The moment Donald Trump defied political gravity is coming back to haunt him

Analysis: Being elected president shortly after surviving the publication of the leaked "Access Hollywood" tape in 2016 is the moment in which Donald Trump defied political gravity.

A politician was heard on tape saying truly disgusting things about women and yet was still elevated by voters to the highest office. Trump's ability to survive that embarrassing episode echoes in his reascendance to the Republican presidential nomination for a third time, despite losing the 2020 election and then trying to overturn the results.

It's easy to forget how dumbfounding it was to hear Trump on that tape for the first time and how many Republicans who called on him to drop out of the presidential race back then now support him.

If the embarrassing tape somehow represents Trump's greatest triumph, it is also something that continues to haunt him, as it became the focus of his hush money criminal trial in New York on Friday.

The 'Access Hollywood' tape reexamined

Trump's 2016 victory in the Electoral College seems only more improbable in the retelling. Hicks, his former close aide, told jurors about what must have been the unbelievably awkward moment she read a transcript of the "Access Hollywood" tape - in which he brags about being able to grope women - to her boss.

"This was a crisis," she said of its release's impact on the campaign. It's sordid stuff, and the outlines were generally known even without Hicks' testimony on Friday. The judge in the case ruled at the start of the trial that the tape itself can't be played in court, but it has been described.

It is worth revisiting the earthquake the "Access Hollywood" tape set off in the 2016 campaign. When the video came out, it left many people speechless.

The tape was recorded in 2005, and it was leaked to The Washington Post, which published the video on October 7, 2016, a little more than a month before Election Day. Trump is heard talking about trying, unsuccessfully, to "move on" an unnamed, married woman, and then crassly talks about his uncontrollable desire to kiss an actress he is about to meet with then-"Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush.

"When you're a star, they let you do it," he told Bush. "You can do anything. Grab 'em by the p****."

The the 'Access Hollywood' tape left members of the public completely speechless.
The the 'Access Hollywood' tape left members of the public completely speechless. Photo credit: Getty Images (file)

The fallout was immediate

Multiple Republicans who today are completely behind Trump, like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, called on him in 2016 to immediately step down. The perception inside Trump's inner circle was that most Republican lawmakers wanted him off the ticket, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie later wrote in a memoir.

Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was "sickened." And then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus thought Trump should either resign or would lose in a landslide, according to Christie and then-Trump aide Steve Bannon.

Even Trump's wife, Melania, who rarely issues public statements, expressed her disgust with the words on the tape, although she would later write it off as "boy talk."

Trump actually apologized

Things were so grim back then that Trump issued what is probably the only apology of his political career in a straight-to-camera video posted on Twitter, now X, in which he admits the tape is real and takes responsibility.

"I said it. I was wrong. And I apologize," Trump said, although he made it clear he would not leave the race. Being exposed to people on the campaign trail had changed him, Trump said, before trying to draw an equivalence between his words and allegations against former President Bill Clinton.

I've written before about how rare it is to hear such a thing from Trump.

It was not the only surprise in 2016

Trump's Democratic rival in 2016, Hillary Clinton, faced her own unwanted surprises, the most important of which was former FBI Director James Comey's announcement that July that she was "careless" in handling classified data on email.

Worse for Clinton, on October 28 of that year, a little more than a week before Election Day, Comey told Congress the FBI was reviewing emails related to Clinton's personal server found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, a disgraced former congressman married to her top aide.

Clinton would go on to get the vote of a larger number of people, but Trump, surprising even himself, would get the White House.

Return of the tape

Now, the "Access Hollywood" tape is back. A key to prosecutors' case against Trump is their allegation that he and his former fixer Michael Cohen agreed to pay off adult-film star Stormy Daniels to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Trump had to tamp down on any allegations of impropriety, such as having an alleged affair with a porn star while his wife was pregnant. That led to the hush money Cohen paid to Daniels.

Cohen served time in federal prison for violating campaign finance law with the payments. The crime Trump is accused of is falsifying business records related to his reimbursement of Cohen after the election.

How the tape has aged

Trump has since questioned whether it was his voice on the tape, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin reported for The New York Times in 2017. More recently, Trump was asked in May 2023 about the tape by CNN's Kaitlan Collins. He tried to parse the words in the tape.

"I said, 'women let you,'" he told Collins. "I didn't say 'grab,'" he said, misquoting the tape.

A moment that tested loyalty

Bannon would later tell former CBS journalist Charlie Rose that the "Access Hollywood" moment was important because it separated Republicans into those who would be loyal to Trump versus those who were part of the mainstream. Christie lost out on a Cabinet position in Trump's administration due to his revulsion of the tape, Bannon told Rose.

In the years since, loyalty to Trump has become an increasingly important marker among Republicans as Trump beat back a deep field of presidential primary challengers.

Perceived loyalty to Trump could become a de facto requirement for many federal workers if he wins in 2024 and carries through with a plan to reclassify a large portion of the federal bureaucracy as political appointees, according a recent report by CNN's investigative team.

Still haunting Trump

If the tape is evidence of Trump's ability to defy political gravity, it has also contributed to his humbling in other areas.

A deposition in which he was asked about the tape was played for jurors who later found him liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll, a former magazine columnist, in a New York department store in the 1990s. Juries ordered Trump to pay more than $80 million for defaming her, although he has appealed those decisions.