What’s the official party line on this?
1. “More fake news from the New York Times!”
2. “If Obama could fake his birth certificate, Hillary could have faked the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape.”
He vented his annoyance when his daughter Ivanka castigated Mr. Moore by saying there was “a special place in hell for people who prey on children,” according to three staff members who heard his comments.
“Do you believe this?” Mr. Trump asked several aides in the Oval Office. Mr. Moore’s Democratic opponent in the Alabama race, Doug Jones, quickly turned her comments into a campaign ad.
But something deeper has been consuming Mr. Trump. He sees the calls for Mr. Moore to step aside as a version of the response to the now-famous “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitalia, and the flood of groping accusations against him that followed soon after. He suggested to a senator earlier this year that it was not authentic, and repeated that claim to an adviser more recently. (In the hours after it was revealed in October 2016, Mr. Trump acknowledged that the voice was his, and he apologized.)
That was co-authored by Maggie Haberman, who’s been penning insider pieces on the White House since Trump took office and who reiterated Trump’s alleged view of the tape on Twitter after this story was published. If it’s true, it’s fascinating, starting with the fact that he hasn’t questioned the authenticity of the tape publicly. If he’s telling senators and advisors that it’s a likely fake, why hasn’t he said so in an interview? He’s not a man who shies away from conspiracy theories, lord knows. It could be that he has the basic good sense to know that relitigating the “Access Hollywood” tape, particularly in the midst of media “Pervnado” coverage, would only work out badly for him. But you know how Trump is — when he has a bee in his bonnet about something, prudence tends to genuflect before impulse. If it didn’t, James Comey would still be director of the FBI. Has he … convinced himself that the tape might be fake? Or is he gaslighting others out of sheer force of habit? He can’t possibly believe that political pro like a senator or an advisor would entertain the possibility that it wasn’t real. That’s red meat for fans who think all bad news is fake news, and yet, so far, he’s spared Republican voters from his alleged theory.
Which brings us to another mystery: Why didn’t Trump claim last fall that the tape was fake instead of apologizing for it? Denial is his usual M.O. when he’s credibly accused of something. He denied having posed as his own spokesman years ago when chatting on the phone with reporters despite the obvious similarities between his voice and that of, ahem, “John Barron.” He’s been accused by fully a dozen women of various types of sexual misconduct. They’re all liars, Trump insists. When a friend of his warned him last year during the campaign that his tax returns could be leaked as an October surprise, Trump allegedly shrugged it off as no problem: “I’ll say they aren’t mine.” Deny, deny, deny. Normally the strategy works like a charm. Create a shred of doubt in the minds of people who want to support you for other reasons and they’ll seize on that shred as good cause to continue doing so. Roy Moore’s following the same approach and he’ll probably be rewarded with a Senate seat.
But Trump didn’t deny the authenticity of the tape, or at least not publicly. Why not? I’d love to hear Steve Bannon talk candidly about the strategy behind Trump expressing “regret” last fall rather than spinning the tape as a Clinton dirty trick or some other form of overdubbed Democratic chicanery. Maybe it was as simple as Trump having concluded that the evidence was just too strong: His voice is unique and the voice on the tape seemed unmistakably his. And it wasn’t just audio; remember, he was mic’ed up for a TV segment and the tail end of the clip caught him on video emerging with Billy Bush from a bus. Bush also said (months later) that plenty of people at NBC knew about the tape and that he regretted what was said. Presumably, had Trump contested its authenticity, Bush himself would have been pressed to confirm it and would have undercut Trump’s credibility.
Even if he had, though, Trump’s base would have stuck with him. If they could believe that a dozen women were lying, they could convince themselves that a highly damaging audio tape released weeks before the election had been doctored by the nefarious Clinton machine. In the end, I bet Bannon et al. reasoned that the best thing Trump could do when his fitness for office was in question was to make a “presidential” apology. Seem contrite, seem statesmanlike, emphasize that he’s not perfect — which everyone can relate to — and the white suburban voters he was desperate to hold onto might conclude that it was only talk after all, more than a decade old, and everyone’s entitled to a mistake. It worked! But now the pressure of winning an election is off and reporters are sniffing around powerful men who’ve been accused of misconduct. It’d be characteristic of him to swing back towards denial and say something like, “I didn’t remember what I said on that bus, it sounded like me but increasingly I have cause to wonder.” Somehow he’s held off as president on revisiting the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. He must be itching to revisit the authenticity of the tape, despite his advisors’ no doubt frantic pleas not to.