NEW YORK — Anderson Cooper asking Donald Trump if he had ever kissed or groped women without their consent — and Trump’s response that he had not — may be remembered as one of the most impactful presidential debate questions ever.
Four women who have since come forward alleging unwanted advances by the future Republican presidential nominee cited that moment in Sunday’s debate as contributing to their decision to tell their stories publicly.
Jessica Leeds, who alleged in Thursday’s edition of The New York Times that Trump had grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt when they sat next to each other on an airplane more than three decades ago, said she “wanted to punch the screen” after seeing the debate. Another woman who watched Sunday, Rachel Crooks, told the Times that Trump had surprised her with a kiss on the lips when she was a 22-year-old receptionist who worked in his building.
A People magazine writer, Natasha Stoynoff, cited the debate exchange at the top of her first-person story of Trump “pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat.”
The fourth woman, Mindy McGillivray, told the Palm Beach Post that she yelled “you liar” at the TV screen when Trump answered the question after Cooper asked it a third time. She said Trump grabbed her butt following a 2003 event in Florida.
Trump has denied the allegations and his lawyers on Thursday demanded that the New York Times retract the Wednesday story.
Cooper had circled in on the topic Sunday following an audience member’s question about whether the candidates were modeling proper behavior for young people. Top of mind for many viewers was the release two days earlier of a 2005 video of a vulgar conversation between Trump and Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood.”
The CNN anchor noted that the behavior Trump discussed in the video of kissing women and grabbing their genitals without their consent was sexual assault. “Do you understand that?” Cooper asked.
After Trump repeated an earlier description of the tape as “locker room talk” and said the debate should move on to more important topics, Cooper bored in: “Just for the record, though, are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago, that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?”
“I have great respect for women,” Trump said. “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.”
Said Cooper: “So, for the record, you’re saying you never did that?”
“I’ve said things that, frankly, you hear these things I said,” Trump said. “And I was embarrassed by it. But I have tremendous respect for women.”
Knowing that Trump usually comes around to answering a question, even if it’s one he wants to avoid, Cooper tried again. “Have you ever done those things?”
The answer came in an aside. “And women have respect for me,” Trump said. “And I will tell you: No, I have not. And I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe.”
Trump quickly moved on to talking about border safety, but he had put himself on the record. The impact wasn’t immediately obvious, but it was like waving a red cape in a bull ring.
“A lot of times with the debates there isn’t journalism happening at the same time,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.” ”Even though the moderators are journalists, they’re stepping into a different role. That was basically an interview style of moderating, where you’re drawing out the candidate and pressing for details.”
Following the revelations, Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press on Thursday asked Trump whether he had touched or groped women. Some in the room — a meeting of business leaders in Florida — booed as Trump shook his head in disgust.
As reporters walked into a hallway, Trump told people in the room, “what a sleazebag.”
Cooper’s questioning in Sunday’s debate provides a bookend for the campaign, back to Megyn Kelly’s question in the first Republican primary debate about Trump’s treatment of women, said Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor.
It joins other memorable debate questions, like when Bernard Shaw asked death penalty opponent Michael Dukakis in 1988 how he would react if his wife had been raped and murdered.
For Trump, it may recall another presidential candidate from the 1980s, Democrat Gary Hart, who urged reporters to “follow him around” when stories spread that he’d been having an affair. They did, and his 1988 campaign collapsed because of what they found.