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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump scrambled to prevent his campaign from falling apart early on Saturday with a hastily prepared video statement expressing regret for making obscene comments about women.
Trump declared himself a changed man, but raised the infidelities of former President Bill Clinton and slammed his Democratic opponent in the November 8 election, Hillary Clinton, saying he would talk more about their past in coming days.
Disclosure of a 2005 video of Trump talking on an open microphone showed the then reality TV star speaking openly and crudely about groping women and trying to seduce a married woman.
The video landed just ahead of the second presidential debate on Sunday night, which had been seen as critical for Trump to try to rebound from a dip in some opinion polls after a rocky performance in the first debate.
“Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong, and I apologise,” Trump said in his video statement, posted on his Facebook page.
“This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today,” he said, before turning to former President Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
“We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday,” Trump said in his statement.
The bombshell development rocked Trump’s campaign to its core and some Republican lawmakers disavowed him.
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan withdrew an invitation for Trump to visit Wisconsin on Saturday and there were some calls for the New York businessman to step aside to let his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, become the party’s standard-bearer.
“Twitter and social media are literally blowing up with this story,” said FRANCE 24’s Washington correspondent Gallagher Fenwick, describing the fallout from Trump’s obscene comments as a “very serious crisis” for the Republican Party.
“At this point it is very difficult to find voices out there who are still willing to openly, publicly defend Donald Trump,” Fenwick added.
Trump’s comments aired in a near-constant loop on US news programmes on Friday.
“I did try and fuck her. She was married,” Trump said about one woman, before discussing his attraction to others.
“I just start kissing them,” he said. “And when you’re a star they let you do it.”
“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” Trump said.
A stream of Republican leaders condemned Trump’s lewd remarks, but a few lawmakers distanced themselves further.
US Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who has been one of Clinton’s fiercest critics, said he had retracted his endorsement of Trump, telling CNN he would not be able to look his 15-year-old daughter in the eye if he voted for Trump.
Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert said on Twitter he would also no longer vote for Trump. “Tonight, millions of Republicans are facing a moment of truth,” Herbert said.
Republican lawmaker Mike Coffman from Colorado told CBS that Trump should “step aside” and said “his defeat at this point seems almost certain”.
Trump, known for his unconventional and controversial speaking style, has made a series of gaffes in his campaign but the graphic nature of the clip would hurt his standing among women, independents, and wavering Republicans, said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
“We’ve never seen something like this Trump clip in a modern presidential campaign,” Yepsen said, calling the incident “sad for the American political system” and for Trump’s supporters.
Republican strategist John Thomas said Trump’s comments had just made it harder for the GOP candidate to win over a key segment of the electorate that has so far shunned him.
“The winning coalition for Donald Trump is very simple: he needed to expand the tent – and largely that meant white, educated women,” Thomas told FRANCE 24. “I don’t know whether tonight put a nail in the coffin on that issue, but it certainly made it a steeper hill to climb.”
Still, Trump’s past controversial comments have failed to shake his core supporters, said David Axelrod, a former political adviser to Democratic President Barack Obama.
“Appalling as the (Trump) tape is, I’m reminded of all the times we have said, THIS time he’s REALLY done,” Axelrod said on Twitter.