On a Friday, the world heard vulgar audio of Trump boasting about forcing himself on women. By Sunday night, the episode that was supposed to doom him had begun to recede.
Donald Trump, down and unwilling to get out, saw only one way back up: Go lower.
Two days had passed since the signal humiliation of his political life — the publication of audio in which Trump boasted about forcing himself on women — and the candidate was desperate to redirect the conversation. The result, less than two hours before an October 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton in St. Louis, was a gambit so secretive that several concerned parties were left in the dark.
Campaign advisers told Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chair who was helping with debate preparations inside the team's hotel suite, that Trump had to leave for a perfunctory "meet and greet." They feared that Priebus would object if he knew the truth: Trump would be appearing on camera with women who had for years accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct — a brazen attempt to turn the issue of mistreating women back against the Clinton family.
And those accusers, who had been invited to the debate as surprise Trump guests but had little warning on the fuller itinerary, seemed unsure themselves about what awaited them as they were led into a reception room at the hotel. "I had no idea what we were going in there for," one of them, Juanita Broaddrick, recalled. "But that doesn't matter. I would do it all again."
Before the room's doors opened to the media and the women were revealed, Stephen Bannon, the campaign's chief executive, shared his vision for the spectacle: "They're going to rub up on you and be crying," he remembered telling Trump. "And you're going to be empathetic."
Trump closed his eyes, Bannon said, tilting his head back "like a Roman emperor."
"I love it," the future president ruled.
Four years later, Trump looks, to all the political world, like a significant underdog again. His advisers concede that if the election were held today, he would lose to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, most likely by a considerable margin.
But as the president road-tests a series of scattershot tactics to kick-start his struggling campaign — race-baiting through a national crisis; defending symbols of the Confederacy; denying the objective realities of a pandemic — allies and adversaries say their minds have wandered lately to his lowest moment in 2016, the last time his chances appeared so dire.
The release and aftermath of the so-called Access Hollywood tape is at once a reminder of how quickly the contours of an election can change and of how far Trump is willing to go to change them. While some close to Trump have at times questioned his focus and resolve in this reelection, his behavior over a weekend of electoral peril in 2016 supplies a case study in how he can respond when he feels cornered — when he suspects he may lose.
"That's his strength," said Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director who has since called for Trump's defeat. "When God was handing out shame genes, Trump picked up shameless genes from that countertop."
Trump's capacity for earth-scorching politics, rarely in doubt, has often been most conspicuous in times of campaign distress. When Ben Carson surpassed him in some polls of Republican voters in 2015, Trump appeared to swipe at his rival's faith. When Ted Cruz proved a resilient primary foe, Trump posted an unflattering picture of Cruz's wife and threatened to "spill the beans" about her, without elaborating.
This is a man who urged a foreign power to investigate Biden, more than a year before Election Day 2020, spawning an impeachment inquiry at home.
In none of those episodes was Trump confronting the headwinds he faces now, compelling veterans of 2016 to predict an ugliness in the coming months that will test the bounds of even the most cynical strategist's imagination.
They have advised the Biden campaign, sitting comfortably ahead in July, to brace itself.
"It makes sense for the Biden team to understand why they're winning today," said Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager. "It makes even more sense for them to think about how they lose."
Of course, even set against a trove of October surprises through history, 2016 was something different. In a span of hours on Friday, October 7, intelligence community leaders publicly accused Russia of interfering in the election, The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood article and WikiLeaks began disseminating hacked emails from John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair — timing that her team did not find coincidental.
The special counsel, Robert Mueller, looked into whether the release of Podesta's emails was connected to the Access Hollywood tape but did not publicly establish a link to the Trump campaign. In the end, many Clinton aides believe, nothing that day affected the election as much as a letter three weeks later from James Comey, the FBI director, reviving the topic of Clinton's private email server.
For admirers of Trump, these flashbacks register now as a hopeful memory, a testament to the unpredictability that has long defined his political arc and might yet again.
Today, few of them linger on the details of the weekend when Trump seemed all but done: the mass of Republicans urging him to quit; the taped apology that top advisers have likened to a "hostage video"; a public relations calamity so total that even the makers of Tic Tacs, the breath-fresheners referenced by Trump on the audio, sent a statement condemning him.
What supporters do remember is what it felt like to see Trump fight back.
"I found that a lot of women reacted to his strength. And I continue to hear that," said Mica Mosbacher, a Republican fundraiser who sits on the "Women for Trump" 2020 advisory board. "No one's perfect."
Trump's first instinct, as ever, was defiance: It wasn't me.
Debate practice at Trump Tower had been sidetracked by the low hum of panic, as an aide, Hope Hicks, handed him a collection of papers — a transcript of his vulgar remarks, recorded in 2005 and provided by The Post, which was seeking comment from the campaign before publication.
"I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet."
"When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."
"Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."
Trump said these did not sound like things he would say. Advisers allowed themselves to wonder, briefly, if it had all been a misunderstanding.
Then the audio file landed. Trump listened.
"It's me," he said.
Across the river in Brooklyn, several Clinton aides had been huddling in Mook's office, plotting how best to respond to what they had assumed would be the story of the day: the intelligence community's assessment of Russian meddling. A commotion in the headquarters' wider workspace drew them out.
By this point in the race, her staff members had come to view their task as a kind of teeth-gritting quest, more slog than victory march, pocked with self-inflicted stumbles and external shocks in relentless measure.
Even ostensible political boosts — and this certainly looked like one — seemed to arrive with a side of nausea.
"Here's the order," said Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign's communications director, recalling her sequence of emotions at the tape's release: "Revulsion at what he said, disappointment that no one was going to care about Russia and dread for Hillary about how unhinged he was going to become."
Clinton herself was at a hotel in suburban Westchester County, where she and advisers were holding debate sessions. On the televisions in a dining area, the group could see cable-news chyrons about the tape. But initially, nobody could work the sound.
In her 2017 memoir, Clinton described an abiding sadness upon hearing Trump's words eventually. "That tape is never going away," she wrote. "It's part of our history now."
Yet her husband's history, entwined with her own, also made the contents of the recording especially uncomfortable for the campaign.
Even before Access Hollywood, her aides had raised the prospect of Trump highlighting Bill Clinton's accusers (and Hillary Clinton's posture toward them) to excuse his own misdeeds. And quickly, Trump signalled that Bill Clinton's past would figure in his campaign's immediate future.
In a statement to reporters as the story went live, Trump described his own comments as "locker room banter" — a phrase he came up with himself, advisers say — and accused Bill Clinton of saying "far worse to me on the golf course."
"I apologise," Trump concluded, "if anyone was offended."
Some Trump confidantes, including his daughter Ivanka, urged him to demonstrate less qualified contrition. He agreed to record a video, to be released hours later, but resisted much of the advice.
The ensuing product — a surreal 90-second address, delivered in front of a faux skyline — was a hodgepodge of his team's duelling impulses.
He issued a rare admission of outright fault ("I said it, I was wrong, and I apologise"), framed his life as a tale of growth ("my travels have also changed me") and pivoted swiftly to accusing the Clintons of hypocrisy.
"We will discuss this more in the coming days," he pledged. "See you at the debate on Sunday."
If many top Republicans had gotten their way, Trump would not have made it to the debate on Sunday.
Publicly and privately, lawmakers were calling on him to step aside and allow Mike Pence to lead the ticket. Party officials projected devastation down-ballot. Others simply could not stomach associating with the nominee.
"I just felt embarrassed," said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman who was at the time seeking reelection to a competitive South Florida seat and had already disavowed Trump's campaign. "In Spanish, we have this concept called 'pena ajena.' You're not involved in the activity, but you feel shame."
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan disinvited Trump from a Saturday rally at which they were slated to appear together in Wisconsin. "There is a bit of an elephant in the room," Ryan told the crowd, navigating persistent jeers.
"Where is Trump?" attendees shouted.
Back in New York, junior aides tracked the defections, exchanging mutters and fears.
"Are we ever going to be able to work in Washington again?"
The boss was more puckish, if only to try lightening the mood: "Certainly has been an interesting 24 hours!" he tweeted on Saturday morning.
Trump gathered senior staff members inside Trump Tower and asked Priebus what he was hearing. What the party chair was hearing, he answered, was that Trump could either drop out or lose in a historic landslide.
"So," Trump said, "what's the good news?"
The flourish resonates four years later as a tidy encapsulation of the Trumpian worldview in a campaign crisis. In recent months, he has been known to lash out at advisers who share dispiriting poll numbers, insisting that his position cannot be so precarious.
People who know him cite this semimagical thinking as a kind of political superpower, when harnessed effectively.
"Don't underestimate his personal resiliency," Scaramucci said. He recalled the president's advice to him once about news-cycle velocity: "He said, 'Yeah, you get negative press. It lasts about a week. And then it blows over, and they're onto something else, and nobody cares.'"
On this weekend, though, Trump advisers sensed that little would blow over on its own.
The idea of deploying Bill Clinton's accusers had filtered through the Trump orbit for months, discussed among Bannon and allies like Aaron Klein of Breitbart News — the hard-right, Trump-supporting site that Bannon had run — and long promoted by Roger Stone, the informal Trump adviser and infamous Republican hell-raiser. (On Friday, Trump commuted Stone's sentence on seven felony crimes after he had been convicted last year of obstructing a congressional investigation into the Trump 2016 campaign and possible ties to Russia.)
Just before "Billy Bush weekend," as Bannon calls it (a nod to the Access Hollywood personality on tape with Trump), three of the Clinton accusers had been in Washington for interviews with Klein.
As Republican pleas for Trump's ouster multiplied, Bannon recognised an opportunity. He said he called Klein, now an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and asked how the Clinton material looked. The answer pleased him. New travel arrangements were made.
In the meantime, Trump sought temporary comfort in a familiar balm: applause.
By 5pm on Saturday, supporters had clustered along Fifth Avenue, waving signs from the sidewalk. Trump descended to the marbled lobby, joined by his eldest son and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, and stepped through the glass front door.
He pumped his right fist, to cheers. Fans reached out to graze his suit jacket.
A reporter asked if he would stay in the race. "Hundred percent," Trump replied.
And then he turned back inside, clapping on the way.
Trump seemed to be calling his shot.
"EXCLUSIVE," he tweeted Sunday morning, sharing a Breitbart link. "Video Interview: Bill Clinton Accuser Juanita Broaddrick Relives Brutal Rapes."
There was little doubt that Trump would talk about women from the Clintons' past in St. Louis. But few knew that four women were on their way themselves: three who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct — Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones — and a fourth, Kathy Shelton, who in her youth said she was raped by a man whom Hillary Clinton represented as a court-appointed defense lawyer in the 1970s.
Bill Clinton has long denied wrongdoing in these three instances; Hillary Clinton has said she was displeased at the court appointment in the Shelton case but had little choice but to accept it.
A couple of hours before the debate, Broaddrick said, she was taken up a hotel service elevator to meet Trump privately with Willey and Shelton. Jones arrived later, in time for the next portion.
"It was delightful," Broaddrick said. "And then as we start to leave, Steve Bannon says, 'Let's go through this door here.'"
The women were ushered into an adjacent room with a long table, according to Broaddrick, who assumed a catered meal was imminent. They were asked to sit in a row, shoulder to shoulder. Then Trump entered and took a seat between them, with two chairs on each side of him.
"Let them in," the candidate instructed.
The doors opened to Trump's traveling press corps, which the campaign had brought to the hotel. The reporters appeared confused. Bannon beamed.
"These four very courageous women have asked to be here," Trump said into the cameras, "and it was our honor to help them. And I think they're each going to make just an individual short statement."
The guests praised Trump in succession, at times sharing details of their claims against the Clintons. Trump nodded sternly. It was over in three minutes.
As the gathering broke, reporters called out questions to Trump about touching women without consent. Jones cut in. "Why don't y'all go ask Bill Clinton that?" she said, as Trump stared forward. "Go ahead — ask Hillary, as well."
The Trump team thrilled at the scene, in part because the often leaky campaign had successfully kept a secret. The women were awe-struck but appeared grateful for the megaphone. "Oh, I was so excited," Jones said in an interview. "That felt so good that I got to say that."
At the debate site, Clinton aides absorbed the production with a mix of alarm and performative stoicism — all the more after the Trump campaign tried to place the women in the seating area for the families of the candidates, before finding another spot for them in the debate hall.
Backstage, Hillary Clinton's advisers told her that Trump was merely trying to get in her head.
"Yeah," Hillary Clinton said. "I got that."
"The great thing is, it didn't work," Palmieri remembered replying.
"Nope," Hillary Clinton answered. "Didn't work."
The debate itself, held in a town hall format, was at once stunning and not surprising in its simmering hostility. The two did not shake hands at the start. She called him unfit to serve. He suggested that she would be jailed if he won and often loomed ominously behind her as she spoke.
Trump has said the debate won him the election. At minimum, the evening appeared to stabilise a campaign that seemed liable to capsize for 48 hours.
He made clear that he saw no reason to step aside or submit to further public remorse. Most supporters plainly saw no reason to demand as much, either.
"It's locker-room talk," Trump said, repeating the formulation five times onstage, "and it's one of those things."
By the time he left St. Louis, the episode that was supposed to doom him, by bipartisan consensus, had begun to recede.
But the true coda to the weekend — and perhaps the purest snapshot of Trump's ultimate psychology when he feels attacked — did not come at the debate. Or the next day. Or even with his election weeks later.
It arrived in the months that followed. As he prepared to take office, Trump, validated by his November triumph, began privately floating a curious theory about the tape's authenticity, an alternate history he preferred to the real one: It wasn't him.
Written by: Matt Flegenheimer
Photographs by: Doug Mills and Stephen Crowley
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES