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Donald Trump Defiant as Top Republicans Flee Candidacy

Ali Vitali and Benjy Sarlin
Donald Trump
Mike Segar | Reuters

A defiant Donald Trump pledged to finish out the race on Saturday as a stampede of Republican politicians denounced his behavior toward women and a number openly called on him to quit.

"I'd never withdraw," Trump told The Washington Post. "I've never withdrawn in my life."

Trump also told The Wall Street Journal there is "zero chance I'll quit."

"I never, ever give up," Trump told the newspaper.

"The support I'm getting is unbelievable, because Hillary Clinton is a horribly flawed candidate," he added.

Trump has weathered plenty of storms in the past, but the severity of the response from his own party over and the timing, just 30 days before the election, left his campaign fighting for its life on Saturday morning.

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A taped apology just after midnight on Friday night that also promised a new war on Bill Clinton's sex scandals did little to stem the bleeding, which appeared to worsen as multiple prominent Republicans and conservatives withdrew their endorsements.

Among those who dropped their support just on Saturday morning: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV), Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), and radio host Hugh Hewitt. in the case of Roby, Crapo, and Hewitt, they called on Trump to drop out. Moore Capito said Trump should "reexamine his candidacy." Ayotte said she would write in Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump's running mate, on her ballot.

As the day continued, the response threatened to spread into a panic. Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), running for an open senate seat, delivered a speech in Las Vegas demanding Trump withdraw and allow the GOP to select a replacement. Rep. Joe Byrne (R-AL) released yet another statement withdrawing support from Trump and asking him to end his candidacy.

But with just a month left to go, Trump replacing is not an easy task. Ballots are already printed, voting has already begun in some states, and the party's rules would require Trump to voluntarily leave the race before officials could pick another candidate. Politically, it would set off a civil war between party leaders and Trump's most passionate supporters and give the party little time to pick a consensus alternative and introduce them to the public.

NBC News also learned that Pence, who was scheduled to attend a Wisconsin event with Speaker Paul Ryan and RNC chairman Reince Priebus after Ryan disinvited Trump, would no longer appear.

The timing of newly obtained audio from 2005 in which Trump boasted how he used his stardom to approach women and "grab 'em by the pussy," could not be much worse for the nominee, whose standing with women in surveys has already been abominable throughout the campaign.

"This one matters," a Trump campaign staffer conceded, adding they had "no idea" how to spin the story in their favor.

"It's over," a Republican strategist who has been supportive of Trump said on Friday. "Never seen anything like it. Never will."

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), speaks speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill July 12, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson | Getty Images

In the immediate term, the tape is threatening to decisively break Trump's support within the GOP, whose leaders must weigh whether its worth it to defend Trump and risk poisoning the party brand or distance themselves and risk demoralizing their base.

Based on the early reaction, they're choosing the latter approach.

"No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner," RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "Ever."

Speaker Paul Ryan condemned Trump as well and announced the nominee would no longer attend a high-profile scheduled event with Ryan and Priebus in Wisconsin on Saturday.

"I am sickened by what I heard today," he said. "Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests."

Shortly afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell followed suit with a statement of his own blasting Trump's "repugnant" comments.

"As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape," he added.

Priebus has stood by Trump through previous crises while Ryan and McConnell have often stayed quiet rather than criticize him, making their statements especially dramatic.

They weren't the only ones criticizing Trump on Friday as the story started to look like a tipping point for his detractors within the GOP.

"I think the wheels just came off," a top staffer at a GOP super PAC said.

Republican candidates, in particular, rushed to condemn Trump.

  • Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is in a tough race and has refused to endorse Trump, that Trump "should drop out" and that the GOP should move to organize an emergency replacement. He called Trump "a malignant clown — unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States."
  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who is under fire in her home state for calling Trump a role model in a recent debate, immediately issued a statement on Friday calling Trump's comments "totally inappropriate and offensive." The next day she announced she would no longer vote for him.
  • Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who supports Trump and also faces a difficult re-election, called Trump's comments "inappropriate and completely unacceptable"on Twitter. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) tweeted that they were "outrageous and unacceptable." Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) said they were "offensive and wrong."
  • "No woman should ever be victimized by this kind of inappropriate behavior," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement. "He alone bears the burden of his conduct and alone should suffer the consequences."
  • In Colorado, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), who holds a competitive seat, said Trump should leave the race "for the good of the country" and to improve the GOP's chances against Clinton given his "almost certain" defeat.
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who has made no secret of his disdain for Trump, called on Trump to withdraw from the race. "Character matters," Sasse tweeted, adding that Trump "is obviously not going to win. But he can still make an honorable move: Step aside & let Mike Pence try."
  • Sen. MIke Crapo (R-ID), who had previously endorsed Trump, withdrew his support over his "disrespectful, profane, and demeaning" behavior and cited his work on domestic violence prevention as a factor in the decision. He called on Trump to drop out and allow Pence to take over.

The Trump audio also prompted indignant statements from former Trump rivals like John Kasich and Jeb Bush. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who recently endorsed Trump after pointedly refusing to do so at the GOP convention, condemned the video as "disturbing and inappropriate," but did not withdraw his support.

"Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America's face to the world," 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who has denounced Trump throughout his candidacy, tweeted.

Notably, few high-profile Trump supporters immediately rescinded their endorsement, but the number slowly continued to grow into Saturday morning.

One major exception was in Utah, where Trump has proven especially unpopular with the state's large Mormon community.

  • Republican Gov. Gary Herbert announced he would not support Trump.
  • Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah who recently indicated he would support Trump, called on Trump to leave the race.
  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), how helped lead House efforts to investigate Clinton, told local news station FOX13 he
  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who had already indicated he did not support Trump, also asked him withdraw in an impassioned video plea. "With all due respect, sir, you are the distraction," he said in response to Trump's taped apology.

Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), a conservative in a safe seat who investigated Clinton with the House Select Committee on Benghazi, also announced on Saturday she would not vote for Trump and asked him to "step aside."

Some current and former Trump allies began to join the stampede as well. Radio host Hugh Hewitt, who had dutifully supported Trump over the last several months, abruptly shifted course on Saturday morning.

"For the benefit of the country, the party and his family, and for his own good, [Donald Trump], should withdraw," he . "More and worse oppo coming."

A former Trump policy coordinator on Saturday morning denounced his ex-boss. "I regret my decision" to join the campaign, Pratik Chougule said in a post on Linkedin. "Although I left the campaign in August for a variety of reasons, I wish that I had done so sooner and spoken out more forcefully against a candidate who embodies the worst excesses of our culture."

At the same time, Trump did get some backup from prominent evangelical supporters who indicated a willingness to overlook his sins.

  • "I in no way condone [the comments] but I don't condemn him," Pastor Darrell Scott, a Trump adviser, said. He explained that Trump's 2005 remarks came before he had "spiritual influences" in his life.
  • Tony Perkins, who leads the conservative Family Research Council, told BuzzFeed that he did not reject Trump in the wake of the tape but made clear his support for the candidate "has never been based upon shared values, it is based upon shared concerns" about various issues, including terrorism and the supposed "systemic attack on religious liberty" during the Obama era.

Democrats, eager to fan the flames, are rapidly moving to demand more Republican candidates renounce Trump or be tarred by association. Hillary Clinton's campaign rapidly featuring the 2005 footage.

The news comes as Trump looks to bounce back in Sunday's town hall with Clinton after a difficult first debate last month that included withering attacks on his treatment of women — attacks Trump made dramatically worse the next week by feuding with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado and telling voters to "check out [a] sex tape" that apparently did not exist.

The sustained fight over Trump's treatment of women helped generate additional stories about his comments and behavior over the years, stories that will only get more attention now.

The Associated Press published a detailed exposé of his work on The Apprentice, with numerous sources recalling lewd and inappropriate remarks similar to the 2005 audio. The Los Angeles Times detailed complaints from Trump employees in a lawsuit that they had to hide staff he found physically unattractive to prevent him from firing them.

Just as Trump's attack on Machado helped shine a light on related stories about Trump and women, Trump's 2005 boasts about what sounds like nonconsensual behavior could bring back some darker claims that have so far stayed on the edge of the campaign.

Take Jill Harth, a makeup artist who once sued Trump in 1997 for allegedly groping her in a manner not dissimilar to Trump's 2005 comments. Trump denied the claim and she dropped the suit after several weeks, but she gave an interview to the Guardian standing by her accusation earlier this year.

The audio also could scramble Trump's strategy for the next debate. In response to the Machado story, his campaign launched a series of attacks on former President Bill Clinton's sex scandals and Trump suggested at a rally last weekend, without evidence, that the former secretary of state had also cheated on her husband.

That tack, along with the Machado story, provoked a backlash from many Republicans, including some prominent Trump supporters who urged him to stop. Trump told the New York Post earlier this week that he would avoid the topic in the debate.

With Trump's latest statements that no longer looks to be the case. On Friday, he responded to the latest news initially by claiming, "Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course" and went into further detail about the former president's personal scandals in his video statement. It seems likely he'll bring the topic up early and often on Sunday night.

Trump could try to seize on a new Wikileaks dump of apparent material from Clinton's private speeches dropped on Friday just hours after the Access Hollywood tape. But with so many damaging stories surrounding Trump and his campaign seemingly unable to control its message, it will be difficult to change the subject. With 30 days to go, every minute spent defending his behavior is a minute closer to a loss.