The Republican Party is reeling after the release of a 2005 video in which Donald Trump speaks in vulgar terms of his aggressive sexual behavior toward women.
Top Republicans – including Sen. John McCain of Arizona – have abandoned Mr. Trump and now won’t vote for him. Some have called on him to drop out of the presidential race, and urged the Republican National Committee to replace him with running mate Mike Pence.
Others have rebuked Trump for both his language and actions of 11 years ago – but are in wait-and-see mode. Trump’s second debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Sunday night at 9 p.m. Eastern, will be must-see TV, as he is expected to try to talk his way out of the biggest crisis of his campaign.
But perhaps the most curious aspect of this unprecedented episode is the reaction of evangelical Christian leaders. As Republican politicians – some in tight reelection races – have dumped Trump, prominent members of the Christian conservative movement have stood by him, even as they express revulsion over his actions.
The “grossly inappropriate language” in the Trump video “does not change the reality of the choice facing this country,” Gary Bauer, founder of the Campaign for Working Families PAC, said in a statement.
“Hillary Clinton is committed to enacting policies that will erode religious liberty, promote abortion, make our country less safe, and leave our borders unprotected,” said Mr. Bauer, a veteran of the Reagan administration and a GOP presidential candidate in 2000. Mrs. Clinton will continue economic policies that are “destroying” the American working class and middle class, he added.
Ralph Reed, former leader of the Christian Coalition and head of Trump’s religious advisory board, took the same approach – decry Trump’s language, but defend his candidacy, in the name of the policy choices Trump represents versus those of Clinton.
“People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, grow the economy, appoint conservative judges and oppose the Iran nuclear deal,” Mr. Reed said in an email to The Washington Post.
Perhaps the most extraordinary comment came from Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, which hosts the annual Values Voters Summit in Washington – a major conference of social conservative activists.
Mr. Perkins said in a statement that his support for Trump in the general election “was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns."
John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, says this type of reaction isn’t surprising.
“I do think it bespeaks a kind of pragmatism,” says Professor Green. “We see this a lot in American politics. If people are principled, they are often ineffective. On the other hand, if pragmatists are effective, then they lose credibility. So they’re in a tough box here.”
Still, he says, the posture of evangelical leaders doesn’t mean that the rank-and-file will follow suit. Though the early indication, from a one-day Politico/Morning Consult poll taken Saturday, is that Trump voters are sticking with him.
It’s also true that some prominent Christian conservative leaders have never supported Trump. Russell Moore, the chief policy spokesman of the Southern Baptist Convention, has called Trump a “lost person” and prays that he repent of all sins and find Jesus. Of the Trump video, Mr. Moore tweeted: “To be pro-life means to say to the ethic of Margaret Sanger *and* to the ethic of Howard Stern: #Never.”
In another tweet, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary also showed the cracks that have emerged among evangelicals over the Trump candidacy.
“I am humiliated by arguments about character I am hearing tonight from some evangelicals. Lord, help us,” tweeted Albert Mohler.
Perhaps no committed evangelical is in a tougher position than Trump’s running mate, Governor Pence of Indiana. He is reportedly beside himself over the video, and laid down the gauntlet to Trump on Twitter.
“We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night,” Pence said Saturday on Twitter.
Trump has already apologized for his lewd comments, and also made clear that he is fighting back in his usual way – playing defense by going on offense.
That was his approach in a video he released late Friday night, in response to the lewd 2005 video, which was from “Access Hollywood.” And it means going after former President Bill Clinton for his own aggressive sexual behavior toward women, and also accusing Hillary Clinton of being an “enabler” and of discrediting claims that turned out to be true.
“Without overstating the case, [evangelicals’ defense of Trump] does remind me of when a lot of prominent feminists came to the defense of President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky matter,” says Green, of the University of Akron. “They said, ‘We deplore the conduct, but look at all the positive things the Clinton administration has done for women.’ ”
For the Republican Party, the idea of getting Trump to quit the race and run Pence for president instead may have some appeal. After all, in his debate last week against Democratic veep nominee Tim Kaine, Pence was viewed as the “winner,” leading some Republicans to wish out loud that he was at the top of the GOP ticket. But in practical terms, it’s late for such a move. The election is Nov. 8, and early voting has begun in some states.
In tonight’s debate, not only does Trump have to address the video scandal, he has to overcome his poor performance in his first debate, which he followed with days of attacks against a former Miss Universe and questions about his taxes, after the leak of damaging information from an old tax return.
But Trump has made clear that he’s not dropping out – and not staying away from Twitter.
“Tremendous support (except for some Republican “leadership”). Thank you,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning.