US First Lady Michelle Obama on Thursday launched a scathing takedown of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, calling his sexually aggressive comments about women “disgraceful” and “intolerable.”
Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has largely shunned the political limelight to focus on education and health issues, galvanized a rally for Democrat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire with an impassioned plea to “stop this madness.”
Her comments came as Trump fought back against a cascade of allegations of sexual misconduct, which surfaced just days after a video emerged of him boasting that his fame allowed him to grope women with impunity.
Claims by at least six women have come to light in accounts reported by The New York Times, NBC, People Magazine and other outlets, most of them after Trump asserted in Sunday’s debate with Clinton that he never sexually assaulted women.
Trump’s accusers, who include a beauty queen, a journalist and a sales representative, countered that claim, saying he made unwanted physical advances against them in years past, including groping and kissing.
The claims surfaced just days after a video emerged of him boasting in 2005 that his fame allowed him to grope women with impunity, sending the White House race into unprecedented levels of vulgarity.
He has apologized and, trying to reverse his deficit in national polls to the 68-year-old Clinton, has sought to minimize the comments as “locker room talk” — a remark that went too far for the first lady.
“This wasn’t locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior. And actually bragging about kissing and groping women,” said the 52-year-old Obama.
“It doesn’t matter what party you belong to — Democrat, Republican, independent — no woman deserves to be treated this way. No one deserves this kind of abuse.”
She lashed out at what she called Trump’s “cruel” and “frightening” attitude towards women, while deliberately never using his name.
“It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted,” she said.
“This is not normal. It is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable.”
– ‘Absolutely false’ –
With his campaign in free-fall since last week’s release of the damning tape, Trump lashed out, denying any of the alleged incidents took place, while his legal team branded the Times story “libelous.”
“These vicious claims about me of inappropriate conduct with women are totally and absolutely false. And the Clintons know it very well,” Trump told a rally in West Palm Beach. “They’re pure fiction. And they’re outright lies.”
“These attacks are orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies.”
Trump’s campaign threatened to sue The New York Times, which published the accounts of two women who accused him of groping and kissing them, unless the paper retracts the article.
His lawyer Marc Kasowitz said the story “constitutes libel per se.”
But the Times refused to back down.
“We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern,” the paper’s assistant general counsel David McCraw said in a letter to Trump’s legal team.
“If Mr Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
– ‘Like an octopus’ –
The allegations against Trump, which date from between 10 and 30 years ago, suggest a pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior towards women.
Jessica Leeds, a 74-year-old former businesswoman, told the Times that Trump groped her on a flight in the early 1980s as they sat next to each other in first class, grabbing her breasts and trying to put his hand up her skirt.
“He was like an octopus,” Leeds told the daily.
“His hands were everywhere,” she added. “It was an assault.”
A second accuser, Rachel Crooks, said she was a 22-year-old receptionist at a real estate company in Trump Tower in 2005 when she encountered Trump outside an elevator one morning.
After she introduced herself, he “kissed me directly on the mouth,” she told the Times.
“It was so inappropriate,” Crooks added. “I was so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that.”
– ‘Against the wall’ –
A photographer’s assistant alleged that Trump grabbed her rear end as she worked at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in 2003, while a former staff writer for People accused Trump of forcibly kissing her during an interview there in 2005.
“Trump shut the door behind us,” Natasha Stoynoff wrote. “I turned around, and within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat.”
Two beauty pageant contestants also accused Trump of either groping or forcibly kissing them.
The New York Times and Palm Beach Post both spoke with friends and family of the women, who corroborated their accounts and knew of the incidents before Trump’s “hot mic” video was released.
None of the women reported the incidents to police at the time.
As the White House campaign hit its brutal last stretch, Trump had repeatedly threatened to damage Clinton by reviving allegations of sexual misconduct by her husband.
He made good on that promise by appearing with three of Bill Clinton’s women accusers ahead of Sunday’s debate, and alleging during the widely-watched debate that the former president was “abusive.”
But with six days to go before the final presidential debate in Las Vegas, it appears the tables have been turned — tipping Trump’s campaign into chaos, and fuelling a crisis that Republicans fear could cause lasting damage to the party.