Shortly after his victory last year, Donald Trump began revisiting one of his deepest public humiliations: the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of him making vulgar comments about women.
Despite his public acknowledgment of the recording’s authenticity in the final days of the presidential campaign – and his hasty videotaped apology under pressure from his advisers – Trump as president-elect began raising the prospect with allies that it might not have been him on the tape after all.
Most of Trump’s aides ignored his changing story. But in January, shortly before his inauguration, Trump told a Republican senator that he wanted to investigate the recording that had him boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.
“We don’t think that was my voice,” Trump told the senator, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Since then, Trump has continued to suggest that the tape that nearly upended his campaign was not actually him, according to three people close to the president.
As the issue of sexual harassment has swept through the news media, politics and the entertainment industry, Trump has persisted in denying allegations that he, too, made unwanted advances on multiple women in past years. In recent days, he has continued to sow doubt about his appearance on the “Access Hollywood” tape, stunning his advisers.
More generally, Trump’s views on the issue have changed depending upon the political party involved. He has praised women for coming forward after accusations were made against a Democrat, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. But in the case of Roy Moore, a Republican candidate for Senate from Alabama, Trump has said he believes Moore’s denials that he behaved inappropriately with teenage girls, and he has effectively endorsed Moore’s candidacy.
Trump’s falsehoods about the “Access Hollywood” tape are part of his lifelong habit of attempting to create and sell his own version of reality. Advisers say he continues to privately harbor a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact.
In recent months, they say, Trump has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He has also repeatedly claimed that he lost the popular vote last year because of widespread voter fraud, according to advisers and lawmakers.
One senator who listened as the president revived his doubts about Obama’s birth certificate chuckled Tuesday as he recalled the conversation. The president, he said, has had a hard time letting go of his claim that Obama was not born in the United States. The senator asked not to be named to discuss private conversations.
Trump’s journeys into the realm of manufactured facts have been frequent enough that his own staff has sought to nudge friendly lawmakers to ask questions of Trump in meetings that will steer him toward safer terrain.
To the president’s critics, his conspiracy-mongering goes to the heart of why he poses a threat to the country.
“It’s dangerous to democracy; you’ve got to have shared facts,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in an interview Tuesday. “And on so many of these, there’s empirical evidence that says no: You didn’t win the popular vote, there weren’t more people at your inauguration than ever, that was your voice on that tape, you admitted it before.”
Flake, who is not running for re-election, said in the interview that he was about to begin a series of speeches on the Senate floor outlining his concerns about Trump. The first, he said, will be dedicated to what Flake called the president’s disregard for the truth.
Many Republican lawmakers – not wanting to undermine the party’s fragile negotiations over a much-sought tax overhaul – declined to talk on the record about Trump’s pattern of plunging into what one senator called “his rabbit holes.” But the president’s success last year has also left some in his party in awe of his achievement and uneasy about angering his base of supporters.
“This guy got $2 billion of earned media in the primary, and he won an election that nobody thought he was going to win,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., alluding to the monetary equivalent of what Trump garnered in news media coverage. “This is a guy who is doing things that are totally unprecedented.”
Perdue, who like the president is a former business executive, did not defend Trump’s untruths but said that other historical figures had their flaws, too.
“He’s nobody’s choir boy, but neither were people like Winston Churchill, for example,” said the senator. “This guy, I think, is a historic person of destiny at a time and place in America when we’ve got to make a right-hand turn here.” Asked if the truth still matters, Perdue said: “Oh, absolutely. Facts are what you base decisions on.”
But Trump seems to not want to fully accept those facts that are embarrassing or inconvenient.
In October 2016, when The Washington Post first emailed Trump’s aides about the dialogue from the “Access Hollywood” tape, Trump said the words described by the newspaper did not sound like things he would say, according to two people familiar with the discussions. However, when an aide played the audio after the newspaper posted it online, Trump, who had been preparing for his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, did not deny it.
“It’s me,” he told people in the room as he listened. Yet after The New York Times published an article last weekend revealing that the president had questioned the authenticity of the recording, White House aides refused to answer questions about whether Trump still believes it was him on the tape.
The White House declined to comment for this article, pointing instead to comments that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, made Monday.
“He’s made his position on that clear at that time, as have the American people in his support of him,” Sanders said at the White House daily news briefing. She did not offer any direct answers when pressed further about the matter.
Trump’s friends did not bother denying that the president was creating an alternative version of events. One Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said that Trump’s false statements had become familiar to people over time. The president continues to boast of winning districts that he did not in fact win, the lawmaker said, and of receiving 52 percent of the women’s vote, even though exit polls show that 42 percent of women supported him.
Trump has a long history of stretching facts, predating his presidency. He has claimed his signature building, Trump Tower in Manhattan, was several stories taller than it actually is. In his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” he conceded to employing what he called “truthful hyperbole.”
“I’m not a presidential historian, but I think many other presidents have written and shaped their own myths,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, who spent part of Thanksgiving weekend with Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
“Look at what happened with John Kennedy,” Ruddy added. “If you read Theodore White’s books on it, he was given a story line about Camelot. I don’t think President Trump has gone that far – he’s not describing this as Camelot.”