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Access Hollywood | Obtained by The Washington Post
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Story highlights

The president can try to cast doubt on the authenticity of the tape he already apologized for, but it won't matter, writes Michael D'Antonio

Trump can't erase the impact of the national conversation about sexual harassment, D'Antonio writes

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

President Trump is now telling people the tape of him saying “grab ‘em by the p—y,” and other disgusting things about women to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush is fake, according to the New York Times.

In 2016, although he denied ever committing the acts he bragged about on the tape, Trump apologized for the gutter chatter heard on the recording. So this new spin is obviously absurd.

Yet nothing he says now can erase the very real movement the release of his “Access Hollywood” tape launched. Donald Trump deserves a place in history as the man most responsible for the courageous campaign against sexual harassment taking place in politics, business, the press, and Hollywood.

To understand Trump’s paradoxical role in the rise of women against sexual predators and harassers it helps to recall that he has long worked to make himself into the living symbol of arrogant power. Over decades of bragging about his wealth, bullying celebrity women and concocting stories of his own sex appeal, Trump’s indecency was expressed with a sense of impunity.

Getting away with it was a sign of his raw power. This all culminated with Trump’s infamous claim that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters.”

Trump didn’t lose his most rabid supporters and, in the end, seized an Electoral College victory and the presidency despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million. However the release of the tape inspired more than a dozen women to come forward to say he had groped, forcibly kissed or sexually harassed them. (Asked on Monday whether President Trump still considers the “Access Hollywood” tape authentic, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, “the President addressed this. This was litigated and certainly answered during the election by the overwhelming support for the president and the fact that he is sitting here in the Oval Office today.”)

Next came the massive protests that accompanied his inauguration (remember all the pink hats?) and repeated legislative failures, despite his party’s control of Congress.

The reaction to Trump proved that his bully-boy act had energized the opposition as well as his base. This is especially true when it comes to sexual misconduct. The women who summoned the courage to speak about what they said Trump did to them were declared liars and worse, and yet persisted. One, Summer Zervos, is now suing the president for defamation.

The example set by Trump’s accusers seemed to ignite a firestorm of accusations from courageous women who have been sexually harassed by famous and powerful men. The list of men accused since then includes, among others, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Senator Al Franken, journalist Mark Halperin, TV host Charlie Rose, and Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for a US Senate seat in Alabama.

Some of those men denied some of the allegations against them, but all except Moore acknowledged some inappropriate behavior.

The accusations have inspired a movement known as #MeToo and a long-neglected national conversation about how men bully women.

Moore is the only one in the list above who has been accused of molesting a child (a 14-year-old girl) and pursuing relationships with other teens. He is also the only one who categorically denies all of the multiple claims made against him.

Here he has something in common with the President. Throughout his life Trump has made a habit of denying any charge of wrongdoing and then attacking his accusers. (This is what he calls “counterpunching.”) While Republican senators expressed their revulsion at the prospect of Moore joining them on Capitol Hill, Trump has voiced his support explaining, “He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen.”

In Trump’s experience, denial has been enough for him to avoid accountability and thus it seems to him that anyone who admits to wrongdoing in the absence of irrefutable proof is a fool. Indeed, his arrogance is so enormous that even in cases where the proof is abundant, as in the “Access Hollywood” case, and he’s copped to the facts, it’s possible to reverse course and deny the truth.

Fortunately for those of us who live outside Trump’s fantasy version of reality, the #MeToo movement he helped set off isn’t going away. Women who come forward with stories of harassment and worse are finding support and respect, and men are being forced to rethink their behavior and assumptions. A profound and positive change is underway, hastened by our President’s indecency.

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Trump can also be credited with inspiring, though his awful actions and crude comments, vast movements in support of immigrants, against white nationalists, and in favor of a free press. The more he complains about “fake news” the more readers and viewers flock to the outlets he condemns.

On a wholesale level, surging concern for democracy and respect for differences suggest that that his side in the so-called culture war, which recalls an America of a more prejudiced and divided past, is losing. And so the legacy of Trump’s presidency, begun with a campaign that drove people apart, will include bringing us to the kind of openhearted future he has stood against.