Congressional GOP in Chaos After Party Nominee’s Sexual Assault Comments

On Monday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) huddled with House Republicans on a conference call, telling them “to do what’s best for you in your district.”

By Monday, Ryan had vowed he would not campaign for Trump in the final sprint to Election Day, signaling that the tumult isn’t letting up any time soon. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Leaked video of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women—even “grab[bing] them by the pussy”—threw congressional Republicans into turmoil over the weekend.

A litany of high-profile Republicans in the U.S. Congress and around the country rushed to distance themselves to varying degrees from the Trump campaign following the Friday afternoon bombshell. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Preibus upped the ante early Monday evening, declaring that the party would continue to back Trump after his “heartfelt” apology and debate performance, according to a Politico breaking news alert.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) disinvited Trump from what was supposed to be their first joint appearance on Saturday. By Monday morning, Ryan had vowed that he would not campaign for Trump in the final sprint to Election Day, signaling that the tumult isn’t letting up any time soon.

“The speaker is going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities,” Ryan spokesperson AshLee Strong said to Rewire in an email.

Ryan stopped short of revoking his endorsement of Trump. “There is no update in his position at this time,” Strong said.

Trump slammed Republican leaders on Twitter over the weekend. He singled out Ryan on Monday after the speaker huddled with House Republicans on a conference call, telling them “to do what’s best for you in your district.”

“He made clear to members that his decisions are being driven by what is best for his members, not himself,” according to a source on the call. “He is willing to endure political pressure to help protect our majority.”

Ryan stressed the importance of holding onto Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in the event that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton takes the White House. FiveThirtyEight, which generates election win probabilities based on aggregate polling data, gave Clinton an 83.6 percent chance of beating Trump in November, as of October 10.

“He will spend his entire energy making sure that Hillary Clinton does not get a blank check with a Democrat-controlled Congress,” the source said. His efforts will include campaign stops in at least 17 states and 42 cities this month alone.

Blackburn Provides Support Amid Defections

Trump continued to find staunch support in Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), chair of the House’s so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and member of his “Pro-life Coalition,” which provides guidance on how to restrict abortion rights.

Blackburn said that she found Trump’s comments “indefensible,” but defended him anyway Monday morning in a contentious interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

Many of Blackburn’s GOP colleagues have not been so forgiving. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE), another “pro-life” adviser who Blackburn said led a recent meeting between evangelical leaders and Trump, and others have called to replace the nominee.

Such Republicans are making an impossible request. State election laws, not party leadership, dictate who is or is not on an election ballot, and in many states it’s simply too late to change the ballot. And many people have already cast ballots, including service members overseas.

“What the Republicans are proposing is disenfranchising American voters and ignoring states’ rights all in one breath,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, vice president of law and the courts for Rewire.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), whose record on women’s health was already at the center of her heated race against the state’s governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, had never formally endorsed Trump but now pledged not to vote for him.

Ayotte said she would write in Trump’s GOP running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ leader of a state woefully behind on economic growth, public health, infant and child survival, and poverty, even as he repeatedly touts funneling taxpayer money to fake clinics that lie to pregnant people to persuade them not to seek abortion care. While serving in Congress, Pence supported legislation that would have made the Hyde Amendment permanent and changed the amendment’s exception for rape to “forcible rape,” alarming reproductive health and justice advocates.

“He’s talking about assault of women,” Ayotte said in reference to Trump during a Sunday press conference in Manchester. Ayotte wants her young daughter “to know where I stood” years down the road.

GOP Condemnations Draw on “Wives and Daughters”

Acknowledging that the tape described sexual assault put Ayotte light years ahead of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who told the conservative Weekly Standard that to do so would be a “stretch.”

Invoking her daughter, however, aligned Ayotte with her Republican colleagues, particularly the men of the House and Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), House Oversight and Government Reform Chair Jason Chaffetz (UT), and others issued rebukes relying on a variation of their “wives and daughters”—in each instance, defending women only in the context of their relation to men.

Ryan, meanwhile, delayed a statement for hours, only for it to say that “women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”

Social justice advocates pointed out the trouble with such context.

“Sometimes thinking, ‘How would I feel if this were my daughter, if this were my mother, if this were my wife’ can definitely help men better understand women’s perspective—and empathy is always a good thing. But it is even more important to imagine, ‘How would I feel if this were me?’” Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire in an email.

“Because ultimately, empathy for a woman’s perspective should not depend on the fact that she is some man’s mother, daughter, or wife,” Martin said.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (UT) issued one of the Republican statements that did not draw on “wives and daughters,” instead stating that “all women deserve to be treated with respect.”

Hatch “was immediately concerned by [Trump’s] remarks and saw them as objectively offensive,” a spokesperson told Rewire in an email.

Many Republicans only jumped off the Trump train after he blatantly preyed on a white woman, even though he has run a campaign based on “blatant racism, sexism, anti-immigrant tirades, and fear-mongering,” as Jodi Jacobson, Rewire‘s editor in chief, wrote in an editorial.

Marge Baker, People for the American Way’s executive vice president, echoed this sentiment, citing the undercurrent of venom toward many groups of people.

“It shouldn’t take having a wife, or a daughter, or a friend to be able to understand and say that this is wrong and it’s inexcusable, any more than … you’d have to be a Muslim or a Latino or a disabled person to be able to understand and say that the way Trump disrespects members of those communities is absolutely wrong,” she said in a phone interview.

Republicans, she said, “should have been denouncing him all along.”

“Some are grasping for straws, saying, ‘Oh, this has put me over the edge,” she said, dismissing such condemnations as a growing awareness “that this man at the top of the ticket is not only unacceptable, and not only intolerable, but he’s also looking increasingly unelectable, so they’re trying to cut their losses.”

“Underneath all of this is the fact that there’s huge swaths of the American public that Donald Trump is absolutely insulting, disrespecting. And there is no way to dance around the fact that what we heard on the tapes was a description of sexual assault,” Baker said. “And that is not OK.”