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11 Times Donald Trump Looked Like He Was Done For

President-elect Donald Trump points to his supporters during his "Thank You" rally earlier this month in North Carolina.
Sara D. Davis
Getty Images
President-elect Donald Trump points to his supporters during his "Thank You" rally earlier this month in North Carolina.

Some politicians seem to have nine lives, constantly evading scandal and overcoming the odds. But this past year, now-President-elect Donald Trump may have had more than that.

Many things he did would have been the death knell for any other candidate's political hopes — mocking a disabled reporter, bragging about groping, disparaging a Gold Star family and even boasting about his manhood during a national debate.

But every time political pundits and reporters thought Trump was done for, he seemed to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. And on Election Night, his unlikely win proved he may well have been the ultimate Teflon candidate.

Some of his improbable actions were overlooked by voters who simply couldn't stomach voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. And despite winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million, her lack of a prominent economic message and lack of focus on Rust Belt states led to losing the Electoral College and the presidency to Trump.

The billionaire real-estate mogul and reality TV star managed to craft a populist appeal that helped him around these 11 times he seemed to be done for:

1. John McCain is "not a war hero"

Just a month after launching what seemed like a quixotic campaign, Trump made the first major misstep that led many, including his then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, to believe his bid was over before it really began.

At a forum in Iowa, he fired back after Arizona Sen. John McCain, his party's presidential nominee in 2008, had begun criticizing Trump's hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigrants and Mexicans. Trump pulled no punches when asked about McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured.

"He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured," Trump replied glibly.

Trump, who received multiple deferments for the draft during Vietnam, never apologized. He doubled down, and he came out unscathed. In an odd way, his former campaign operatives argue, it lent a degree of authenticity to his candidacy. It became a model for the rest of his campaign.

Months later, Trump maintained he had no regrets for his comments about McCain, though he did later admit McCain was a "hero."

"You do things, and you say things. And what I said, frankly, is what I said. And, you know, some people like what I said, if you want to know the truth," Trump told radio host Don Imus in May. "Many people that like what I said. You know, after I said that, my poll numbers went up 7 points."

2. Trump says he's never asked God for forgiveness

Other comments Trump made during that same Iowa event were somewhat overshadowed by his controversial remarks on McCain — but they were no less eyebrow-raising. When asked by moderator Frank Luntz, a GOP message guru, at the event hosted by several religious organizations about his faith, Trump said he was Christian — but made some comments very much out of step with the central beliefs of evangelical Christianity.

"I am not sure I have," Trump responded when asked if he had ever asked for forgiveness for his sins from God — a critical step for born-again Christians, who believe that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

He continued: "I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't."

Trump said he does participate in communion but described the sacrament in quite unusual terms.

"When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed," Trump said.

It was all an unusual turn from traditional Iowa GOP politics. Remember that in the 2000 campaign, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was applauded during a debate for saying Jesus was the philosopher he admired most. It endeared him to the evangelical community.

Questions abounded during this campaign about whether Trump's awkward and unlikely dance with evangelical voters would cost him votes. Answer: No. Even though many evangelical leaders spoke out against him, he won a whopping 81 percent of white evangelical voters, according to exit polls.

3. Feud with Megyn Kelly: She had "blood coming out of her wherever"

Taking on a Fox News host in a GOP primary debate is usually not a good idea if you are a Republican candidate.

But Trump did just that in the very first GOP primary debate of the 2016 cycle, taking on the network's highest-rated anchor no less, Megyn Kelly. His answer to her question in that debate ignited a feud between Trump and Kelly that would continue through much of the election.

Kelly began with a blunt statement to Trump on his comments about women: "You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." She asked: "Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?"

Trump didn't like that line of questioning whatsoever, and he made his displeasure known the next day after the debate, when he called in to Fox rival cable network CNN and unloaded — for half an hour.

"She gets out, and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions," Trump said. "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever. In my opinion, she was off base."

Trump denied he was talking about menstruation and instead was referencing her nose. The vulgar apparent insinuation remained, there was much outrage from various political corners, and Trump's appeal only grew larger.

4. Megyn Kelly feud, part 2: skipping the final Iowa debate

Trump's battle with Kelly continued for months, and he followed through on one threat — that he wouldn't participate in the next Fox News debate if she was one of the moderators. And despite it being the final debate before the Iowa caucuses, when the cameras started rolling on Jan. 29, Trump wasn't there.

Instead, he elected to hold his own counterprogramming with a fundraiser for veterans' groups that was also broadcast live on rival channels. Still, skipping such a high-profile debate just before the first votes of the primary season was a risky move, and an unprecedented one, like much of Trump's candidacy, because it could cost him the all-important state of Iowa.

Trump claimed he raised over $6 million for various organizations with his competing event, but it wasn't until reporters like the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold started digging that it became apparent not all the money had been fully distributed yet. Trump was pressured into holding a combative press conference at the end of May to give a full accounting of those donations, which ended up totaling just $5.6 million; he said it took four months to give out the donations due to vetting of the different groups.

5. Losing Iowa

Trump suffered a major setback in the first major contest in the primary. He lost Iowa, finishing second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

And yet, Trump became the Comeback Kid with a "big league" win in New Hampshire. Trump would go on to cruise through much of the rest of the primary season, fending off Cruz and others.

6. Trump defends his manhood: "I guarantee you there's no problem"

Trump would participate in all the remaining debates, which made for many memorable moments. But none stood out so much as when Trump made an unusual defense of the size of his, um, manhood during a March debate.

Trump was responding to renewed attention to the size of his hands, stemming from past reports that he was particularly sensitive about having small hands. Desperate to make a splash, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had begun to jab at Trump in recent days.

"He's always calling me Little Marco. And I'll admit he's taller than me. He's like 6-2, which is why I don't understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5-2," Rubio said. "And you know what they say about men with small hands? You can't trust them."

On the debate stage days later, Trump wanted all of America to know there was "no problem" with the size of his hands — or any other part of his anatomy.

"Look at those hands, are they small hands?" Trump asked, raising them up "And, [Rubio] referred to my hands — 'if they're small, something else must be small.' I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee."

7. Mocking a disabled reporter

Trump was extremely sensitive to any and all criticism of him, especially reporters calling into question the facts. Such was the case with New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who said Trump's claim, citing Kovaleski's reporting, that "thousands and thousands of people" cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, was false.

Kovaleski's reporting, then for the Washington Post, included a line that authorities were questioning some people who were allegedly seen throwing "tailgate-style parties" from rooftops as the towers burned. Kovaleski explained that they couldn't verify this claim, and that it certainly wasn't "thousands and thousands."

At a rally, Trump went after Kovaleski, who has a congenital condition called arthrogryposis that limits the movement of his arms.

"You gotta see this guy," Trump said at a November 2015 rally in South Carolina. Trump began flailing his arms, making wild motions and holding his arms at an odd angle.

"Ahh, I don't know what I said! Ahh, I don't remember," Trump continued in a mocking voice.

Trump maintained he wasn't mocking Kovaleski or his condition and had never met the reporter or knew what he looked like — despite having been interviewed by him many times previously.

Of all of Trump's offenses, an August Bloomberg poll found, this was the worst in the minds of voters thus far.

8. The "Mexican" judge

Trump was defensive again about fraud lawsuits against Trump University. Trump claimed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had an "absolute conflict" in deciding the case, because he is "of Mexican heritage" and Trump had promised to build a wall along the southern U.S. border.

Curiel was born in Indiana. The backlash to Trump's comments was swift. Trump maintained they weren't racist, even though he was saying Curiel couldn't do his job fairly because of his heritage.

Other top Republicans disagreed. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump's comments were "the textbook definition of a racist comment."

9. Trump goes after a Gold Star family

Perhaps the most high-profile and surprising critics on whom Trump unleashed his wrath were Khizr and Ghazala Khan. The Gold Star family spoke at the Democratic National Convention about their son, Humayun Khan, a Muslim Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004 serving the United States. They criticized Trump's call for banning Muslims from coming into the U.S.

"Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy," Khizr Khan said, holding up a copy. "In this document, look for the words 'liberty' and 'equal protection of law.' "

He continued: "Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

The story likely would have been a short-lived convention moment were it not for Trump firing back days later. He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he had "made a lot of sacrifices" by employing "thousands and thousands of people" at his businesses.

He also questioned why Mrs. Khan didn't speak at the convention.

"If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me," Trump said, implying she wasn't permitted to because of her religion.

Ghazala Khan later said in a TV interview that she didn't speak because she was still in too much pain over losing her son.

Again, top Republicans were swift in their rebukes. McCain said Trump's nomination did not give him "unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former rival of Trump's, tweeted, "There's only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect."

Ryan weighed in again, criticizing Trump's proposed Muslim ban and reiterating he was against a religious test of any kind.

"Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice," Ryan said. "Capt. Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period."

The weeks following the controversy were Trump's worst in public polling. But Trump continued a frenetic campaign schedule, while Clinton stayed out of the limelight and held virtually zero campaign events — instead focusing on raising money.

10. "Second Amendment people" may be able to stop Clinton

As the general election campaign wore on, so did much of Trump's controversial rhetoric, some of which veered toward dangerous territory. At an August rally in North Carolina, Trump appeared to suggest taking up arms against Clinton over her opposition to gun rights.

"Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment," Trump said. "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know."

(Clinton never called for abolishing the Second Amendment, only for tougher gun-control measures).

Trump claimed his statement was distorted by the "dishonest media." But the Secret Service reportedly sat down with Trump to explain the potential consequences of his remarks.

More than a month later, though, Trump made a similar statement, criticizing Clinton for being surrounded by armed Secret Service guards and suggesting that, perhaps, they should stop carrying guns and "see what happens to her."

"I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons," Trump said. "They should disarm, right? I think they should disarm. Immediately. What do you think? Yeah, take their guns away. She doesn't want guns. Take their — let's see what happens to her. Take their guns away, OK? It'll be very dangerous."

Trump's campaign claimed he was simply being "sarcastic."

11. And, of course, "grab them by the p****"

No other statement from Trump seemed like it would have as far-reaching an impact as the ones that surfaced on Oct. 7, from 11 years prior. The biggest bombshell, the "October surprise" of October surprises, came when a 2005 Access Hollywood tape leaked in which Trump can be heard bragging to show host Billy Bush about groping women.

"I'm automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," he boasted.

"Grab them by the p****. You can do anything," Trump continued, using vulgar slang for female anatomy.

Trump didn't apologize for much in this campaign. But he did about this. He issued a rare video apology but dismissed the comments as simply "locker room talk." That phrase became a talking point of supporters willing to look past even this.

It seemed to get worse for Trump when, after denying during a debate that he had ever done those things, multiple women came forward saying Trump did to them exactly what he had bragged about on tape.

Trump said the women were lying. He then attacked them, implying that some weren't attractive enough for him to have hit on. He promised that after the election, he would sue them.

These incidents and allegations seemed to be on a different level than even many of his past controversies. Many prominent Republicans began to withdraw their support from Trump and called on him to drop out.

But many later reversed course, reaffirming their endorsements of the GOP nominee, and, in the end, Trump convinced enough voters to make him the next president of the United States.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.

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