Republican elected officials, who had stuck by Donald Trump through months of controversy, began to flee his campaign Saturday even as the embattled GOP nominee vowed not to quit the presidential race.
One day after a video became public in which Trump could be heard boasting that he could grope women because “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” his campaign appeared on the verge of melting down.
Trump struck a defiant tone, rejecting demands by a growing number of fellow Republicans that he step aside.
“I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN!” the candidate tweeted Saturday. He made similar statements in several newspaper interviews.
But throughout the day, one prominent Republican after another rescinded support for him.
By late afternoon, the list of elected officials saying they would not vote for Trump included five of the six female Republicans in the Senate and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 nominee. Several called for Trump to step down from the ticket.
As more potentially damaging quotes from Trump’s past began to surface — including excerpts from radio interviews with Howard Stern in which Trump talked about his sexual practices and disparaged women older than 35 — party officials scrambled. Their goal was to try to prevent what they see as a now-inevitable collapse at the top of the ticket from destroying their chances of retaining control of the House and Senate.
Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said Saturday he “cannot defend” Trump’s comments about women.
“As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the 11-year-old video,” said Pence, who skipped a campaign stop in Wisconsin where he was to fill in for Trump alongside House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them.”
For the first time in many weeks, Pence’s official campaign schedule was blank except for a note saying, “Please check back later.”
If Trump were to quit, despite his promises to continue, the Republican National Committee could replace him with Pence or someone else, according to Rule 9 of the party’s bylaws.
But election law experts said the party does not have the authority to dump Trump without his agreement.
If the candidate resigned, the national committee could meet to elect a new nominee. That would take a majority vote, which could prove difficult, and with election day less than a month away, the timing would be extraordinarily difficult.
It also would be unprecedented, and probably launch a civil war within the party — “and lawsuits,” said one senior GOP rules expert.
Among the first elected officials to say she no longer would back Trump was Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is locked in a close battle for reelection in New Hampshire. Ayotte said she would write in Pence on her ballot rather than vote for Trump.
“I cannot and will not support a candidate who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” she wrote.
Less than a week ago, in a televised debate, Ayotte had said that Trump could be a “role model” — a remark she tried to take back the next day, but which her Democratic opponent already had featured in an attack ad.
Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska followed. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said Trump should “reexamine” his candidacy. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine had said in August that she would not support Trump. The one exception among the GOP women in the Senate, Joni Ernst of Iowa, put out a statement condemning Trump’s remarks but not withdrawing her endorsement.
A few hours after Ayotte released her statement, Republican Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, who also is in the middle of a closely contested race, said at a rally in Las Vegas that he, too, would not support Trump.
“I can no longer look past the pattern of behavior and comments that have been made by Donald Trump,” he said. “Therefore, I cannot in good conscience continue to support Donald Trump.”
Heck’s statement drew some boos from the crowd, an indication of the potential trouble that Republicans running for office may face as they try to distance themselves from the party’s nominee without alienating voters who still support him.
The state’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, soon issued a statement joining Heck’s stand. So did former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Late in the afternoon, McCain joined the parade, saying in a statement that Trump’s “behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.”
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the chamber, and Sen. Mike Crapo, from reliably Republican Idaho, also called for Trump to step down from the ticket. So did Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, whose statement early Saturday appeared to trigger a growing number of others.
And Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who briefly sought the GOP nomination, said Pence should replace Trump at the top of the ticket.
As the groundswell built, Hugh Hewitt, an influential conservative radio host, urged Trump to step down as the nominee, predicting that more damaging revelations from Trump’s past would be unearthed.
Hewitt had been a reluctant, but ultimately committed, Trump supporter. In the spring, he had called for Republicans to change their nominating convention rules to replace Trump as the nominee.
But he embraced Trump in June, arguing that the GOP candidate would be better in fighting terrorism than Hillary Clinton. In July, he said that “of course” he was voting for Trump, citing the power to appoint Supreme Court justices as his top concern.
On Saturday, he said Trump should step down “for the benefit of the country, the party and his family.”
Later in the day, Melania Trump issued a statement saying, “The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me.”
However, she added: “This does not represent the man that I know. He has the heart and mind of a leader. I hope people will accept his apology, as I have, and focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world.”