First Lady Michelle Obama starred in a defining moment of the presidential race Thursday, delivering a stinging and emotional condemnation of Donald Trump’s behavior toward women that framed the election as no longer about ideology, but human decency.
Obama put aside her standard stump speech to express disgust and outrage with Trump’s lewd boasts about forcing himself on women, which multiple women accuse him of acting on. She said Trump’s behavior “has shaken me to my core.”
“I can’t believe I am saying that a candidate for president of the United States has actually bragged about sexually assaulting women,” Obama told the crowd. “I cannot stop thinking about this.” She spoke forcefully about the hurtful impact the GOP nominee’s talk has generally on American women, who still find themselves regularly subjected to humiliating and unwanted advances.
During the address, Obama distinguished herself as perhaps the most effective voice at this moment on Hillary Clinton’s deep bench of surrogates. The speech from the popular first lady underscored her mastery of the bully pulpit, even as she nears the end of two terms in an administration where she often avoided the rough and tumble of politics to focus her efforts on less controversial policy issues such as healthy eating.
“This is not normal,” Obama said, without once naming Trump, as is her usual practice. “This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. This is intolerable."
In the New Hampshire address, Obama framed the election as a crucial moment for the history of women – not only because the first female nominee of a major party is on the ballot, but also because they can send a message that Trump’s attitudes and behavior toward woman are unacceptable in modern society.
"The men in my life do not talk about women like this,” Obama said. “Strong men, men who are truly role models, don’t need to put down women for themselves to feel powerful."
“This is not something we can sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote in a sad election,” she said. “This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior. … We cannot endure this or expose our children to this any longer, not for another minute, let alone for four years.
“Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say, enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”
The framing of Obama’s speech added to the political challenges Trump already faced. Clinton’s Twitter account was abuzz with quotes from it while Obama spoke, and Clinton herself mentioned the address during a brief exchange with volunteers in San Francisco that was opened to the news media.
"If you haven't seen it, I hope you will,” Clinton said. “She not only made a compelling and strong case about the stakes in the election, but about who we are as Americans.”
Trump, taking the stage at a rally in Florida moments after Obama finished her address, argued he is the victim.
“These vicious claims about me of inappropriate conduct with women are totally and absolutely false,” Trump said, suggesting the Clinton campaign was involved in orchestrating the allegations. “The Clintons know it, and they know it very well. These claims are all fabricated. They're pure fiction, and they're outright lies.”
Trump then attacked his accusers. “These events never, ever happened and the people who said them meekly fully understand,” he said, vowing that he will publicly present “substantial evidence” that refutes the accusations. “You take a look at these people, you study these people, and you'll understand also.”
Trump appeared to allude to the looks of one of his accusers. “Take a look at her. Take a look at her words. You tell me what you think,” Trump said. “I don’t think so.”
Trump also lit into the media outlets that published the stories of his accusers.
But Trump’s attacking of several the women who say he groped or kissed them against their could prove a tough sell with voters. It risked amplifying Michelle Obama’s central point: that Trump is a candidate who belittles real concerns women have about sexual assault.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz argued that Trump faces a conundrum as the GOP nominee tries to dispute the portrait of him Michelle Obama is presenting on the campaign trail.
Lashing out at her, Schultz predicted, would only hurt Trump more.
“I can’t think of a bolder way for Donald Trump to lose even more standing than he already has,” Schultz said.