President Donald Trump believes his performance in the second presidential debate in 2016 allowed him to overcome the apocalyptic damage from the "Access Hollywood" tape -- and won him the election.
Trump was preparing for that debate on Oct. 7, 2016, when his staffers began leaving the room, one by one, as they received word that a recording had surfaced of him boasting to entertainment news host Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women, according to Politico reporter Tim Alberta's new book, "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War."
“Oh boy,” said Mike Pence, after speaking with Trump that night. “Mother is not going to like this.”
Republicans fled from their nominee over the ensuing weekend, and discussed the possibility of replacing Trump at the top of the ticket, but the celebrity real estate developer and former reality TV star refused to drop out -- and came out swinging at the debate two days later in St. Louis.
"Inside the debate hall," Alberta wrote, "when co-moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz introduced them, Trump and Clinton entered from opposite wings of the auditorium looking steeled for a street fight. They approached one another, only to stop abruptly and stand several feet apart. There would be no handshake—a first, it was believed, in the annals of presidential debating."
Cooper sensed an opportunity early on to ask about Trump's remarks, and the GOP candidate offered an answer he'd rehearsed over and over on the plane ride.
“I’m not proud of it,” Trump said, “but this is locker room talk. I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
The audience audibly groaned, and the moderators asked Hillary Clinton to comment.
"With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them," Clinton said, in her rehearsed response, "but I never questioned their fitness to serve Donald Trump is different.”
Alberta recounts Trump's aggressive performance throughout that second debate, when he underlined the "lock her up" chants that popped up at his rallies.
“If I win,” Trump said, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there have never been so many lies, so much deception.”
“Everything he just said was absolutely false,” Clinton responded. “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump replied, drawing gasps -- but also cheers -- from the audience.
Alberta declared the event "the ugliest and most vitriolic presidential debate in the mass-communication era" -- but admitted that was exactly what Trump needed to dig out of the hole he was in.
"Facing pressure unlike any White House hopeful in memory, the Republican nominee didn’t just get off the mat," Alberta wrote. "He came up swinging."
Within the next 48 hours, Republicans stopped calling on Trump to withdraw, and Pence went back on the campaign trail -- and the "Access Hollywood" tape faded from view.
“What were the odds? Like 50-50, will he show up?” Trump told Alberta. “That debate won me the election.”