AMY WALTER: The gloves are off. Donald Trump steps up his attacks on Hillary Clinton, Republicans and the media, while his Democratic challenger deals with new questions about hacked emails. I’m Amy Walter, in for Gwen Ifill, tonight on Washington Week.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) These vicious claims about me of inappropriate conduct with women are totally and absolutely false.
MS. WALTER: A defiant Donald Trump takes fresh fire over multiple allegations of inappropriate contact with women.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) These claims are all fabricated. They’re pure fiction, and they’re outright lies. These events never, ever happened.
FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: (From video.) I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. Enough is enough.
MS. WALTER: Declaring himself unshackled, Trump is lashing out at the Clintons, the media and even his own party.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is accusing Russia of being behind the release of thousands of hacked campaign emails, many of them politically damaging, by WikiLeaks. But she’s trying to keep focused on the race to the finish line and beyond.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) It’s not just who wins this election. It’s actually bigger than that. We need to demonstrate that we have a hopeful, positive, unifying vision.
MS. WALTER: We’ll get analysis tonight from Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Joshua Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek; and Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.
MS. WALTER: Good evening. In the week since we learned about a 2005 tape showing a Donald Trump bragging about using his celebrity status to kiss and grope women, multiple women have come forward accusing him of forcing himself on them sexually. Trump adamantly denied the allegations, called his accusers part of the, quote, “global establishment,” to undermine his campaign and declared war on the Clintons.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe and morally deformed. They will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family.
MS. WALTER: On the very same day, the first lady delivered a personal and emotional indictment of Trump, saying his remarks were – about women were shocking, demeaning and disgraceful.
MRS. OBAMA: (From video.) This was not just a lewd conversation. This wasn’t just locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior and actually bragging about kissing and groping women.
MS. WALTER: And the president weighed in, calling out Republicans for their choice of nominee.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) You claim the mantle of the party of family values, and this is the guy you nominate and stand by and endorse and campaign with? You’re the party that is tough on foreign policy and opposes Russia, and then you nominate this guy, whose role model is Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB? I’m sorry. What happened?
MS. WALTER: The Trump controversies have prompted a national conversation about something many women and girls have experienced, often in silence, and that’s sexual harassment. It’s a serious and it’s an important issue on its own, but it’s also an issue that’s intersected with the fierce political battle for president. And that’s what we’re going to focus on tonight.
And Dan, I specifically want to talk to you about a story you wrote this week where you’d looked at the speech we just saw by Michelle Obama and that by Donald Trump, which we also referenced. You said this crystallizes 2016, those two speeches.
But I’m wondering – is where we are now – it seems we’re in a strange and bewildering place. But is this where we’ve been heading all along?
DAN BALZ: Well, I think we have been, and I think we all knew it. I don’t think we thought necessarily we would get to where we are today. But I mean, we’ve known for a long time that from the Democratic point of view, this was going to be a campaign about Donald Trump’s fitness to be president. And we know that from the Trump campaign, their hope was to make this an argument about change and to cast Hillary Clinton as the status quo.
But what we saw yesterday, in those two remarkable hours, I mean, two of the most compelling hours that we’ve seen back to back, we saw the argument against Donald Trump go up to another level, which is now not just simply, does he have the temperament? It’s basically, does he have the moral turpitude to be president? Could – should we allow a person like this to be president? That’s the argument that Michelle Obama made with such passion and kind of righteous indignation.
And what we then heard from Trump, right after she finished, was both this defiant defense against the women who have come forward to accuse him but also ramping up this argument about change, casting the Clintons as, in essence, the head of a corrupt, criminal global enterprise, a syndicate, he called it today, that is designed to protect the elite – the elite political, the elite media, the elite corporations – against the people.
And so it just sort of exploded yesterday. And that’s where we’re left this weekend.
MS. WALTER: And that’s what I want to talk about too, is the Michelle Obama that we saw, because this was something we’ve not seen from Michelle Obama before. In fact, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen something like this from a first lady in modern political times.
And Alexis, can you sort of walk us through what she did the other night and what you think this means for her on the campaign trail for these next couple of weeks?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, it was unprecedented, not just because she’s a first lady but also because we know that Michelle Obama has not loved politics. We know that she has enjoyed setting herself in some ways apart from it and choosing issues in which she could be apart from it. But we know she’s the most, you know, popular Obama out there.
In giving this speech, she actually forcefully accused, right from the start, Donald Trump of a crime. She said that she believed that he was a sexual predator and that he could not be a role model, he could not be a leader, and that he could not be around – in some ways she suggested he could not be around children, which was an interesting suggestion.
And then she went on, as you saw in the clip and as Dan wrote about, to describe what it was that made it so personal to her as a woman, as someone who’s known as encouraging women and girls at the White House, education, and trying to be a leader in that vein.
One of the things that was interesting is, not being a politician, she was being very political, because what is this election going to turn on? Women, this gender gap. She was speaking directly to women.
And then she broadened it out to speak to men as well, which was really interesting, because Donald Trump’s support comes from non-college-educated white men. She was speaking to the college-educated men, who maybe are turned off by Trump too and are husbands and brothers and sons. And she directly spoke to them.
And then she said nice things about Hillary Clinton. But it was a smackdown that I have never seen a first lady do.
MS. WALTER: And it was much more – as you said, it’s much more about Donald Trump than it was for Hillary Clinton.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. And it was forcefully that way.
And also President Obama clearly embraced this himself. He has supported it. The White House has supported this.
And then echoing the first lady was Joe Biden, the vice president, who helped author the Violence Against Women Act. And he said it is the classic textbook case of sexual assault. So he was also suggesting Donald Trump, Republican nominee, is guilty of a crime.
MS. WALTER: And Molly, this story continued today. In fact, it feels like it’s been going on right up until we sat down and to this desk. At least two other women have come forward today. Donald Trump on the campaign trail continues to deny – forcefully deny – these accusations. Can you just sort of keep – get us up-to-date on what happened just in the last six hours? (Laughter.)
MOLLY BALL: Well, as we were going on the air tonight, Donald Trump was literally smashing his teleprompters in what seemed like a perfect metaphor for the 2016 campaign as a whole, you know – (laughter) – and this sort of “don’t fence me in” moment. And that’s what this whole last week has been. Since he said he was throwing off the shackles, he has gone full Trump. It is very clear that no one is controlling him. He is doing exactly what he wants. There’s no strategy here. It’s just him being himself.
And so the way Donald Trump operates is, as he’s said himself many times, he is a counterpuncher. He feels that these women have punched him, and so he is punching back. He’s insulting their appearance. He’s insulting Hillary Clinton’s appearance. He is taking personal shots at his accusers, without offering any substantial or believable evidence, as he has – as his campaign has said he was going to do, to actually refute the claims that are piling up and that show such a pattern of similarity in all of these instances.
MS. WALTER: Was there something new that we learned today? There was a woman who was on The Apprentice or who was trying to get on to the Apprentice show.
MS. BALL: Right. I believe there were two new accusers today.
MS. WALTER: Two new – that’s right.
MS. BALL: One in The Washington Post –
MS. WALTER: Yes.
MS. BALL: – and one former Apprentice contestant, both alleging a similar MO, both talking about incidents that were, I believe, more than a decade in the past, and both saying, I think very poignantly, and something that resonates with a lot of women, as you were saying: that it didn’t seem worth reporting at the time because either you knew you weren’t going to be believed or this type of thing was just so common that it – that it – people would tell you to just brush it off and keep going about your business.
And it’s only when you learn that so many women have gone through the same thing as you that – and so, you know, so many of these accusers have said, it was when he denied it in that second debate, when he flat-out said, I never did this, that they felt, OK, now I have to do something, even if I’m putting myself at risk.
MS. WALTER: Well, and Josh, I want to bring you in on this, where Molly made a point where she said this is – there’s no strategy to this. He’s just going full Hulk; the chains are off.
And yet you wrote this week about the fact that this actually is a strategy; that his campaign team sees the new unbridled, going-all-in, scorched-earth strategy as an actual strategy.
JOSHUA GREEN: Yeah. Well, in talking to Trump advisers this week, they realize, I think, finally now that they have a problem with these women coming forward. And it’s taken a lot of them by surprise because, as my Bloomberg colleague Kevin Cirilli reported this week, Trump refused to let his staff do the typical research job that candidates do where you have your own staff go and look and say, you know, where am I vulnerable? What might we have to face in the heat of a campaign? Trump said, no way. And so now these women are coming forward, making these accusations, and they’ve been more or less blindsided by them.
The Trump folks say they’re going to fight back in two ways. One of those ways is, as we know Trump likes to do, by being the aggressor and going out there. And they have decided that the way to fight back against these charges is to focus a spotlight on Bill Clinton’s sex scandals in the 1990s and what they claim is Hillary Clinton’s complicity in those scandals, intimidating victims and that sort of thing. We had the surprise press conference with three of those women at the second debate. And Trump’s advisers told me there are more women going to be coming forward to do this, and they think that’s going to help take the spotlight off them.
To date, I should mention, they’ve produced no new women to come forward, and these are threats, as Trump is wont to do.
And then, on the other hand, they’ve made a late effort, I think really just beginning today, to try and cut into the credibility of some of these Clinton – sorry – some of these Trump accusers who have come out and made these charges.
MS. WALTER: And his campaign, though – overall, the focus is just keep doing what we’re doing. This is going to work.
Is this – do they think this is going to work for him to win, or is this going to work as a way to just let him do what he wants to do all along?
MR. GREEN: That’s the question everybody wants to know. And I asked them – I said, I just don’t understand how this strategy is going to help you guys win undecided and swing voters.
MS. WALTER: Yeah.
MR. GREEN: And the answer I got was very revealing. They said, we know that, but we think our voters are more enthusiastic than Clinton’s voters are. And she has had some trouble exciting the Democratic base. One of her advisers told me – what we’re really trying to suppress the Clinton vote. We think that by rolling out these Clinton accusers, that millennial women, who Clinton’s depending on, are going to see this, and they’re going to become disillusioned and they’re not going to turn out in November. And we’re going to focus on the WikiLeaks revelation that Clinton was talking to bankers. That’s going to depress the Bernie Sanders crowd. And you watch. You know, come November, we’re going to win the election. That is the strategy.
MS. WALTER: That’s the strategy.
All right. We’re going to go to the way back time machine to Monday. (Laughter.) That’s when Donald Trump decided to unshackle himself as well from the Republican leadership and lawmakers who denounced him over the Access Hollywood tape, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Trump tweeted: “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win - I will teach them!”
Today Paul Ryan talked to voters in Wisconsin about the importance of defeating Hillary Clinton, without once mentioning his party nominee’s name.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) In the America they want, the driving force is the state. It is a place where government is taken away from the people. That is the America Hillary Clinton wants. And if given control of Washington, if given control of Congress, it is the kind of America she will stop at nothing to have.
MS. WALTER: Paul Ryan told his members he would focus on helping them win re-election and that they should do what they need to do to save themselves.
So, Dan, what is the Paul Ryan strategy here? What’s the endgame?
MR. BALZ: Well, the endgame is to save the House, to be in at least a credible position when the election is over to be able to try to bring the Republican Party back together and to try to put as much distance as he can between himself and Donald Trump without actually saying, I will not vote for him, because I was told earlier in the week he felt that that was the line he couldn’t cross, because there are so many of his members who have big Trump constituencies in their districts, and it would leave them kind of out to dry. So that was – that was the strategy.
It didn’t particularly work. He got caught in – you know, between a rock and a hard place, proverbially, and had to try to explain to some of his donors that this wasn’t quite exactly as advertised; that – you know, that he’s not made quite the full break. But what we saw today – this is all about the House, all about saving the majorities there.
And frankly, it’s – you know, it’s a strategy that’s been predicted for weeks, if not months, that they would reach this point where they would in one way or another let Trump go off on his own and focus only on the check-and-balance argument.
MS. WALTER: And is he basically conceding, then, that Donald Trump’s – he’s lost and it’s up to us in the House to already put our line in the sand about our relationship with Hillary Clinton and the issues we’re going to work on?
MR. BALZ: Well, you don’t have to read very far, but in the – between the lines to get that message. And I – there are – there are any number of Republicans, many Republicans, who believe that the presidency is lost at this point and that they do have to decide what they can do to preserve those majorities in the House and particularly the Senate, which is still, you know, more in play than the House appears to be.
MS. BALL: And that’s the explicit argument that you hear being made by a lot of these down-ticket candidates. The Republicans running for Senate and for Congress in swing states and swing districts are saying Hillary Clinton is our next president; elect me to be a check on her. Elect me to make sure that Democrats don’t spiral out of control.
But you know, a lot of Republicans are mad at Paul Ryan. They feel that he’s misplayed this thing. By putting himself so in the middle of things, being so public about this sort of Hamlet act, the will he or won’t he of the original endorsement and then making demands of Trump that of course Trump was never going to follow through on, contrast that with someone like Mitch McConnell, who doesn’t have sort of the Boy Scout image that Paul Ryan has but who, you know, made it clear very early on that he was with the nominee and then just disappeared – just disappeared from the radar, didn’t make himself the issue. And so his Senate candidates are doing whatever they have to do, but he’s not caught in the middle of it. And he’s not getting attacked on the stump by Donald Trump, who is now out there telling these crowds of tens of thousands of people at his rallies that Paul Ryan is against him and therefore they should be against Paul Ryan, and they all cheer. He’s turning the Republican base against the Republican leadership.
MR. BALZ: I agree completely with everything you said. I would add one thing about McConnell. He made clear he was with Trump, disappeared, but he’s also sent many signals that he has no use for Donald Trump, doesn’t believe in Donald Trump, and probably believes that Donald Trump will not be the president of the United States.
MR. GREEN: Well, and also McConnell has literally – I mean, he said it at an event recently: don’t ask me a question about Donald Trump because I won’t answer it. (Laughter.) Which may be the best – which might be the best strategy so far.
MS. BALL: Ryan had his staff screening questions at that event today to make sure that he didn’t have to address the Trump issue, which only sort of made it more obvious.
MS. WALTER: We’re going to switch gears here for a second and talk about Hillary Clinton, because she had her own distractions to deal with this week after WikiLeaks published thousands of hacked campaign emails. The daily drip of emails is providing an interesting glimpse into the very private campaign. It’s also important to point out that there’s mounting evidence, according to the U.S. government, that the stolen emails were provided to WikiLeaks by the Russian government. So, Alexis, are these emails damaging, embarrassing? Are they going to affect this campaign? How is this going to play out?
MS. SIMENDINGER: If we had been in any other kind of election cycle, we would be talking about this in a much more vigorous and intensive way. And let’s put aside the Russian complicity in the hacking and all of that separately. But what we’ve discovered in what’s supposed to be 50,000 total – and they’re coming out like with my Cheerios every morning, and we’re up to 10,000 – (laughter) – we’re all reading through them and trying to figure out. What we’ve discovered as journalists trying to go through them is that there was a lot of discussion. Remember, the years of these emails from John Podesta –
MS. WALTER: Right, doesn’t t go back all the way to the 2008 campaign, and –
MS. SIMENDINGER: It goes back forever. John Podesta has been with the Clintons for a long time. He is chairman of her campaign. He was the creator of the Center for American Policy (sic; Progress), and you know, he’s been with the Clintons for a long time. But what’s interesting is that they – inside the campaign they were worried about a lot of things that have been in her basket of woes. And that includes her speeches, the speeches that she made. And you already made reference –
MR. GREEN: The Wall Street banks.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The Wall Street banks. So segments of those speeches, the transcripts of which she would not release, are in and discussed by the campaign. So we’re able to read their anxiety going back and forth about things that she said. For instance, like, you know, that she had a dream: her dream image would be a hemispheric open-borders policy, and that she – you know, free trade is wonderful, right? Or her discussion about regulation, that she was much more disposed to a lighter hand on regulation for her Wall Street friends, and that kind of thing, embarrassing. We know that there’s a lot of discussion about her rapid fire flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, her emails anxiety. You could say it’s embarrassing in that we all learned what it’s like to look inside a campaign and see them get mad at each other about who’s leaking, they’re, you know, finger pointing. But it is – it is withering in terms of the one accusation that was made at the St. Louis debate and she was asked directly: Is it right to have a public answer and a private view? Is that the right thing for a politician? And that’s a charge that Donald Trump has made that has undercut the trust in her as a politician.
MR. GREEN: Has Trump, with all his antics, stepped on what would potentially be the most damaging story for Hillary Clinton in this campaign, the WikiLeaks?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that the Trump campaign was trying to do was to try to drip them out. And one discussion inside the campaign – remember, these are not her emails where she’s talking; it’s her campaign staff – was how she – how they were referring to Catholics. So they were trying to use this as a way to irritate Catholic conservatives, that there was this denigrating kind of talk. But because Donald Trump himself blew up with every other kind of controversy, it’s less of a – of a(n) issue for her.
MR. GREEN: Feels like it sucked all the oxygen out of the room.
MS. SIMENDINGER: But we have one more debate. We have one more debate.
MS. WALTER: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you. We have just a little bit of time here, but talk about how she talks about this at the debate. She’s been able to ignore this, pretty much, because we’ve talked about Donald Trump. How does she talk about this in the debate when she gets asked directly about what went on in these emails?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, what we get back to is the Russians. So the campaign since the convention has been talking about the Russians’ desire to override the will of the American people, and that the Russians want Donald Trump to be president, and this is massive interference in an American election and an effort to keep her from the presidency. So she is making herself a victim of Russian interference, and kind of sidestepping around what she did as a political candidate who couldn’t figure out how to apologize for her emails and did a flip-flop on trade and, you know, all the things politicians do.
MS. WALTER: Yeah, we’ll see how well that works with the direct questioning.
Well, thank you, everyone here around the table. Our conversation, though, continues online. All of these folks are going to join us on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk more about shifting strategies ahead of Election Day and how President Obama seems to be enjoying his final months in office. You can find that all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And be sure to tune in to the PBS NewsHour’s coverage of the third and final presidential debate next Wednesday, October 19th, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Have a good weekend, and good night.