the Obama administration is turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants in the country so they can vote in the election. “They are letting people pour into this country so they can go and vote,” Trump declares, which lights up Twitter and cable TV.
A few blocks away, Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser who for weeks had predicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would publish damaging material about Hillary Clinton on Oct. 1, answers Twitter followers who have grown tired of waiting. Stone says he was told by a journalist who had interviewed Assange of WikiLeaks’ plan.
“Stay tuned!” Stone tweets. “Assange was delayed by death threats but undaunted.”
“Julian Assange will deliver a devastating expose on Hillary at a time of his choosing,” Stone tweeted the day before. “I stand by my prediction. #handcuffs4hillary”
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s spokesman: That’s what contributed to our very ominous sort of sense that there was something around the corner.
Clinton, who has no public events scheduled, is in Rye Brook, N.Y., at the Doral Arrowwood, a hotel and conference center located a few miles from Westchester airport, where she is preparing for Sunday’s presidential debate.
Ron Klain, senior adviser to the Clinton campaign: We were doing what you do in debate prep. That morning in particular we were going over new answers that had been written after the first debate — new material that took into account a lot of the reporting that had been done about Trump’s tax return, leaked pages from Trump’s tax return. Secretary Clinton hadn’t been on a stage since then.
They are also dealing with another distraction: A day earlier, Clinton’s personal email address had been exposed in a breach of former State Department staffer Capricia Marshall’s email account by the anonymous hacker organization DC Leaks. During Thursday’s debate prep, Clinton began receiving a barrage of hate mail, so aides quietly took possession of her iPhone while they rerouted the messages.
Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton adviser who played Trump during debate practice: It’s hard to describe how nasty what she was getting was. It was coming in dozens a minute. I don’t think a single one of them went to the Secret Service, meaning, none of them were like, “I’m going to hunt you down and shoot you.” They were almost worse.
Reines is about to hand Clinton her phone back when it begins to ring.
Reines: I didn’t answer the phone. It wasn’t a masked caller. It was like one of these things where it was like, “What’s area code 928?” Rings again. Different number. Rings a third time. At this point, it’s pretty clear to me something is amiss, so I answer it. And you hear somebody on the line going, “Yo.” And I said, her number is clearly compromised. Her number must have been somewhere in Capricia’s email. And the campaign was looking and looking and looking but couldn’t find it and then they found it. And you know, that’s sort of a much more intimate violation. You know, if nothing else, you can’t change your phone number in 10 minutes like you could change your email address. And she was getting text messages. It was just ugly.
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton campaign communications director: So we were dealing with a little bit of aftermath from that, including Hillary having to get a new cellphone.
In Washington, Obama administration officials are preparing to issue a statement accusing Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee.
Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security: Over the course of the summer, there came a point when the intelligence community had concluded that the Russian government was behind the attempts to interfere in the election process, through the hacks to the DNC. And we were seeing this emerging picture of scanning and probing around voter registration databases. We reached a point, probably late summer, when the proof was beyond a reasonable doubt. The question then became what to do about it. A number of us felt very strongly that we had to tell the American public what we knew. In the midst of the election season, we had to tell the public what we knew.
James Clapper, former director of national intelligence: We had a number of meetings and had debates about it — about whether we should say something and what to say. And the arguments revolved around whether if we say something — particularly if the president were to say something — about what the Russians were doing, would that, first, dignify or amplify what the Russians where doing? And secondly, would that be seen as the administration putting its hand on the scale in favor of one of the candidates?
Johnson: There was a concern that by making attribution, in and of itself, we’d be undermining the integrity of our election process. This was a situation where the national security apparatus of our government was pretty much injecting itself into an ongoing campaign, which doesn’t happen too often. And so, it required a lot of careful thought.
Clapper: So we went around and around about this. Jeh and I, particularly, I think, were of one mind, one voice on this, where we felt very strongly that, knowing what we knew, it was imperative to share that publicly.
Johnson: Don’t forget, we were in the midst of a very heated campaign where one of the candidates was casting doubt on the integrity of our democracy, saying that the election outcome was going to be rigged a month later. And we were very concerned about not playing into exactly that. We were also getting reports that that may be the Russian government’s exact objective, by hacking into the DNC emails. And so we were wrestling with several different crosscurrents of considerations. In the end, we concluded we had to tell the public what we knew, and that it would be unforgivable if we did not.
Clapper: If the election did go south for one reason or another, and then afterwards it was learned that we knew about what the Russians were doing and sat silent, there’d be hell to pay.
Johnson: Then the question became, who? At first we thought seriously about the intelligence community, and I think that was a right call, because this was their assessment and their judgment. And at one point, Jim Clapper and I decided we should both issue a statement.
Clapper: Which was, I thought, logical. We could sort of lay down the threat.
Johnson: And I’m gonna issue a statement on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security saying, “And here’s what we’re doing about it.” And I remember sitting next to Jim in the Situation Room, and he slipped me a note saying, “Why don’t we just issue a joint statement?” And I said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do that.”
Clapper: The objective was to get it out and make this publicly known to people before the election of what the Russians were doing.
Somewhere in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is celebrating his 64th birthday.
11 a.m. ET: Trump aides say the candidate will spend the rest of the day doing debate prep. The group prepping him includes campaign chief Steve Bannon, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, adviser Stephen Miller, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had been playing Hillary Clinton in debate prep.
David Bossie, deputy Trump campaign manager: We were in the conference room on the 25th floor in Trump Tower, where we held virtually every one of our debate prep sessions with Mr. Trump. There was six or eight of us in the room.
At about the same time at the Washington Post’s offices, Fahrenthold gets a phone call from a source who claims to have video of Trump making lewd comments about women.
Fahrenthold: We didn’t know it was coming, we didn’t know it existed.
The five-minute video captures a hot mic conversation between Trump and Billy Bush during a 2005 taping of “Access Hollywood” on the set of “Days of Our Lives.” Fahrenthold watched the footage on his computer at his desk in the Post newsroom.
Fahrenthold: You see a bus driving through a backlot in Hollywood — pretty boring. And you hear kinda muffled voices. You can’t see Trump’s mouth moving obviously, you just see the bus. But then after a few seconds you start hearing this dialogue between Trump and Billy Bush. And, you know, the first two minutes you knew that you were seeing something really different.
Trump brags to Bush that he can kiss and grope women because of his celebrity status. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump says. “Grab them by the p****. You can do anything.”
Fahrenthold: We were pretty used to being shocked by Donald Trump, [but] these were things that were beyond what we’d heard before. So I called my neighbor, my desk mate, over to look at it too. And she puts the headphones on and I can see her watching it. She’s covered Russia, she’s covered all kinds of things that are, you know, very serious. She’s seen a lot of things in her life. And she made this noise of, like, outrage and shock and just, like, a guttural “ugh” that I knew, OK, this is — this is really something different.
The race is on to publish it.
Fahrenthold: My editor was in line at Whole Foods. I don’t know what he was doing at Whole Foods on a Friday morning, but he was at Whole Foods. So I called him and told him, “Look, I got something really important. You gotta come in.” And we sort of started the ball rolling. Because we knew we had this thing, we knew it was really important, we didn’t know who else had it. And so we wanted to make sure we got it out as fast as we could.
The tape is given to the Post’s video staff for preproduction.
Fahrenthold: They had to add subtitles ’cause you couldn’t really hear the audio that well. They wanted to cut it down because the last three minutes are boring — it’s just Trump getting a tour of the NBC backlot. And they wanted to run it by their lawyers. So they said, “OK, it’s 11 a.m. now. We’ll have this ready by I think 3:30.” That was the deadline they gave us.
11:29 a.m. ET: Hillary Clinton tweets: “To everyone in the path of Hurricane Matthew: Stay safe, and know that America is with you.”
Palmieri: I worked for President Obama in 2012 when we had Superstorm Sandy. And that meant sort of a respite in the campaign. And people stopped politicking. And given, this was a pretty unusual year, we didn’t expect that there would be some ceasefire. But things would slow down. And plus they would slow down because you’re preparing for the debate.
Johnson: The Clinton campaign reached out to my office and said, “Candidate would like a briefing on the recovery effort.” I said, “Sure, fine. But I’ll have to offer the same thing to candidate Trump.” So I call Chris Christie, and I said, “Chris, Secretary Clinton wants a briefing on Matthew. I’m offering the same thing to the Trump campaign.” And he said, “Sure, I’ll set it up.”
12:15 p.m. ET: Johnson and Joseph Nimmich, then the deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, call Clinton to brief her on Hurricane Matthew.
Johnson: This was a pretty significant hurricane moving up the Florida coast, and so, in any briefing to the president, or the press, or in this case candidates for president, you give them the rundown about the extent and the effects of the hurricane, its likely path, the devastation that occurs, and what FEMA is doing about it, what we’ve mobilized, the president’s disaster declarations and so forth. We gave Secretary Clinton the rundown on what happened that day. Forty-five minutes later, I call Mr. Trump. They put me straight into his office.
Bossie: The president respected the secretary of homeland security very much, dealing with the Secret Service protection — and the protection for his family was very important to him.
Johnson: He was very cordial, and he was very interested in what we had to say. And then got off the phone and presumably returned to debate preparation. Neither one of them brought up that they were preparing for a debate. And I remember thinking, I’ve just briefed them on this hurricane and the relief effort, but I didn’t tell them that we’re working on finalizing this statement about the Russian government’s interference in their campaign. Now, the question I will always have in my mind, is whether at that moment when I spoke to him at 1:00 that afternoon, he was aware of the “Access Hollywood” video that was dropping on his head. Didn’t seem to. No, he seemed to be in pretty good spirits that day.
Around 12:30 p.m. ET: Fahrenthold calls the Trump campaign to explain he has a copy of the tape that the paper plans to publish, and to give Trump a chance to comment. He gives the Trump campaign a deadline of 3:30 p.m.
Bossie: I was sitting right next to Steve Bannon when my BlackBerry went off. There was a message from Hope Hicks [Trump’s longtime publicist] telling me that she had been contacted by the Washington Post reporter who wanted a comment on a transcript that he claimed that he had. So I showed my BlackBerry to Steve, handed it to [him], let him read it. We then decided to leave the room to discuss it further. We said we weren’t gonna be giving out a comment without seeing something.
Conway: We didn’t have any tape. We didn’t have any transcript. We didn’t know what was happening.
Fahrenthold: I sent them a transcript of the two minutes, the sort of most offensive part of the video.
Bossie: We read the transcript together outside. Having known the president now for seven or eight years, it didn’t sound like him.
Fahrenthold: The first reaction we got back from them was, “Well, that doesn’t sound like Mr. Trump. That doesn’t sound like something he would say. Can you send us the video?”
As Bossie and Bannon discuss the transcript, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and then a senior campaign adviser, emerges from the elevator bank and walks over to join their conversation. Hicks and Jason Miller, the Trump campaign communications director, join too.
Bossie: We’re standing outside in the foyer, outside of the conference room. We were having a conversation about what to do. Obviously, inside the room is Chris Christie and Reince Priebus still continuing with the debate prep session, which we had just gotten started about 2. And so, when we started these sessions, we had a rule of thumb not to interrupt them. And clearly, because it’s a glass wall, they could see us out there. And Reince and Chris were wondering what we were doing. It’s never a good sign when, you know, the senior staff is having a huddle outside of the door. So they knew something was afoot, they just didn’t know what.
The senior staff interrupts Trump’s debate prep to discuss the tape. According to Conway, when Trump saw the transcript, he said it didn’t sound like anything he would say.
Conway: He said, “It doesn’t sound like me.”
3:00 p.m. ET: The White House releases a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence saying for the first time publicly that the Russian government was behind the election hacking — and that “only Russia’s senior-most officials” could have authorized the operation.
Johnson: As we were writing this statement, it occurred to me that this is unprecedented. I don’t think the United States government had ever before accused a foreign superpower publicly of intervening in our political process. And I thought that was a big deal.
Joel Benenson, Clinton campaign strategist: We had suspected that the DNC hack had been done by Russians. It turns out we were right. We thought this would pick up some steam, at that point, given the people who were saying it.
Karen Finney, Clinton strategic adviser and campaign spokesperson: It was a very big deal. At that point you thought, that’s gonna be the news. It was Friday. So the thought was that that’s probably gonna be what we’ll be talking about into the weekend.
Klain: I remember Jake Sullivan, who was leading the overall debate prep effort and was Secretary Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser, stepped out to take a phone call about it.
Fallon: We jumped on a conference call within the hour after that joint statement was released. That statement was not something we had been expecting, to my knowledge.
Reines: The campaign really kicked into gear on the DNI statement.
Fallon: We had a bit of a scramble. We set up a conference call. Folks who were in debate prep dialed in, as did folks who were in the headquarters. Those of us who were in the headquarters gathered in person at Robby Mook’s office and had the call on a speaker phone. The likes of Jen and Podesta and Joel Benenson dialed in from the debate prep site. We talked probably for 30 or 40 minutes about how to react to the statement. I remember one of the points of discussion on the call was, how should we try to hold Donald Trump’s feet to the fire in the aftermath of this joint statement?
Klain: Sullivan came back in and we stopped and he briefed Secretary Clinton and the rest of us about what had happened and its significance. And we sent a little group of them to rewrite a few pages in the debate book around that to strengthen our answers around Russian interference in the election — put more pointed challenges to Trump on this. A little team went off to write that. We returned to Q&A and practicing for the debate.
Fallon: Several of us felt that we should insist that he accept the findings of the government, of the Obama administration and denounce and condemn the Russians’ intrusion on our election. Others felt that that was too low a bar and that Trump of course would take the opportunity to say he accepts the findings and condemns this breach of the DNC. Several others of us felt that it seemed like it had been pretty much a given that no matter what evidence might surface about the Russians’ involvement, for whatever reason he was always going to be loath to criticize Vladimir Putin. We felt it would be a sufficient way to jam him to simply urge him to acknowledge that it was the work of the Russians.
Bossie: It was a distraction. It, they, somebody was trying to get us to be distracted. It wasn’t important to us.
Conway: I barely remember that being the day.
Fallon: This was a big moment for us. We finally felt like this is going to be the major topic of the debate. We’re finally going to get some unmitigated scrutiny of this issue we’ve been trying to drive home.
Fahrenthold: We’re getting closer to 3:30, there’s some discussion among the editors, “Should we send them the video?” So we send it to them, and we tell ’em, ‘OK, now the deadline is 4:00. You know, you have to get back to us by 4:00.’
Inside the conference room on the 24th floor of Trump Tower, Trump and his top campaign staffers watch the “Access Hollywood” tape for the first time.
Bossie: We watched it together. We all watched it together at the same time. We pulled it up on, actually, my iPad, and we watched it on the iPad — the group.
According to the New York Times, Trump agrees to say he is sorry if anyone was offended. Ivanka Trump, who was in the room, makes “an emphatic case for a full-throated apology.” But her father is unmoved. “As she spoke, Mr. Trump remained unyielding. His daughter’s eyes welled with tears, her face reddened, and she hurried out in frustration.”
Bossie: Mr. Trump reacted exactly like I expected him to, which he’s a very unflappable person when it comes to these types of events. And he, you know, he is somebody who took it in, internalized it and worked on the response — “What are we gonna do about it?” — as opposed to dwelling on it.
Christie later tells a New Jersey radio station that he urged Trump to apologize. “I made that very clear to Donald on Friday when this first came out and, you know, urged him to be contrite and apologetic because that’s what he needs to be,” Christie says. “This is just, you know, stuff that you just can’t, can’t be involved in and shouldn’t even be thinking.”
3:30 p.m. ET: In Chicago for a pair of private Democratic fundraisers, President Obama makes an unannounced stop to cast his early vote. Asked by the traveling press pool who he voted for, Obama looks up and smirks.
Jesse Ferguson, Clinton campaign deputy national press secretary: The irony is a month in advance I remember us talking about that being a big moment because we were trying to encourage people to take advantage of early voting. And the president doing it would put a spotlight on it that might raise awareness of the opportunity and encourage people to do it. And we thought that would be a big, important moment. When in reality, because of everything else that happened, not only did it not become that, but in [the] history books, it was completely forgotten.
Earlier that afternoon, Fahrenthold called NBC for comment on the “Access Hollywood” tape. In her memoir about covering the Trump campaign, “Unbelievable,” NBC News correspondent Katy Tur describes the drama unfolding inside 30 Rockefeller Center: “I was called into NBC’s executive wing around 3:30 p.m. ‘You’re not in trouble,’ the executive said over the phone. ‘Just get down here.’ The tape was from 2005. ‘Access Hollywood’ had it in their archives and the Washington Post somehow got hold of it. Because ‘Access Hollywood’ is an NBC Universal property, the Post called us for comment, I was told. ‘Go find an office and get me a script,’ the executive said. ‘We go to air as soon as we can get the video into the system and subtitled. Legal and standards has to review what you report before you report it. Reach out to the campaign. We need their response. Do it quickly.’”
Fahrenthold: So coming up on 4, we had written the whole story. We talked to our lawyers who had decided that we believe this was authentic, this was newsworthy, it was the candidate for the president of the United States saying these terrible things. We were gonna publish it whether the Trump people were going to comment or not. We still wanted to give them till 4 o’clock to comment.
Bossie: You know, we had, you know, one of the best rapid-response communications directors in the country, Jason Miller, in the room, doing the initial draft of what that response would be to the Washington Post, with input from Hope Hicks and Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and others that were in the room: Chris Christie, Reince Priebus, myself. And there were others, as well. But, you know, we wanted to get something out quickly, ’cause the Washington Post was pressing us for a response. And we didn’t want the story to go out without a response. It’s a kind of, you know, Politics 101.
Fahrenthold: I had been reporting on the Trump campaign for a long time about his charity, and generally they just never responded to me. They would never even say, “No comment.” They just wouldn’t call me back at all. And I sort of expected that’s what would happen in this case, but it didn’t. In this case, 4 comes and goes, we’re still terrified that NBC or somebody else has this tape and they’re gonna publish it. So the editor leaves my desk to walk the sort of 30 or 40 feet to her desk to push to publish it. And in that walk, in that, you know, 10 seconds, the Trump people called. Hope Hicks said, “Wait, wait, wait. We’re gonna send you a statement.”
The Trump campaign sends a statement to the Washington Post:
“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.”
Conway claims the candidate came up with the phrase “locker-room banter” himself.
Conway: That’s Donald Trump. I mean, that’s the way he views this. And most of what you see, with him, it’s always his voice and his choice.
4:02 p.m. ET: Fahrenthold tweets: “stand by for some news about @realDonaldTrump….”
4:05 p.m. ET: The Washington Post story about the “Access Hollywood” tape is published online.
Maggie Haberman, New York Times reporter: I got an email alert from the Washington Post in my inbox. I was asked to try to figure out what was happening inside the Trump campaign and how they were dealing with it. And everybody had gone dark. So, I was like frantically texting people and I can’t reach anybody.
4:05 p.m. ET: Fahrenthold tweets a link to his story.
“I just start kissing them. … Just kiss. I don’t even wait,’ Trump said. “And when you’re a star they let you do it.”
Fahrenthold: The thing that really stood out, the place where I felt like we were seeing Donald Trump’s character come through was in this line where he says to Billy Bush, you know, “You just start kissing them. I don’t even stop. And when you’re a star, they let you do it.” In those words, in “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” there was a weird sense of wonder. Like, he’s not BS’ing for his friend, he is actually reflecting that he can’t believe the world lets him get away with this. That he was just expressing the unlimited things he could get away with because he was rich and famous. I thought that was one of the most telling things of that whole conversation — he’s describing to you about how he views the world and what his place in it is.
Finney: This audiotape certainly felt like it could end him. And not just because it was so outrageous, but because it felt like it was consistent with, you know, someone who was brash and arrogant and disrespectful of women, but also has lived his life in this very disconnected world where you can do whatever.
Back at the Doral Arrowwood, the Clinton campaign learns about the tape during debate prep.
Klain: All of a sudden you notice that some people in the room were a little distracted they had seen something on their Twitter or wherever they saw it. There’s a little buzzing conversation in the room, and eventually someone said that we should stop, there’s some big news. So we stopped where we were practicing. We had kind of taken a wing of the hotel, a conference area of the hotel. And there was a room where we did most of the debate practice and adjacent to it is what they used for groups — a lounge room with a bunch of bar tables. It was filled with televisions. We walked there and grabbed some snacks and flipped on the TVs and watched the reporting on the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Hillary Clinton watches the tape along with her staff.
Klain: I wasn’t really focused on her reaction to it. I was sitting at a table with [senior policy adviser] Jake Sullivan. Other people were scattered at other tables. We watched the coverage like everybody else.
Benenson: It was being played over and over again so you didn’t hear it just once. And people are all spread out in this room. And there is silence for a long time. People trying to absorb that this is actually real — and how the hell did the Washington Post get this? — before conversations started. And I remember at one point, I was looking at the monitor and I remember Hillary Clinton was seated behind me — because she hadn’t had lunch yet. And so we had taken this break in debate prep and she was getting something to eat. And, you know, I saw her face at one point, just in absolute disbelief that we were listening to this coming from a man who was a presidential candidate, a nominee of a major party.
In her campaign memoir, “What Happened,” Clinton describes the seeing the tape for the first time: “My team and I had finished a grueling morning debate prep session. We had taken a break for lunch. The television was on in the room, with no volume. Then a commentator came on to warn viewers that they were about to hear something vulgar. Boy, was that true. For many, hearing the Donald Trump tape was literally sickening. As for me, it made me sad — for women and girls, for men and boys, for all of us. It was … horrible, just horrible. It still is. And it always will be, because the tape is never going away. It’s part of our history now.”
Finney, who was traveling with vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in Denver: I didn’t have enough bandwidth on my phone to play the whole tape. But then when we did, to then be able to play the tape was absolutely shocking. I remember I had to play it a couple of times. Because I just couldn’t believe that anyone would talk like that, that someone who was seeking to be president of the United States of America was so vulgar.
Ferguson: Can you be shocked but not surprised? Is that technically possible? If so, that was the reaction. I think everyone’s jaws hit the floor because of how offensive it was. But at the same time, this was who we all believed Donald Trump was and we’d been saying Donald Trump was for months. So there was also a sort of degree of validation for our continued argument that he was unfit to be president. That he didn’t possess the moral character that he should to be president.
Finney: Campaigns are so unpredictable. And I remember thinking as that sort of gossipy sort of chatter was going on, that with Donald Trump, you know, every new revelation was so shocking and appalling and disgusting, you sorta thought, “Well, what, what more could there be?” So that when this dropped, it certainly felt like this was the thing.
At Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, top staffers are working on a statement in response to the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the election hacking. Then televisions set to MSNBC flash news about the tape.
Fallon: The network was cutting in with breaking news about a Washington Post report about some tape that had been acquired where Trump was quoted saying absurdly sexist things. Just hearing that, not hearing the actual audio of the tape yet, most of us thought that would be the secondary thing right now because this is the moment we’ve been waiting for — to finally get attention for the Russia issue. So let’s finish banging out this statement, get it right so we can blast it out.
But after the audio is played on air, they realize the tape is going to be a huge story.
Fallon: The one reaction I remember that’s etched in my mind is that of Laura Rosenberger, who was the deputy national security adviser on the campaign. We all were just staring at the television and hearing it through the open door and at one point after we sort of processed what was being said on the audiotape. Laura Rosenberger gasped audibly, and sort of clutched her chest and that was the first moment that sort of drove home how horrified women collectively were going to be by this audio that had surfaced.
Benenson: I couldn’t imagine that any mother or father of a daughter, brother of a sister would be able to vote for somebody who bragged about and proudly proclaimed that he was basically committing sexual assault on women and bragging about it.
Fallon and Glen Caplin, the Clinton campaign’s national spokesman, break away to finish the statement on Russia.
Fallon: We released it and started circulating it and working the phones and trying to get people to still care and pay attention to this issue in the campaign.
J. Todd Breasseale, then the assistant secretary for public affairs at homeland security, recalls being on the phone with a top network correspondent who was working on a piece for that evening’s news broadcast about the DNI statement on Russia. The correspondent, who Breasseale declined to identify by name, was excited about what he saw as an unprecedented disclosure of a foreign power attacking American democracy. Then, suddenly, he heard the correspondent barking to a colleague: “Oh f***! Unmute the TV!” It was a cable news report about the Access Hollywood tape. “You’re not going to f***ing believe this!” the correspondent shouted over the phone. “Dude, I’m sorry, I got to go,” the correspondent said, hanging up the phone.
Palmieri: You could see your hopes of ever being able to make Russia a big issue just dissipate.
4:32 p.m. ET: WikiLeaks begins publishing thousands of emails obtained in a hack of John Podesta’s personal account, including some that reveal the inner workings of the Clinton campaign. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is living in exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, refuses to reveal the source of the emails.
Palmieri: Tony Carrk, who was the research director, was in the room with me. And he just said, “It looks like some of John Podesta’s emails have been leaked too. And I think maybe the Wall Street speech transcripts are in it.” And that is when I said, “I need to go take a walk.” I got up, and I was like, I got my phone. I turned on Bruce Springsteen, “Take It as It Comes,” and did a couple laps around the Doral Arrowwood outside. And I was like, “OK. This is — I’ve been through, like, a lot of days, but this is really — this one is just really off the charts.”
Benenson: Any day that Hillary Clinton and the word “emails” are in a story was going to be a bad day for us. We knew voters were making no distinction between the WikiLeaks emails and the political emails and John Podesta’s emails and Hillary Clinton’s emails from secretary of state. That was something we couldn’t overcome unless we were gonna have to try to proactively, like, do a tutorial in Hillary’s emails, which would’ve been politically ludicrous. Particularly in a race where we have an edge that we’re trying to maintain.
Fallon: We had a very generalized suspicion that there was going to be more material that would be weaponized against us and that it would probably be the work of the Russians.
Both campaigns see conspiracy rather than coincidence.
Palmieri: At first I just had to laugh because it was so absurd. And obviously not an accident. And to this day I wonder what the leak of John’s emails was meant to cover up or distract from. The “Access Hollywood” tape or Russia? I’m suspicious about the “Access Hollywood” tape. I’m suspicious that the “Access Hollywood” tape came out either through Trump sources or Russia sources to distract from the administration’s statement about Russia.
Bossie: The first thing that comes to my mind is, this is a Clinton operation, a Clinton oppo research effort to influence the Sunday night debate coming up in 48 hours. Pure and simple. And I think that, I still believe that, to do this day, that they were the ones who put it out.
Palmieri: And then Podesta’s emails was just another distraction to, you know, to further obfuscate what was in the very damning information that was in the administration’s statement on Russia. Now, that could seem farfetched, although I’m not sure what’s farfetched given, you know, what we know to be true. And it also could seem reckless because that tape did hurt Donald Trump. But if you’re the Russians, you don’t care.
Stone doesn’t see it that way.
Stone: It was inadvertent. It was coincidental. I don’t think it was planned. Since I have nothing to do with their release and nothing to do with the Billy Bush tape, of course, I’m speculating too.
As news about the “Access Hollywood” tape breaks, Mike Pence is in Toledo, Ohio, eating a chili dog with his daughter at Tony Packo’s Café — a frequent stop for Republican presidential contenders and their running mates. The restaurant has a wall of signed cardboard hot dog buns, Toledo’s equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and reporters are positioned to watch Pence sign a bun when suddenly the event is called off. “Without explanation, the pool was told Pence would be leaving directly after he finished dining, without looking at the signatures or shaking any more hands,” Politico reports. “The pool was instructed to return to the press bus and was not permitted to film Pence leaving the restaurant — thus stripping them of an opportunity to ask Pence for his reaction.”
Jason Chaffetz, Republican congressman from Utah and former chairman of the House Oversight Committee: I saw it on the Drudge Report, as I recall and then I actually clicked through to see the actual video and watch it for myself, so I could make my own determination. And it was grotesque. It was embarrassing, it was wrong.
Fahrenthold: [At the Post] we have this sort of, like, roundabout way about talking about scandalous things like that, sex things in particular. So, lying and sex, two things that we like to describe in very convoluted terms. And so in this case we struggled with both what curse word we were going to use, you know, basically this had every possible curse word.
The same issue plays out in newsrooms around the country. The New York Times chooses not to censor Trump’s comments in its article about the tape.
On CNN, correspondent Brianna Keilar describes the “Access Hollywood” tape to viewers during “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” censoring herself on the fly. “‘I did try and eff her, she was married,’ Trump says. And then a little later goes on to talk about how, 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. … And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything.’ … And Trump says, ‘Grab them by the —’ and he uses a word that begins with p, which is a slang term for women’s genitalia, he says, ‘You can do anything.’”
Keilar also reads Trump’s statement that defends the comments as “locker-room banter.”
4:53 p.m. ET: Chuck Todd tweets: “They don’t really think this is a sufficient response, do they?”
Bossie: The response to our response was, you know, in hindsight, what we thought it would be, which is, we need to do more. And that’s when we decided to do the video, you know, that evening.
4:55 p.m. ET: Hillary Clinton tweets: “This is horrific. We cannot allow this man to become president.”
5:25 p.m. ET: Stephen Colbert retweets Clinton: “Gotta be a typo. Pretty sure Hillary said ‘This is terrific!’”
In Westchester, top Clinton operatives decide to take an early dinner break while they debate the tape’s significance — and how to respond.
Reines: I think we had the same reaction as the rest of the world, like this is — how do you come back from that? It wasn’t like everyone was, “Let’s call it a day and go to the bar.” But it was this, I mean, how much more devastating can it get?
Klain: I remember when we first heard the tape, I actually turned to Jake Sullivan and said, “This is not going to change anything.” We had a big, spirited debate about that. I said, “Look, as horrible as this is, none of the people who are voting for him will have their mind changed by this.” I will say that was a strong minority view in the room. Most people thought this was kind of either the end for Trump or a devastating blow and a lot of speculation began to swirl in the room about whether Trump would come to the debate on Sunday.
Palmieri: Did she need to say anything more in person ahead of the debate? It was Friday night. Sunday night seemed like a very long time away. Or could we wait and have her not speak until the night of the debate on it? She thought she should wait. She thought that it’d be more powerful for the first time people hear from her directly. She’d be on the stage facing him and saying this to his face.
Benenson: I had no doubt in my mind that this would be the first question in the debate and we could hammer it then in front of a nationally televised audience.
Palmieri: At first I had thought that she should say something beforehand — and that it seemed like a very long time to get through without hearing from her. But she thought, it’s probably gonna be better if I wait. And the more I thought about it and understood what she wanted to say to his face, I thought that was gonna be a pretty powerful moment.
Benenson: I was anxious as hell to get into the field [to conduct polling]. We talked about whether we should accelerate our polling schedule and go in right away. And we thought, No, let’s let it settle. Let’s let it sink in for a couple of days.
Fahrenthold: The Post has an internal system we use to track web use, number of people reading the story at one time. On your computer, it’s a little dial, like, a spin-o-meter. And it was, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon that the spin-o-meter started spinning around. Instead of going like this, it was going around like that. We actually broke the system that was designed to track traffic. We had so much traffic that the system to track web traffic broke. I was not expecting that, but by the, you know, like, an hour in, you could tell it just was gonna be something really different.
5:30 p.m. ET: Pence attends a previously scheduled rally in Rossford, Ohio. He ignores the controversy, instead using his speech to talk up Trump’s leadership and his ability to be a strong commander in chief. Afterwards, he tries to ignore questions on the controversy: “Governor, how can you ignore this question?” one reporter asks. “Invariably, they’ll say, this time we got him. This time we found that there’s another tweet come out or something,” Pence replies. “This time we got another thing, another issue that’s come forward. Then they turn on the next television the next morning, and Donald Trump is still standing stronger than ever before and fighting for the American people. And he is going to fight all the way to the White House.”
Privately, though, Pence is “beside himself” about the “Access Hollywood” tape, and his wife is furious, the Associated Press reports. According to the New York Times, he calls Trump after the rally to urge him to show humility.
6:25 p.m. ET: Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager turned CNN analyst, offers his reaction to the tape: “Look, I think what this comes down to, and this is not a surprise, is clearly this is not how women should be spoken about. But we’re not choosing a Sunday school teacher here. And I want to be very clear about this. And what we know about Donald Trump, this is 12 years ago, this audiotape. And it does not reflect or bring to mind the Donald Trump that I’ve spent 18 months with traveling. I’ve never heard anything like this out of him. And so let me say, we’re appointing a leader. We are electing a leader to the free world, we’re not electing a Sunday school teacher.”
7:05 p.m. ET: Jeb Bush: “As the grandfather of two precious girls, I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women.”
7:23 p.m. ET: Reince Priebus: “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”
7:31 p.m. ET: John Kasich: “Make no mistake, the comments were wrong and offensive. They are indefensible.”
Klain: At some point at time, 7 or 8 o’clock, I walked into one of the rooms and Jen and Podesta were in there busily scribbling away on a notepad. And I said, “Hey, what’s going on?” And they told me the first batch of the emails had been dumped.
7:42 p.m. ET: Podesta tweets: “I’m not happy about being hacked by the Russians in their quest to throw the election to Donald Trump. Don’t have time to figure out which docs are real and which are faked.”
Klain: We talked about what was in some of those emails. And so I sent another little group of people off to write debate answers about what was in those emails.
Fallon: Immediately there was an effort to try to understand what they had and what they were dumping out. The triage was happening by monitoring Twitter. Reporters were culling it quicker than we could.
Palmieri: Back in Brooklyn, they set up an operation to start searching through all of his emails to understand better what was, you know, what was there. Had a big team of people doing that. It was a lot of emails. John was, you know — you feel really, really exposed. And powerless.
Benenson: The first step was to say, We’re not gonna validate anything. We’re not gonna authenticate anything. This was stolen emails. And we’re not gonna get into that game with anybody in the press or anybody else. So that’s your job. You go figure out if they’re authentic or not. As I said to one editor later on after the campaign, I said, “You know, you suggesting that we should validate or invalidate would be like, you know, Woodward and Bernstein going to Richard Nixon and saying, ‘Hey, is what Deep Throat telling me true?’ You know, that’s your job as journalists. You go do the work. Don’t just take it from an agency that you know has ties to Russia, who you just learned is meddling with our election.”
Clinton, who had gone to her Chappaqua, N.Y., home for dinner, does not return to the hotel.
Klain: We told her not to bother to come practice because the situation was so fluid.
7:54 p.m. ET: Clinton tweets a digital campaign ad that uses a clip from the “Access Hollywood” tape.
“Women have the power to stop Trump.”
9 p.m. ET: On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly plays part of the tape of Trump’s comments, but omits the crudest part: “In 2005, Donald Trump was doing a segment with ‘Access Hollywood.’ He was speaking with the entertainment reporter Billy Bush privately about women. The Washington Post somehow acquired that audiotape. I’m not going to play too much of it because it’s crude guy talk. But here’s a sample: ‘I better use some Tic Tacs 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. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.‘”
Meanwhile, more prominent Republicans call on Trump to issue a full-throated apology.
9 p.m. ET: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy: “There is absolutely no place for that sort of conduct or language in our society. Donald Trump must make a full and unqualified apology.”
9:04 p.m. ET: House Speaker Paul Ryan: “I am 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.”
Conway: People were saying, “This is it. It’s done. It’s over.”
Haberman: Democrats were calling and chortling. I was getting calls from very excited Democrats. And very, very concerned Republicans. I got a call from a Republican strategist who was working with the campaign who was weeping, because the expectation is that this meant that Trump was done, and that this was such a mess for the party.
Chaffetz: It just looked like a dire situation for us and I’m sure the Clinton camp was jumping up and down with joy.
Finney: There was never a celebration. And that’s largely because, you know, if you’ve done enough campaigns you know that October is really strange. And a lot of strange things happen. It is very unpredictable. And I think at the time, I certainly felt like, and I think others did, that it was too unpredictable.
Klain: I never thought this was going to be a game changer. I never thought Trump was going to drop out and I never thought his key supporters were going to abandon him.
Ferguson: There was not a question that he was ever going to drop out. I’d never assumed he would. But there was a moment when I thought the Republican leadership might block him.
Benenson: I think other people at first thought, you know, how can he survive this? Republicans were starting to turn on him pretty quickly.
Palmieri: We’d seen moments like this before. We’d seen moments where Republicans would get nervous in the moment about something Trump had said or done and react quickly — in a sort of attempt to distance themselves from him. But they would always come back around.
Klain: As the evening played on and a few prominent Republicans came out and raised doubts about it, I think there was some euphoria by some members of the team.
Ferguson: At some point there was even a deliberate discussion about how we make sure to not let expectations of the impact of this get carried away when we knew full well that the race would still not be over. We knew people would claim it was. But we didn’t believe the hype.
Reines: No one, least of all Clinton, thought that this was in any way a slam dunk.
They also worried about the volatility the tape could bring to the race.
Palmieri: If you’re in the lead, stability is your friend. If you’re not, you know — we didn’t need to mix up this race any more than it was.
9:24 p.m. ET: The Clinton campaign releases a statement on the U.S. confirming Russia was behind the election hacks: “It should concern every American that Russia is willing to engage in such hostile acts in order to help Donald Trump become president.”
A pair of Trump former GOP rivals — and two of his favorite targets — tweet their disdain for his comments.
9:30 p.m. ET: Marco Rubio tweets: “Donald’s comments were vulgar, egregious & impossible to justify. No one should ever talk about any woman in those terms, even in private.”
9:36 p.m. ET: Ted Cruz tweets: “These comments are disturbing and inappropriate, there is simply no excuse for them.” And: “Every wife, mother, daughter — every person — deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Sometime on Friday night, Billy Bush releases a statement via NBC News: “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago. I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along. I’m very sorry.”
10 p.m. ET: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Trump’s comments are “repugnant, and unacceptable in any circumstance” and makes clear his brief statement would not suffice. “As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape.”
Stone: There’s no question the sunshine soldiers are heading for the exits. These are people who largely don’t know Donald Trump. Above all, he’s not a quitter. It’s just not in his makeup. But yes, there were a lot of depressed people that day. And normally, in a normal presidential contest, this would be a determinative matter. But there was nothing normal about the entire election.
Chaffetz announces he is withdrawing his endorsement of Trump, becoming one of the first prominent Republicans to do so.
Chaffetz: “I talked through it with my wife and thought about it and I like to think I call balls and strikes as I see ’em and I just said, Look, I’m out. I can’t endorse a person who’s going to be acting like that.”
On “CNN Tonight With Don Lemon,” Chaffetz says: “Julie and I, we’ve got a 15-year-old daughter. Do you think I can look her in the eye and tell her that I endorse Donald Trump for president when he acts like this?”
Ferguson: That was the moment. If there is one moment that is both indelibly seared in my brain but also reflective of what happened in this campaign, it’s Jason Chaffetz. It’s watching him lie on CNN, call in, express his disgust, say he can’t look his daughter in the eye if he stands by Trump, announces he’s out and you know coming from the man who had been leading the witch hunt against [Clinton], it was a, you know, stunning moment that made me think that the Republican Party that this might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Republican Party. And then whatever it was, 72, 96 hours later, Chaffetz is back and announcing he’s voting for Trump.
10:45 p.m. ET: At Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Cubs defeat the San Francisco Giants 1-0 in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
Back at Trump Tower, Trump continues to consult with top aides in his 25th-floor office about how to respond to a crisis that is quickly spinning out of control. Aides later tell reporters that Trump wanted to have a Friday night news conference, but his aides, backed up by his children Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric, talk him out of it, worried it would make things worse. It is decided late Friday that Trump will issue a statement via video to try and stem GOP defections.
Haberman: I heard from a source that they had put in a request to get an ad crew, like an advertising crew really quickly, like a film crew shooting him. They didn’t end up I think using that crew, they had to do something different from within their own headquarters.
Shortly after midnight, Trump issues a videotaped statement:
“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, it was wrong, and I apologize. I’ve traveled the country talking about change for America. But my travels have also changed me. I’ve spent time with grieving mothers who’ve lost their children, laid-off workers whose jobs have gone to other countries, and people from all walks of life who just want a better future. I have gotten to know the great people of our country, and I’ve been humbled by the faith they’ve placed in me. I pledge to be a better man tomorrow, and will never, ever let you down. Let’s be honest. We’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we are facing today. We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is broken. Hillary Clinton, and her kind, have run our country into the ground. I’ve said some foolish things, but there is a big difference between words and actions. 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.”
Chaffetz: That was a very lame, insincere apology. I felt like he was apologizing because he got caught, I didn’t feel like he was speaking from his heart. He was reading off a teleprompter and it showed.
Stone: It looked like a hostage video, I mean, you could see that he was unhappy doing it. You know, look. One of Trump’s rules is never apologize. It’s really not in his makeup. In this occasion, I think he understood that what he thought at the time was kinda regular, locker-room banter, now on the big stage of presidential politics looked terrible. I think he was a little angry at himself. It’s also the only time I think that I saw Trump where he actually seemed dejected.
Haberman: It was the only time in my memory that Trump has ever been humiliated, honestly. By that I mean he felt shame in a way that you could identify. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him experience shame that he couldn’t mask as toughness in some other way.
Stone: I’ve known Donald Trump for 40 years. He doesn’t apologize. During the presidential campaign of 2012, when Mitt Romney issued one of his weekly apologies for something stupid that he did, Trump was tearing his hair out. “What’s wrong with this guy? Why does he keep apologizing?” So it was out of character. I also think at the time, it was politically necessary and it did help quell the, you know, the scandal, as it were.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign staff is at the hotel discussing how Clinton should address the “Access Hollywood” tape when Trump’s video is released.
Benenson: We’re all standing at the bar, waiting to see what Trump does — like, there’s a bar in this room. We’re not out in public. But we’re glued to the TV, chilling out after debate prep. We’ve kind of finished our work, waiting, like, what are they gonna do? He hadn’t said anything, which to us was amazing.
Reines: Some of us were in the minority opinion that he was not going to see this as something he wanted to fall on his sword about, since that’s just not his style. And that he would be pretty Trumpish about it.
Benenson: And then you kinda get this midnight hostage video with his phony apology to nobody, in reality.
Reines: We watch it together and for the first minute I was like, “Wow, was I wrong,” because he’s saying all the right things. And then it just went off the rails. It was “Bill Clinton has said worse.” It’s not like we thought he was going to raise the white flag. And his Friday night video statement made clear his mindset.
Klain: Right after the hostage video, it was obviously clear Trump was staying in the race. It was obviously clear he was coming to the debate on Sunday. And Trump was coming not with his tail between his legs but with his claws bared and we needed to get ready for that. Then the question was should she go out and say something Saturday morning or should we save it for the debate. Our consensus that we reached probably by 1 o’clock in the morning was, let’s just save it for the debate. We didn’t want to give Trump the benefit of the back and forth over the weekend. We wanted the focus to be on him and him coping with it.
Fallon: Why mess with something that was playing out as horribly for him as it possibly could have? She can’t say anything that would carry more weight than members of his own party aren’t saying. We didn’t want to undertake any steps that would cause partisans to retreat back into their corners where Republicans reflexively started defending him just because Hillary attacked him.
Benenson: There’s a rule in politics: When someone is in the middle of a shit storm, you don’t get in the middle of it, right? And you know, this was of such a scale, that we said, well, let’s see if they can wind their way out of it.
Fallon: Let’s have her stay dark, not weigh in. Let’s let this pile-on continue. The added virtue of holding her back and keeping her in reserve, it would ensure that whatever she said at the debate would be the news of the debate.
Haberman: They did recognize that there was there was something fraught about this in terms of her because of her husband. And so Trump and women was always a pretty dangerous area for her. And this was no exception.
It’s the eve of the second presidential debate. Reporters spot several Trump aides and advisers entering Trump Tower early in the morning, including Chris Christie, Kellyanne Conway and Rudy Giuliani. Hillary Clinton returns to the Doral Arrowwood Hotel in Westchester to prepare for Sunday night’s debate. The “Access Hollywood” tape is front-page news around the world. The U.S. government’s declaration that Russia was behind the election hacking is not.
Jeh Johnson: It was below-the-fold news that day, literally, because of the “Access Hollywood” video. I pick up the Post, and I pick up the Times, and it is literally below-the-fold news in both newspapers. I was expecting it to be above the fold, not full-banner, but at least maybe a quarter-banner. And it was below-the-fold news. This was the United States government accusing the Russian government of interfering in our election through cyber-hacking activity. That’s a big deal, and I expected it to be above the fold, and I expected it to be something that would have a lot of currency over the following days. And that it would be a continuing conversation with more questions from the press. How do we know this? What is the extent of it? And so, the press had gone off to the other end of the pasture ’cause of greed and sex and groping.
Chaffetz: I started to realize how much my own comments had been retweeted and spread. I was a little surprised by that.
Fahrenthold: Saturday I’m at the grocery store picking up something for my family, and I saw my phone that Jason Chaffetz, the, you know, then the House Oversight Committee chair, the guy who had given Hillary Clinton so much trouble about Benghazi, someone who was sort of like a moral authority in the Republican Party, said, I think the words were, “I’m out.” You know, “I can’t look my teenage daughter in the eye and say I supported Donald Trump.”
In Westchester, the Clinton campaign is preparing for the debate — and for the inevitable questions about the “Access Hollywood” tape she’ll face at the debate.
Klain: We did a lot of Q&A with her. We obviously spent a lot of time working on revising her Russian answers to try to make them more pointed, drafting and practicing some answers about what we thought were the most likely WikiLeaks-related questions around the Goldman speech and trying to figure out what she should say and how she should say it around the “Access Hollywood” tape. What to say about it. We crafted it that morning. Karen Dunn and Mandy Grunwald took the pen themselves, and I did a lot of the initial drafting. Sometime midmorning, the two of them presented some ideas about the answers, and then Secretary Clinton herself sat in the room and talked through it with us at some length. And then through redrafts we got at her core answers.
Palmieri: She practices what she, you know … we understand that what’s gonna matter is that moment where she confronts him.
10:48 a.m. ET: Trump tweets for the first time since his apology video: “Certainly has been an interesting 24 hours!”
Haberman: I volunteered to go stake out Trump Tower. I felt we needed to be there. We obviously were not alone. And It was grim. I mean, we were all sort of in the lobby. All these reporters are hanging out. We couldn’t get word from upstairs. Trump was just cloistered, like, inside the tower. And we would chase people who came in and out. Jared was around despite Shabbat. Ivanka did not come, but Jared did show up. And he went in through a side door so we couldn’t see him. Christie was there at one point; Reince was there at one point. Rudy Giuliani. And Kellyanne Conway. Bannon, I think, was there too. And we all were waiting to see: Would he drop out? What was going to happen?
At some point in the morning, Trump gives an interview to Monica Langley of the Wall Street Journal — the first of two newspaper interviews he does that day. Trump tells Langley there is “zero chance” he will quit the race. “I never, ever give up,” Trump says. “The support I’m getting is unbelievable, because Hillary Clinton is a horribly flawed candidate.” Langley asks how his daughter Ivanka and wife, Melania, reacted to the tape: “I was with Ivanka yesterday; I’m with Melania now. They fully understand, and they’re very loyal.” As for supporters’ reactions, he says, “People get it. They get life.”
Sometime before 11 a.m. ET: Trump calls Robert Costa at the Washington Post, reiterating his refusal to quit the race. “I’ve been here before, I’ll tell ya, in life,” Trump says. “I understand life and how you make it through. You go through things. I’ve been through many. It’s called life. And it’s always interesting.”
11 a.m. ET: Hurricane Matthew makes its fourth and final landfall over the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Myrtle Beach, S.C., as a Category 1 hurricane. Nearly 600 deaths were blamed on the storm, including 548 in Haiti and 47 in the United States, where it caused more than $10 billion in damage — making it then the 10th costliest in U.S. history.
Mid- to late Saturday morning, Trump and his senior staff gather inside his residence on the 64th floor of Trump Tower.
Bossie: There were many of us in the room — Governor Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, myself, Reince Priebus. Jared and Ivanka would have been there, but it’s during Shabbat and they did not attend. We sat around the room, in a circle and discussed different opportunities that presented themselves. What should we do? What could we have done better? How do we try to get past this to tomorrow night’s debate? With that, Reince came into the meeting late, actually. He was coming up from D.C. He had returned to Washington Friday evening, and he came up on the train Saturday morning.
Conway: Reince was asked by Mr. Trump, “What are you hearing from other people?”
And of course officeholders were all saying what they said. Some unendorsed him. Some never endorsed him. Some said they were going to write in Mike Pence’s name. But he was asked, “What are you hearing from elected officials?”
Bossie: Reince’s position was that things did not look good. That party elders, leadership in the House and Senate and Republican Party, and donors were very nervous, some jumping ship. And he said Trump had two choices: He could lose the biggest electoral landslide in American history or he could drop out of the race and let somebody else be the nominee.
Conway: I think Reince was reflecting, “Here’s what they think. They think that you could lose and that you’ll drag them down with them.”
Bossie: The rest of us were a little bit shocked by the quite candid and honest way he put it. The president’s response was incredible, which was, “You know, Reince, if that’s what the party’s going to do to me, then I’ll lose. They shouldn’t be running away from me. This is something that I will get through and it will not be a problem. But more importantly, Reince, I’m going to win.” That was his response. “I’m going to win.”
Trump went around the room and asked everyone for their opinions.
Bossie: “What do you think? What do you think? What do you think? Gimme a percentage. You know, what am I gonna — am — am — am I in this thing? Am I outta this thing? Everybody give me your percentage.” And, you know, I’m not gonna say what everybody said, but lots of people said, “This is a challenge. This is going to be an uphill fight. A lot of this will depend on tomorrow night’s debate performance.”
Conway: I felt he should stay in the race. Absentee ballots were already being filed in some states, I’m pretty sure. But he should stay in the race unless he felt that he was no longer equipped and willing to be the nominee for the Republican Party. My clinical analysis was, “You’ll take a hit in the polls. But they will always do what the left always does, and what Secretary Clinton always does, which is not come up with a compelling, persuasive, sticky and positive message of her own, and they’re gonna push the envelope too far on this. Everybody will be talking about this. You need to go out and talk about everything else.”
Bossie: I wasn’t quite at 100 percent, but I was close. I said, “If we do these things correctly and the debate performance tomorrow night matters. And if you come out of the debate performance tomorrow night alive and on an upswing, we’re gonna win this thing.” Steve Bannon was the only one in the entire room who said, “100 percent victory, not even a question about it.”
In a recent interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Bannon referred to Oct. 8 as a “litmus test”: “The Billy Bush Saturday to me is a litmus test. It’s a litmus test. … It’s a line I remember from the movie ‘The Wild Bunch.’ William Holden uses it right before that huge gunfight at the end. ‘When you side with a man, you side with him,’ OK? The good and the bad. You can criticize him behind, but when you side with him, you have to side with him. And that’s what Billy Bush weekend showed me. Billy Bush Saturday showed me who really had Donald Trump’s back.”
11:45 a.m. ET: Carly Fiorina calls on Trump to step aside for Pence.
12:56 p.m. ET: Pence changes course from his reaction on Friday night and issues a statement more critical of Trump, saying he can’t defend his running mate: “As a husband and a father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the 11-year-old video released yesterday. I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them. I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people. We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”
2:58 p.m. ET: Melania Trump releases a statement: “The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me. This does not represent the man that I know. He has the heart and mind of a leader. I hope people will accept his apology, as I have, and focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world.”
3:03 p.m. ET: Tic Tac USA, which Trump name-checked in his discussion with Billy Bush on the “Access Hollywood” bus, releases a statement distancing the company from the Republican nominee: “Tic Tac respects all women. We find the recent statements and behavior completely inappropriate and unacceptable.”
In Wisconsin, Paul Ryan kicks off his rally without Trump or Pence. “There is a bit of an elephant in this room,” Ryan tells the crowd. “It’s a troubling situation, I’m serious, it is.” The house speaker is heckled by Trump supporters throughout his remarks.
Trump later tweets: “Thank you to my great supporters in Wisconsin. I heard that the crowd and enthusiasm was unreal!”
Meanwhile, statements from GOP leaders withdrawing their support for Trump trickle in throughout the day.
John McCain, Republican senator from Arizon: “Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.”
John Kasich, Republican governor of Ohio : “Donald Trump is a man I cannot and should not support. The actions of the last day are disgusting, but that’s not why I reached this decision, it has been an accumulation of his words and actions that many have been warning about. I will not vote for a nominee who has behaved in a manner that reflects so poorly on our country. Our country deserves better.”
Fallon: Some of us reacted on Friday night like, “Well, this is just going to be another one of those things where he says something that should be disqualifying but isn’t.” As horrific a statement as it is, we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up too high that this is going to kill his chances because he’s survived other things before: He took on a Gold Star family. He took on a POW, John McCain. But when those statements started rolling in from Republicans it was like, all right, maybe this is real. We’re only a month out from election and you have prominent Republicans unendorsing him.
At the same time, calls grow louder from other members of the party for Trump to step aside in favor of Pence.
Rob Portman, Republican senator from Ohio: “While I continue to respect those who still support Donald Trump, I can no longer support him. I continue to believe our country cannot afford a Hillary Clinton presidency. I will be voting for Mike Pence for President.”
Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state: “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President. He should withdraw. As a Republican, I hope to support someone who has the dignity and stature to run for the highest office in the greatest democracy on earth.”
Cory Gardner, Republican senator from Colorado: “I am committed to defeating Hillary Clinton. The only way this is now possible is with a new nominee that reflects the values of our country and our party. I will not vote for Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wishes to defeat Hillary Clinton, he should do the only thing that will allow us to do so — step aide, and allow Mike Pence to be the Republican Party’s nominee.”
John Thune, Republican senator from South Dakota: “Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately.”
Palmieri: There were times where we were concerned about that, just because you have to prepare for that moment in case that happens, and all of a sudden you’re running against Mike Pence, and how are you gonna handle that? But, you know, the people who knew him had told us he might drop out if he thinks he’s going to lose and doesn’t want to be embarrassed, but he’s not gonna drop out when he’s got his back against a wall. He’s not gonna do that. This situation, he’s just gonna fight New York tabloid style and come after you. And, you know, I knew what that looked like.
Back inside Trump Tower, Trump is watching cable TV and growing angrier by the second, upset at the number of Republicans who are turning their back on his campaign.
3:40 p.m. ET: Trump tweets: “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA”
Conway: He was not going to abandon them just because a bunch of people who didn’t support him in the first place wanted to push him out of the race. He was never going to get out of that race.
Downstairs, the scene outside Trump Tower has become a circus, a mob scene of Trump supporters and protesters who are sparring. The cable networks and other news organizations have reporters and photographers staked out at all public entrances to the building, hoping to keep track of the comings and goings. Because Trump has no formal events, the designated protective poolers have been trying to keep track of rumors that Trump might hold an impromptu rally in New York City that night, but most questions to the campaign are being met with radio silence.
4:30 p.m. ET: With no notice to the media, Trump suddenly appears in the lobby of his building with Conway and Donald Trump Jr. and makes his way through the glass doors to greet supporters outside — the ones who hadn’t abandoned him.
Haberman: He walked out to this little impromptu rally supporting him going on right outside. There were also protesters. I remember being afraid. It was the first time I had actually really felt fear. Not that anything was going to happen. But there was a sort of a sense of danger in the air because he was so wounded. And I felt like he was capable of doing anything at that moment, which was scary.
Surrounded by heavy security, including Secret Service and the NYPD, Trump shakes hands, gives high fives and basks in the glow of his most fervent supporters.
Haberman: He went out into the crowd of people. It was like his Juan Perón moment. They were, like, touching his jacket. And he put his arm up in the air and did the closed-fist power salute. And then he went back inside, and it was like watching somebody get some kind of, like, B-12 injection. There was this sense of excitement.
A reporter asks Trump if he will remain in the race. “One hundred percent,” he replies.
Conway: It doubled his resolve, and it showed his commitment to the people.
Campaigning for Hillary in Wisconsin, Bill Clinton does not mention the Trump tape in his remarks at a rally in Milwaukee. But as hecklers shouting, “You’re a rapist!” are escorted out of the event, Clinton indirectly addresses the controversy. “You gotta feel sorry for them,” he says. “They had a bad day yesterday, give them a hand.”
At some point on Saturday afternoon, Breitbart publishes an interview with Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978. In the interview, which the site claims was filmed at the Watergate Hotel on Friday, Broaddrick is asked about Trump’s remarks on the “Access Hollywood” tape. “Bill Clinton raped me, and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison,” she said. At one point, she is comforted by another Bill Clinton accuser, Kathleen Willey.
Fallon: It felt like this promotional effort that was going to have something more to it than just this Breitbart interview. The Breitbart interview felt like it was setting the table for something.
At Trump Tower, Bannon tells Bossie of his plan: to have Trump arrive at Sunday’s debate with four women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and rape.
Bossie: It was Steve’s — Steve Bannon’s idea. And it was a brilliant stroke. He called me into his office and told me what his idea was. And I just looked at him like, a combination of fear and brilliance, all wrapped up in one idea. Because it could — you don’t know how it’s gonna play out. You don’t know how it’s gonna go. There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of downside to it. But we were in a tough spot. We had to be dramatic in our response.
Stone: Bannon and I had talked about this for months — either having them at a debate or having them show up at a Trump rally and be allowed to speak. Steve had read my book “The Clintons’ War on Women.” In fact, Steve had serialized the book at Breitbart. He knew a number of the victims of Bill Clinton were compelling, incredible women. And that if you let them speak, they could be persuasive on their own behalf. So we talked about having them perhaps attend a rally and speak after Trump or before Trump or having them show up at the debates.
Bossie: We’re going to run an operation in St. Louis with these four women who want to come forward and tell their stories for several reasons. One, to get people talking. To get people to talk about Bill Clinton, not Donald Trump, first. Secondly, we want people in her camp to be distracted from allowing her that time in the two or three hours before the debate starts, to have clarity and have a calm time before the biggest debate at that point. We felt that it was a move to get in her head — and her team’s head.
Stone: For several months, Steve had urged us to go out and try to find, you know, outside funding to do an independent effort to put these women up on TV and let them tell their story. That actually never came together. It was an idea, but it never was realized. It was far better, in my opinion, to have them speak under the aegis of the campaign. I don’t think this would have happened but for the Billy Bush tape.
Trump allies also insist it was Clinton who inspired the sideshow weeks earlier by threatening to seat billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” host Mark Cuban, who had been publicly feuding with Trump for months, in the front row at the first presidential debate. Trump countered by saying he might invite Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s former mistress.
Stone: Remember how this begins. Mark Cuban tweets that he’s gonna be attending the [first] debate and sitting with the Clinton family. Then Donald Trump tweets that maybe he’ll bring Gennifer Flowers.
Conway: They build it as, you know, be there to stick it in the eye of Donald Trump at the debate, you know, so it would distract him, which I think is itself sort of cheap and petty, only because, why is that the point? Why don’t you debate on the issues? If you want to debate on the issues, debate on the issues. But that had started, where then I think somebody mentioned, “Well, then, we’ll just have Gennifer Flowers,” and everybody was freaking out.
On Saturday night, rumors spread about possible defections within the Trump campaign, including speculation about the fate of Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and most prominent woman in his campaign. She is spotted at Trump Tower but has yet to offer public comments about the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Conway: I felt no need to issue a formal statement. And I think people wanted to hurt Donald Trump by having me, his female campaign manager and a mother, they wanted me to be Joan of Arc and leave his campaign and really show that he was done for. And I’m like him. I’m very loyal. I had no doubt about sticking with him, not one doubt about sticking with him, ever. And I made that very clear to him and his wife and his family, and my colleagues, and Governor and Mrs. Pence, and others. And I always keep the specifics of conversations like that completely private. But I will tell you, I never once flinched.
Back in Westchester, Clinton’s debate prep concludes for the day.
Klain: I think we probably went till 9:30; somewhere between 9 and 10 p.m. that night we broke up. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and there’s always some answer you practice over and over again and you don’t like, and people say, “Let’s take one more stab at it on debate day.” Particularly around the defense of the Goldman speeches, we were still trying to figure out exactly what to say about the public answer/private answer thing and the open borders thing. I remember after she left that night a group of people trying to tweak those answers again.
10:11 p.m. ET: At Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Cubs defeat the San Francisco Giants, 5-2, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
Sometime on Saturday night, Haberman receives phone calls from Democratic strategists working with the Clinton campaign.
Haberman: They were cackling. All of them said the exactly same thing: “Aren’t you loving this?” And I said, “No, I’m not loving this. This is horrible. What is there to love about this?” And then they all went on to say, “Well, I’m loving this.” Everything about it was depressing. What he had said was depressing. The tape was depressing. Its existence was depressing. The fact that they were so excited by this was depressing, that they felt this was all just fun. It was all just really terrible.
Late Saturday night, CNN’s KFile publishes a story that in other news cycles might have been a bombshell: “Donald Trump to Howard Stern: It’s okay to call my daughter a ‘piece of ass.’” The network’s investigative arm had unearthed old interviews Trump had given to the shock jock.
“In [one] interview, from September 2004, Stern asks Trump if he can call Ivanka ‘a piece of ass,’ to which Trump responds in the affirmative. … In another, from 2002, Trump boasts about how he’s allowed backstage at the Miss America pageants when contestants are naked.
“‘Before a show, I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,’ Trump tells Stern. ‘You know, I’m inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good. You know, the dresses. “Is everyone OK?” You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. “Is everybody OK?” And you see these incredible-looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that.’”
11:35 p.m. ET: “Saturday Night Live” opens its episode with Alec Baldwin mocking Trump’s apology video: “This was way back in 2005,” Baldwin says. “It was 11 years ago back when I was just a young, childish, 59-year-old man.”
Haberman: Somebody I know had talked to one of Trump’s close advisers. And the guy kept saying, “Everybody is trying to kill us, everybody is trying to kill us.” And then the adviser said, “You watch what happens now.”
It’s debate day. The second presidential debate, a town-hall-style event at Washington University in St. Louis, is hours away.
Klain: There was a feeling like this was the pivot point in this thing, and if we could go out there and have a good debate we might really solidify our position. Not have the race be over, but be in a place where this lead could carry us through. That was more the emotional tone. We were busy walking up this mountain, we had finally got a little distance on this mountain, and it was time to go do it. I think it was a pretty task-focused, “let’s go get this done” kind of mentality.
Benenson: We felt Hillary had the upper hand. She was a better debater. The town hall environment gave us, we thought, an advantage, because she was generally better with people in that situation than he was. You know, his rallies, he was not good in town halls. He was not very good with one-on-one. He still isn’t, because he’s a brute and a bully. And he can’t contain that aspect of his personality.
Bossie: He had never debated one-on-one against anyone in his entire life. And then you’re going up against Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the best debaters, one of the most experienced debaters — she had debated Barack Obama one-on-one. I mean, this is somebody who knew the issues inside and out, steeped in policy, and somebody with incredible experience, on one hand, and on the other you had Mr. Trump, who told it like it was. Somebody who spoke from the heart, somebody who could connect directly with the American people through his use of language.
9 a.m. ET: Trump tweets: “Tremendous support (except for some Republican ‘leadership’). Thank you.”
The Sunday shows are consumed by the “Access Hollywood” tape. Echoing the punditry on Friday and Saturday, some guests continue to question if Trump can survive.
Fallon: I remember by Sunday the conversation really was turning in the press — we weren’t trying to stoke it — to the idea of getting him off the ticket. If anything, we were trying to combat the narrative that he even could. We were putting [Clinton campaign lawyer] Marc Elias out there to remind people that there was a federal law that requires states to print out their ballots and send them to overseas voters 45 days out before the election. It was too late to change the ballots to try to get another name out there. So even if they wanted to push him out, [the ballots] had already been sent out. And so we were like engaging in a little information campaign to try to prevent this idea that he could just be replaced from gaining steam lest it actually happen. We didn’t want that to happen. At that point he was being abandoned left and right, he just seemed like a sitting duck, and so the idea of some Hail Mary effort to replace him seemed like the only thing that could screw it up. And so we were trying to prevent that from gaining steam.
Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway had been scheduled to appear on several of the Sunday shows, but on Saturday they abruptly cancel. The only Trump representative willing to appear: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Giuliani says he does not anticipate that Trump will bring up sexual assault allegations against Bill Clinton during the debate.
Meanwhile, no one from the Obama administration is asked to appear on the Sunday shows to talk about the Russia announcement.
Clapper: We didn’t get asked. I didn’t get asked to go on talk shows about it.
Chaffetz, though, is.
Chaffetz: I think I got invited to go on almost every Sunday-morning talk show, but I declined them all. I respectfully said I was not available.
9:17 a.m. ET: Trump tweets a link to Breitbart’s story about Juanita Broaddrick.
10:17 a.m. ET: After retweeting supporters, including women condemning those attacking his candidacy, Trump tweets: “So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers – and elections – go down!”
Fallon: I think we sort of forgot ourselves in the 36 to 48 hours after that Friday. I think that Friday we were pretty skeptical that any one thing could really wreck him because we had seen him absorb so much before. But then I think we let ourselves convince ourselves that this might be fatal, given how his own party was reacting to it.
11 a.m. ET: Fahrenthold appears on Fox News to discuss the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Fahrenthold: One of the anchors on Fox, her husband is a pitcher for the Orioles, the Baltimore Orioles. You remember Trump had said, “Oh, this is all locker-room talk.” And she said to me after the cameras were off, like, “He’s been in the locker room his whole life. He’s never heard anybody talk like this.”
Finney: The story turned to this conversation about locker-room talk. That “Oh, this is just locker-room talk. That’s just how guys talk.”
Benenson: Let’s correct the record. What Trump did wasn’t talk. This is a guy who also bragged about walking in on the Miss Teenage America pageant because he was the owner and he could inspect the girls. Like, this is a pattern of behavior.
Finney: The conversation we never really got to, quite frankly, was “It’s not OK, period.” And even if it’s, you know, in the locker room, it’s not OK. And this wasn’t just in the locker room. This was, you know, out in the world. And he knew exactly what he was saying. But we never quite got there.
11:22 a.m. ET: Clinton boards her plane for St. Louis. She does not respond to a shouted question about whether Trump should “stand down.”
Sometime around noon: Trump, who had been scheduled to leave for St. Louis around 2 p.m., boards his aircraft hours early — leaving his traveling press pool behind.
12:24 p.m. ET: Conway tweets a photo from the Trump plane of the candidate with Priebus, Jason Miller, Giuliani and Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital media director.
1:16 p.m. ET: Trump tweets a link to Breitbart’s interview with Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey attacking Hillary Clinton as an “enabler.”
Back at the Washington Post, Fahrenthold gets another phone call from someone who saw his appearance on Fox News.
Fahrenthold: I got a call from a guy in Milwaukee who wants to talk about the story, you know, wanted to harangue me. And after a while I hung up on him. I then go home. Later on that day he called the Post again. We later learned he was drunk, and he slurred my name into the automated voicemail system so badly that it didn’t send him to my phone again, it sent him to another guy in sports whose name starts with D. So he leaves a death threat for me on that guy’s voicemail. I don’t think it was ever that serious. The FBI actually interviewed him and he turned out to be drunk when he made the phone call. He didn’t mean anything by it.
Palmieri: There was what I would describe as primal anger on the campaign trail in that I felt — and, you know, we discussed it with the press sometimes, too, because I know that the press felt, whether you were covering Trump or you were covering Hillary — felt like a target. And, you know, it’s like something terrible is gonna happen. You know, we were really concerned, not necessarily for the candidates, but really concerned that someone’s gonna get hurt. Something violent is gonna happen. Things had just really reached a boiling point.
2:25 p.m. ET: Conway tweets a photo of her and Trump from the motorcade earlier in the day, giving photo credit to Melania Trump and ending questions about whether Trump’s wife will be at his side at the St. Louis debate.
3:58 p.m. ET: Obama speaks at a fundraiser in Chicago for Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tammy Duckworth before returning to Washington. He doesn’t address the tape directly and doesn’t mention Trump by name.
“One of the most disturbing things about this election is just the unbelievable rhetoric coming at the top of the Republican ticket,” Obama says. “I don’t need to repeat it; there are children in the room. But demeaning women, degrading women, but also minorities, immigrants, people of other faiths. Mocking the disabled. Insulting our troops, insulting our veterans. That tells you a couple things. It tells you that he’s insecure enough that he pumps himself up by putting other people down. Not a character trait that I would advise for somebody in the Oval Office.”
Just before landing in St. Louis, Palmieri takes questions from reporters traveling on the Clinton campaign plane. “I know there is a lot of interest in what she is going to have to say about his comments from 2005. She will be ready to do that,” Palmieri says.
Palmieri is also asked if Hillary Clinton is prepared for Trump’s potential attacks. “She is prepared,” she says. “We understand that this is uncharted territory: to face an opponent that is in the grips of a downward spiral.”
Palmieri: There was always a sense, you knew that with this candidate, with Trump, nothing is gonna be out of bounds. So she would have to be prepared for, you know, whatever he may throw at her. And that was something that was just part of her reality.
Fallon: We sensed that he was desperate, so he could be capable of anything.
Klain: We did not waste time practicing a new, more reserved, more circumspect Trump. I think we always practiced against the kind of Trump we saw on the campaign trail.
Jonathan Lemire, a reporter for the Associated Press, is in the press pool following Trump in St. Louis.
Lemire: We were told once we got there that the rest of the traveling press corps was going on to the debate site, which was a college in St. Louis. But about a dozen of us, we were told we were going to a secondary site beforehand, before the debate. You rarely see a candidate on debate day before the debate. So we thought it was odd we would have an event beforehand. We simply thought what we were going to see was Trump, a few advisers going through, perhaps, a quick photo op. We were told we’d be in the room for about 30 seconds. That we would just see him talking to a couple of aides. And then we’d be whisked out, we’d be all loaded in the motorcade. And we would travel to the debate. Uh, that is not what happened.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis, the Trump team is busy plotting its plan for the candidate to unveil Bill Clinton’s accusers.
Bossie: The press has been on us to allow them into our debate prep sessions. For weeks they’ve been asking, “Could you just give us access? A photo spray, something?” At about 6:30, Jason Miller put out the word to the press that “you’re gonna get access to the last debate prep session.” Which whipped the media into a frenzy. They were reporting that they were going to get to report. I mean, that’s the way it was.
7:25 p.m. ET: Reporters are ushered into a room where Trump is seated at a table with Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, and Paula Jones — who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct — as well as Kathy Shelton, a rape victim from Arkansas. Hillary Clinton had been her attacker’s court-appointed defense lawyer.
Lemire: So they led us down the hallway. They opened the door. The first thing I noticed was the room was far more crowded than I expected. And that there were advisers lining both sides of the room. And I saw that Trump was not standing at a podium like you’d think he would be, perhaps rehearsing for the debate. Rather sitting down, flanked by four women.
Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, Rudy Giuliani and Ben and Candy Carson are also present. In the back of the room, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, who have become unlikely campaign allies, wear big grins as the press corps files in.
Bossie: The pool of reporters, when they walked in the room, none of them knew who these women were. It took a moment. I was watching their faces. These were all young reporters. They weren’t around. Nothing against them, but they didn’t understand.
Lemire: My mouth dropped as I was taking in the room. Other members of the press pool had similar reactions. There was a photographer with us who had been a war correspondent for a while, he had been in Iraq. He had been in Afghanistan. This is someone who had seen some stuff. He literally gasped, like an audible gasp, as we walked into the room and realized what we had walked into.
Bossie: It was a wild event.
Trump tweets to supporters to join him for his final “debate preparations” — and soon cable TV networks are taking the shaky mobile video live.
Palmieri: I was outside talking to CNN, and one of the producers says, “Hey, we’re getting this weird feed in. And it appears that Donald Trump is having some kind of Facebook Live press conference, you know, with Paula Jones and others.”
Fallon: I walked over to the hospitality tent to further mingle with some of the reporters who were covering the debate, and [Time magazine reporter] Zeke Miller, who treats his phone as an appendage and is constantly monitoring email and Twitter even as he’s carrying on a conversation in real life, he pulled it up on his phone. He couldn’t make out who the people were, so I took a look and I could immediately tell who it was.
TRUMP: “Thank you very much for coming, and these four very courageous women have asked to be here and it was our honor to help them. And I think they’re each going to make just an individual short statement and then we will do a little meeting and then we’ll see you at the debate. We’ll start with Paula.”
JONES: “I’m here to support Mr. Trump because he’s going to make America great again. And I think everybody else should vote for him. And I think they should all look at the fact that he’s a good person. He’s not what other people have been saying he’s been, like Hillary. So think about that.”
SHELTON: “So I’m also here to support Trump. At 12 years old, Hillary put me through something you’d never put a 12-year-old through. And she says she’s for women and children. And she was asked last year on what happened and she says she’s [inaudible] whether they did it or not, and now she’s laughing on tape saying she knows they did it.”
TRUMP: “You went through a lot.”
SHELTON: “Yes, sir. I did.”
BROADDRICK: “Hi. I’m Juanita Broaddrick. And I’m here to support Donald Trump. I’ve tweeted recently, and Mr. Trump retweeted it, that actions speak louder than words. Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
Palmieri: He threw the kitchen sink at us. He did conceivably the worst possible thing he could do in a public setting. Sit down with women who had accused Hillary Clinton’s husband of some pretty awful stuff.
Ferguson: I did not think that Donald Trump could stoop any lower than he already had in this campaign, and I was surprised to be proven wrong.
Trump ignores multiple questions about why his star power allows him to touch women without their consent, how many women he may have touched without their consent, and why. Trump doesn’t respond, but at the end Paula Jones yells to reporters: “Why don’t you all go ask Bill Clinton that? Go ahead and ask Hillary as well.”
Conway: We know how Bill Clinton treated those women. But the point there is really how Hillary Clinton, who was supposed to be seen as pro-woman, who was trying to really milk this tape as showing Donald Trump as being against women, it was a reminder that Hillary Clinton had treated women very poorly in the past, and that included the women in that room.
While Hillary Clinton has been accused of threatening or shaming her husband’s accusers in the past, there is little if any evidence she actually did. Politifact rates Trump’s claim that she “viciously attacked” Bill Clinton’s accusers as “mostly false” — not that it mattered to Team Trump.
Lemire: I remember there was definitely a sense of excitement in there that they pulled this off. The Trump campaign was sort of a leaky one. Things got out ahead of them. But this was a complete surprise. And it was at that time someone sent me a picture that they had taken off of the live stream of the event. And it’s me in that moment when I walked in the room and realized what was going on. My mouth was agape. I was slack-jawed at what I was looking at. And right behind me was Steve Bannon with a little smile on his face. I was surprised. He was pleased.
Bossie: We left the room and went back upstairs to Mr. Trump’s suite, and the media covered it for the next two hours. It was — it was — it was the show. It was truly a reality TV episode that the American people, just by ratings of reality TV shows, loved to watch. And for two hours leading up to the debate, instead of talking about Donald Trump, they’re talking about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s relationship with women of their past. We thought it was an obvious winner.
Lemire: This was clearly the Trump campaign’s effort to turn the tables. To change the conversation by, in some ways, doubling down on the idea of sexual assault, but trying to cast the light on the other side.
Reines: There was sort of a debate about what Trump’s press conference with the Clinton accusers meant, and I thought it meant he was getting it out of his system because he didn’t have the balls to do it to her face.
But the Trump campaign isn’t done. Top aides tell reporters they plan to seat the Clinton accusers in the family box — not far from where Bill Clinton will be seated with his daughter, Chelsea, so that he will “finally” have to face them.
Bossie: There’s four family seats for each of the candidates. They’re kind of on a pedestal, if you will, or a riser. They’re on a riser. And they’re right in the line of sight of the candidates.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates: It was agreed by both teams, the Clinton and the Trump team, that there would only be family members in the box. That was their agreement, and that was fine with the commission. That’s what our understanding was, it was a family box.
About 11:00 that morning, one of my people got a call from the Clinton campaign and asked whether or not Claire McCaskill, the United States senator from Missouri, could sit in the Clinton box because there are really only three Clintons. There was President Clinton, Chelsea and her husband, and there was a fourth chair. So one of my people called the Trump campaign and they said, “No, look. We made a deal. Only family members in those boxes, so Senator McCaskill can’t.” We went back to the Clinton campaign, and there was no pushback, because they said, “That was the deal.” They didn’t make a fuss about it. “No, we understand. That’s what the deal was.”
Bossie: I tell our lead advance person on the ground to notify the debate commission that we’re going to use those four seats for these four women, that we’re gonna put them there, instead of Melania and some of the kids.
Fahrenkopf: That clearly was a violation of what both campaigns had agreed to with the commission and what our position was, and the Trump people had enforced that rule against the Clintons that morning. “No, only family.”
Bossie: To which our response was, “We don’t care. You know, we’re gonna put those four people in those four seats, tell ’em.” To which our advance guys were, you know, a little nervous because it’s a big — this is not a small thing: 80 million people watching this debate. It’s a big production. Making any change is a big deal. But we wanted, again, the Clinton campaign to have to deal with, because if we didn’t push back, the debate commission may never tell the Clinton campaign what’s up.
Klain: So I went to the representatives of the debate commission and said, “Hey, look, we all had to provide names of people sitting in the friends and family VIP section. And these people, these women, were not on their list, so I don’t understand this.” And they were like, “Well, no, of course not, they are not on the list and so they can’t sit in that section.” So I said, “You guys are really going to enforce that, right?” Because security had to clear the names. And they were like, “Nope, if they try to bring them into the friends and family section, we won’t allow it to happen.” But we kind of knew he was there, he was the nominee and he was going to get them in the hall somehow.
8:04 p.m. ET: Conway, who had previously told reporters she had advised Trump against bringing up Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, tweets at Hillary Clinton asking if she would acknowledge Broaddrick, Jones et al., tagging it #girlpower.
Fahrenkopf: Neither entourage had arrived at the debate site. They were on their way with the cars and so forth. So I went over to the room, a holding room where the Trump people were, and I knocked on the door, and I asked to see Rick Ahearn and Don McGahn, who is now White House counsel, as you know, and I said, “Guys, you can’t do this,” and they kinda looked at me with a blank stare. They said, “Do what?” I said, “You can’t put the women in the box. That’s family-only. You agreed to that this morning.” And it was clear to me that they didn’t know a thing about this.
Fahrenkopf, who is about to go onstage to address the audience before the debate, then huddles with an assistant.
Fahrenkopf: I said, “Look, when they get here, you can say you talked to me and I said if you try to put those women in the family box, I will have security stop it, and you don’t want the publicity that might come from something like that. So tell them not to do it.”
Fahrenkopf, though, is bluffing.
Fahrenkopf: I don’t have security at all. Security is the Secret Service, OK? And I didn’t have time to run and find a Secret Service agent and say, “Hey look, this may happen. You’ve gotta stop it.” I was out onstage. There just wasn’t time for me to do anything, but the commission does not have our own private security forces. We work very closely with the Secret Service. They’re the ones who are there, so I don’t know what I would have done, to tell you the truth.
8:45 p.m. ET: A stir goes through the audience as the women who appeared alongside Trump as accusers of Bill Clinton are ushered into the auditorium to sit at the front row of the audience sections. Cameras are firing. Giuliani escorts Broaddrick, Shelton and Willey into the debate hall.
Fahrenkopf: Just as I was finishing my remarks, I happened to look back over, and I could see Rudy Giuliani leading these three women across the floor.
Ken Bone, town hall participant: There was an audible gasp on the stage. Everybody up on the stage, whether they were leaning Trump or leaning Hillary, thought that that was just a tasteless move. “I’ve been accused of being insensitive with women or inappropriately conducting myself around women — well, so did your husband.” Most of us were adults up on the stage, you know, professionals who thought that bad behavior doesn’t excuse bad behavior. Just because Susie pushed you on the playground doesn’t mean you get to dip her pigtails in the inkwell and call it even.
Reines: What kind of stunt are they going to pull? Are they going to go and try to take a selfie with President Clinton?
Fahrenkopf: I was afraid about it. I was concerned about it.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is attending the debate: I look up, and here comes Giuliani, walking across this open area, leading these women behind him. He led them in like an usher. And I thought, can this be true? And sure enough, they walked up the stairs and sat down.
Clinton’s accusers take their seats in the front row directly in front of Durbin and Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.
Fahrenkopf: No problem, they were allowed to sit there, and it was only then that I realized that we had avoided something that I think would have really destroyed the debate and the dignity and the integrity of the debate.
Durbin: Someone leaned over and said, “Those are the accusers, the Clinton accusers.” I leaned over to my wife and to Congresswoman Bustos, and I said, “You can assume that we are on camera now and will be for the entire debate.” And we were. So I said, “Everything you say, every expression on your face is going to be picked up by the camera.” And I sat there like the great stone face, saying I’m not going to smile, I’m not going to frown. I don’t want to be part of the setup for whatever this picture is.
Fahrenkopf sits a row behind Durbin.
Durbin: And he leaned over to me and he said, “You know who’s sitting in front of you?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And he said, “The Trump campaign wanted them to be sitting onstage in the family box of the Trump campaign. And we said no, refused. We weren’t going to let that happen, turned them down. So they wanted front-row seats here in the bleachers.”
Bossie: We just were like, OK, they’ll go in these four and we’ll still have the same result.
Paula Jones joins the group of accusers a few minutes later. Also seated with them: Tiffany Trump, who can’t sit with the rest of the Trump family because of space. Melania Trump arrives at the debate wearing Gucci’s “pussy bow” shirt. A Trump campaign spokeswoman later insists her fashion choice was “not intentional.”
A little before 9 p.m. ET: The Clinton and Trump families are escorted into the debate hall. Bill Clinton, who has been briefed about Trump’s unexpected presser before his arrival, stands and hands with Melania Trump. He also shakes hands with Trump’s children Ivanka, Eric and Don Jr.
After the first debate, Don Jr. had told reporters he was proud of his father for refraining from bringing up Clinton’s sex scandals.
Bill Clinton does not appear to look at his accusers. Chelsea Clinton walks into the debate hall a few minutes later — avoiding handshakes with the Trump family.
Bossie: We wanted to push hard enough to where, again, as part of the effort to get inside of their heads to help distract them, to run an operation. So we did.
Stone: If you saw the look on Bill Clinton’s face, it had the desired effect.
Haberman: He was very upset. Visibly very upset.
Stone: This is just like a prizefight. You try to get inside the head of your opponent. You’re trying to psych your opponent out.
Haberman: Roger Stone had been pushing a lot of this for a long time. But bringing them to the debate and shoving them in her face like that was so beyond any norm that we had ever experienced. There were a lot of things that happened on this campaign like that, things our brain couldn’t process immediately because we have never seen that happen before. This was one of those moments.
Bossie: They had probably gotten in a little bit of a tizzy over it. That was kinda the effort.
“I don’t know what the Trump campaign was hoping to accomplish other than the obvious,” Clinton later writes in her campaign memoir. “Dredge up old allegations that had been litigated years before, divert attention from the Access Hollywood tape, throw me off my game, and distract voters from the election’s unbelievably high stakes. He wasn’t trying to make a stand for these women. He was just using them.”
Benenson: She knew, you know, as we were prepping before Sunday night, that this was a likelihood. And I think at first her reaction was, “He really — he would — really? He’s gonna do that?” And we had to really, you know, get her to believe it, as many of us at first thought they wouldn’t do it, but they did. And we had to, in everything, in the prep sessions. And our prep sessions were kind of not as smooth as we would have liked. Because I think the tape and having to adjust for this was complicated. The town-hall setting was unfamiliar. We had to navigate that.
Backstage, Hillary Clinton huddles with top aides one final time.
Palmieri: I went to talk to her before she went out onstage. And so I walked into that room. I said, “OK. So this move was designed to do one thing and one thing only. Throw you off your game.” She’s like, “I got that.” I said, “But the great thing is it didn’t do it.” And she’s like, “No, it didn’t.” She said, “Nope, didn’t do it.” Just said, “No, didn’t do it.”
Klain: We were finishing up our little pregame ritual before we’re sending her off on the stage. I turn to her and say, “Just dial it out. He’s just trying to get in your head.” She turned to me and smiled and said, “You think?” That gave me a sense of confidence that she was not rattled by this.
9 p.m. ET: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet on the debate stage.
“It was the most tense room I’ve ever been in for the first 30 minutes, certainly, of a debate,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who co-moderated the event with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, recalled on the air recently.
Trump, who was asked by Cooper to address his comments on the “Access Hollywood” video, immediately pivoted to his vow to “knock the hell out of ISIS.”
“When we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have them, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over and you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this. The carnage all over the world and they look and they see, can you imagine the people that are frankly doing so well against us with ISIS, and they look at our country and see what’s going on. Yes, I am very embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it’s locker-room talk and it’s one of those things.”
Backstage, anxious Clinton staffers were watching on a monitor, waiting for her to address the tape — and to confront Trump.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over the last 48 hours about what we heard and saw,” Clinton said onstage. “You know, with prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them on politics, policies, principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve. Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander in chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.”
“There were 15 to 20 people in the hold, and there’s usually whispering, but when she gave that answer it was just silent,” Klain said. “You could feel the emotional impact of it. Very elegant.”
But Trump voters, as the world would soon discover, weren’t interested in elegance.
When Clinton said it’s good someone with Trump’s temperament was “not in charge of the law in our country,” he responded with a haymaker: “Because you would be in jail.”
“He was back on his solid ground of locking her up,” Klain said. “It was a reminder to his core supporters about the essence of his candidacy.”
It was also a window into how he would deal with the constant swirl of scandals within his White House. After a dizzying weekend, when at times Trump seemed on the verge of imploding, he steadied himself by reverting to a raging, belligerent, but familiar form.
“I think that weekend really is what set us on the course we’re on,” Haberman said.
“The pressure was on him not to collapse,” Benenson said. “And he didn’t. So he was in it and saved his candidacy that night.”
For Trump, the storm that arrived exactly a month before the election had passed. And the rulebook for American politics, at least for one election, changed.
“What we don’t know is, are those rules only for Donald Trump because of his status as a pop-culture media figure and they won’t work for a mortal human-being politician?” Stone said. “Or have the rules changed permanently for everybody? We won’t know until the next presidential race.”
This oral history was reported by Michael Isikoff, Dylan Stableford, Hunter Walker, Holly Bailey, Liz Goodwin, Lisa Belkin, Garance Franke-Ruta and Gabby Kaufman. It was written by Stableford. The documentary was produced by Brian Prowse-Gany and Sarah Boxer.
Back to top