Washington (AFP) - A barrage of accusations that Donald Trump groped or inappropriately kissed women have rocked the race for the White House, with the Republican nominee angrily denying the reports and his campaign branding them "character assassination."
Claims by at least five women in accounts reported by The New York Times, NBC, People Magazine and other outlets came to light after Trump said in Sunday's presidential debate with his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that he had never sexually assaulted women.
His denial came as he tried to set his campaign back on track after a video recording from 2005 surfaced Friday in which the 70-year-old real estate mogul is heard making lewd boasts about how his celebrity meant he could grope women with impunity.
"When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything... Grab them by the pussy," Trump is heard saying.
When he meets beautiful women, he adds, "I just start kissing them."
Trump has apologized for the comments, dismissing them as "locker room" banter.
With just 27 days until the November 8 election, and Clinton in the driver's seat with national polls in her favor, Trump's free-falling campaign is fueling Republican worries the controversy may seriously damage the party.
- 'Like an octopus' -
Former businesswoman Jessica Leeds, 74, told The New York Times that Trump groped her on a flight in the early 1980s as they sat next to each other in first class.
About 45 minutes after takeoff, Trump lifted the armrest and began grabbing her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt, she said.
"He was like an octopus," she told the daily. "His hands were everywhere."
"It was an assault," she added.
Rachel Crooks said she was a 22-year-old receptionist at a real estate company in Trump Tower in 2005 when she encountered Trump outside an elevator in the building one morning.
After she introduced herself, he "kissed me directly on the mouth," she told the daily.
"It was so inappropriate," Crooks added. "I was so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that."
"None of this ever took place," Trump angrily told The New York Times, calling the reporter a "disgusting human being."
- 'I was startled' -
Among the accusations, Mindy McGillivray, now 36, alleged that Trump grabbed her at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in early 2003, the Palm Beach Post reported on Wednesday.
"It was pretty close to the center of my butt," she said of the incident that happened as she was working as a photographer's assistant at an event. "I was startled. I jumped."
None of the women reported the incidents to law enforcement.
The New York Times and Palm Beach Post spoke with friends and family of the women, who corroborated their accounts and knew of the incidents before the "hot mic" video was released last week.
Former Miss Utah Temple Taggart McDowell told NBC on Wednesday that Trump kissed her on the lips when she was a 21-year-old contestant in his Miss Universe beauty pageant in 1997.
Asked about last week's leaked tape, she suppressed tears, saying, "I have a daughter now and it's really hard because you think of sending your little daughter out there with men like that who think like that."
More sordid allegations came from Miss Washington 2013, Cassandra Searles. Yahoo News reported that she had called Trump a "misogynist" in a Facebook post, and said in a comment that he had "continually grabbed my ass and invited me to his hotel room."
People Magazine also published an account late on Wednesday by a former staff writer who said Trump forced himself on her when she interviewed him in 2005.
"Trump shut the door behind us," Natasha Stoynoff wrote. "I turned around, and within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat."
- 'Character assassination' -
The Trump campaign fired back, calling The New York Times article a political attack and demanding a retraction.
"This entire article is fiction, and for the New York Times to launch a completely false, coordinated character assassination against Mr Trump on a topic like this is dangerous," senior communicators advisor Jason Miller said in a statement.
ABC News reported three senior-level sources as saying Trump is drafting a lawsuit against the newspaper for defamation.
"Your article is reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se," Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz wrote in a letter to the daily.
"It is apparent from, among other things, the timing of the article, that it is nothing more than a politically-motivated effort to defeat Mr Trump's candidacy."
- 'More than just words' -
But the allegations are alarming a divided Republican Party that its losses may go well beyond the presidential election on November 8.
House Speaker Paul Ryan -- who escalated a feud with Trump on Monday by saying he would no longer actively support him -- told top party donors on Wednesday that he fears the controversy surrounding the Republican nominee could enable the Democrats to win back control of Congress on November 8, Politico website reported.
The Clinton campaign's communications director Jennifer Palmieri issued a statement calling The New York Times story "disturbing."
"These reports suggest that he lied on the debate stage and that the disgusting behavior he bragged about in the tape is more than just words."