Donald Trump campaign adviser Rudy Giuliani muddled through his task Sunday morning: defend his candidate on the Sunday shows in the aftermath of the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape. He made it through four. But he had to face Chuck Todd.
For the most part, the show hosts focused on questions about the political fallout of the Trump tapes. Did Trump know that Republicans wanted him to drop out (of course); was he going to drop out (of course not); was he going to bring up the rape allegations against Bill Clinton during tonight’s debate (maybe).
Here’s the thing, though: Claiming that you can kiss a woman and grab her genitals without her consent just because you’re famous is not solely a political problem. It is also a moral problem. It is a thing a decent human being shouldn’t do.
It is a thing that often upsets men who don’t talk like that about women. One of those men, apparently, is NBC’s Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press. Todd’s interview of Giuliani wasn’t just tense — it was sizzling with moral outrage.
Todd backed Giuliani into a corner by insisting on taking Trump’s words seriously
The first sign of trouble for Giuliani was when Todd asked him a version of a question many have asked since the tape’s release on Friday. Why did Trump feel the need to apologize for his 2005 comments about women, but not for the other offensive things he’s said throughout this campaign (calling Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists; attacks on a Mexican-American federal judge that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called “the very definition of racism”; implying that a Muslim-American mother of a fallen soldier wasn’t allowed to speak in public because of her religion; his insults of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado)?
Giuliani tried to parry by saying that the 2005 tape appeared to reflect Trump’s own “personal behavior,” and that Trump himself was offended when hearing his own remarks all these years later. But after Todd played a 2008 clip from Howard Stern’s radio show, in which Trump boasted about finding excuses to go into the dressing rooms before his pageants to see the women naked, Giuliani essentially started arguing that Trump had been joking around because he wasn’t yet a politician who had handlers telling him not to.
Then Todd got angry. “Why is the idea,” he asked Giuliani, “‘oh, he wasn’t running for president, so it’s okay to be a misogynist?’”
“It’s not about saying it, Mr. Mayor. He’s doing it. He’s bragging about making unwanted sexual advances.” Todd brought up the example of Temple Taggart, the 1997 Miss Utah contestant who told the New York Times this spring that Trump greeted her by kissing her on the lips, just as he’d bragged on the 2005 tape he did.
Throughout his interviews Sunday morning, Giuliani claimed not to know if Trump had actually done the things he talked about on the leaked tape — in other words, if he’d actually committed sexual assault or simply claimed to have done so. Todd’s preparation made it clear that Trump’s words did in fact reflect his actions, and that it was worth taking them seriously for that reason.
Later in the interview, Giuliani attempted to change the conversation to Hillary Clinton’s leaked excerpts from private Wall Street speeches — in which she appeared to admit to having “a public position and a private position” on issues like trade. “One thing Donald Trump is not,” he said, “is two people.”
Then Todd went in for the kill.
If, he asked, what Hillary Clinton “really is is what she says in private, should we assume what Donald Trump did, in that Access Hollywood bus, is really what Donald Trump is like in private?”
Giuliani was struck dumb. He sputtered. He ultimately came up with a lame line about how “both candidates” have flaws and skeletons in their closet they’d rather not address, and how he’d rather talk about the issues. Essentially, he gave up.
It’s okay for the media to draw moral boundaries
We don’t actually know just yet how much the leaked Access Hollywood tapes are going to hurt Trump on November 8. (The polling that’s come out so far, in fact, suggests the tapes might not hurt him that much at all.) So engaging in traditional horse race punditry — talking about a new development in terms of “how will this play with voters?” — is the height of pointless speculation. We’ll find out soon enough.
But that’s just one role the political media plays in a presidential campaign. The other one is examining the premises of the claims that public figures are making — not just in terms of checking their facts but evaluating what their claims say about the way they see the country and the way their preferred candidate would govern.
Other interviewers Sunday attempted to engage in fact-checking, asking Giuliani if Trump had actually done the things he claimed. But Todd went one level deeper — starting from the premise that even bragging about doing those things was inherently immoral.
He evaluated Trump not just as a politician for saying them, but as a human being. And in that regard, he found Trump wanting.
It’s impossible to say that Chuck Todd was biased against Trump or Giuliani in that interview. He did nothing to defend Hillary Clinton. He didn’t even say outright that Trump was unfit for office because of what he’d said in 2005, or that he deserved to lose Republican support. He simply made it clear that regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s not okay to brag about making unwanted sexual advances toward women. And it made a tremendous difference.