Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) claimed Sunday that Donald Trump was not describing sexual assault in a leaked video recording in which the Republican nominee brags about grabbing women “by the pussy” without their consent.
Interviewed in the spin room after the presidential debate in St. Louis, in which Trump brushed off the comments as “locker room talk,” the Alabama senator noted that the real estate mogul already apologized for his “very improper language.”
“But beyond the language, would you characterize the behavior described in that as sexual assault if that behavior actually took place?” the Weekly Standard asked.
“I don’t characterize that as sexual assault,” Sessions replied. ”I think that’s a stretch. I don’t know what he meant—“
“So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that’s not sexual assault?” the Weekly Standard pressed.
“I don’t know. It’s not clear that he—how that would occur.”
Trump claimed during the debate that he never acted on the comments made in the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, which was recorded not long after his wedding to his third wife Melania, and included him forcibly groping women he found attractive without permission.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said on the tape. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
According to Sessions, even if Trump had done so, those actions would not qualify as sexual assault.
Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer declined to offer an opinion on whether they would.
“I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer,” Spicer told the Weekly Standard in the spin room.
On Monday morning, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway took Sessions’ approach, brushing aside the suggestion that her candidate’s comments were anything more than “words.”
“This term sexual assault has been bandied about,” Conway said on “Fox and Friends,” claiming it “demeans” women who have experienced assault to characterize Trump’s comments that way “for political purposes.”
Over two dozen prominent Republicans have abandoned Trump’s campaign over his comments, however, which Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani admitted were a description of sexual assault during a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
“That’s what he’s talking about,” Giuliani said, noting that he didn’t know whether or not it had actually happened.
UPDATE: A spokesman from Sessions’ office sent TPM the following statement on Tuesday, but declined to answer a question about whether the behavior described in the video constituted sexual assault.
The Weekly Standard’s characterization of comments I made following Sunday’s Presidential debate is completely inaccurate. My hesitation was based solely on confusion of the contents of the 2005 tape and the hypothetical posed by the reporter, which was asked in a chaotic post-debate environment. I regret that it resulted in an inaccurate article that misrepresented my views. Of course it is crystal clear that assault is unacceptable. I would never intentionally suggest otherwise.