WASHINGTON (AFP) - Donald Trump fought back hard on Thursday (Oct 13) against a cascade of sexual misconduct allegations that threatened to derail his troubled White House bid, slamming the media revelations as politically-motivated slander.
Claims by at least six women have come to light in accounts reported by The New York Times, NBC, People Magazine and other outlets, most of them after the Republican nominee asserted in Sunday's debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that he had never sexually assaulted women.
Trump's accusers, who include a beauty queen, a journalist and a sales representative, countered that claim, saying the brash real estate mogul made unwanted physical advances against them in years past, including groping and kissing.
With his campaign in free-fall since last week's release of a damning tape in which he boasts of groping women, Trump lashed out, denying any of the alleged incidents took place, while his legal team branded the Times story "libellous".
"The phony story in the failing @nytimes is a TOTAL FABRICATION," Trump posted on Twitter early on Thursday.
Trump's campaign threatened to sue unless the paper retracts the article.
"Your article is reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se," the candidate's lawyer Marc Kasowitz wrote in a letter to the Times, calling it "a politically-motivated effort to defeat Mr Trump's candidacy."
But the Times refused to back down. “We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern,” the paper’s assistant general counsel David McCraw said in a letter to Trump’s legal team.
“If Mr Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticise him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”
The incendiary reports come with just 26 days left in a presidential race that has descended to unprecedented levels of vulgarity - and six days before the final Clinton-Trump debate, in Las Vegas.
With Clinton leading in national polls, the 70-year-old billionaire is desperate to set his campaign back on track after a video recording from 2005 surfaced last week in which he boasted of grabbing women by the crotch.
"When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," he said.
Trump has apologised for the comments, but also sought to minimise them as "locker room talk."
US First Lady Michelle Obama on Thursday, slammed the remarks as "disgraceful" and "intolerable".
"It doesn’t matter what party you belong to – Democrat, Republican, independent – no woman deserves to be treated this way. No one deserves this kind of abuse,” Obama told a rally for Democrat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.
“This wasn’t locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behaviour.”
The allegations against Trump, which date from between 10 and 30 years ago, suggest a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards women.
Jessica Leeds, a 74-year-old former businesswoman, told the Times that Trump groped her on a flight in the early 1980s as they sat next to each other in first class.
About 45 minutes after takeoff, Trump began grabbing her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt, she said.
"He was like an octopus," Leeds told the daily.
"His hands were everywhere," she added. "It was an assault."
A second accuser, Rachel Crooks said she was a 22-year-old receptionist at a real estate company in Trump Tower in 2005 when she encountered Trump outside an elevator one morning.
After she introduced herself, he "kissed me directly on the mouth", she told the Times.
"It was so inappropriate," Crooks added. "I was so upset that he thought I was so insignificant that he could do that."
"None of this ever took place," Trump told the paper, calling its reporter a "disgusting human being."
Among the other accusations, Mindy McGillivray, 36, alleged that Trump grabbed her rear end as she worked as a photographer's assistant at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in 2003, the Palm Beach Post reported.
"I was startled. I jumped," she was quoted as saying.
The New York Times and Palm Beach Post both spoke with friends and family of the women, who corroborated their accounts and knew of the incidents before Trump's "hot mic" video was released.
People Magazine also published an account on Wednesday by a former staff writer who said Trump forced himself on her when she interviewed him at Mar-a-Lago in 2005.
"Trump shut the door behind us," Natasha Stoynoff wrote. "I turned around, and within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat."
Trump denied the allegation outright, tweeting: "Why didn't the writer of the twelve year old article in People Magazine mention the 'incident' in her story. Because it did not happen!"
In yet another account published on Facebook, Cassandra Searles, who was Miss Washington 2013, claimed that Trump had "continually grabbed my ass and invited me to his hotel room," Yahoo News reported.
Former Miss Utah Temple Taggart McDowell also told NBC that Trump inappropriately kissed her on the lips when she was a 21-year-old contestant in his Miss USA pageant in 1997, and again in Trump Tower.
None of the women reported the incidents to police at the time.
Trump had repeatedly threatened to damage his Democratic rival by reviving allegations of sexual misconduct against her husband.
He made good on that promise by appearing with three of Bill Clinton's female accusers ahead of Sunday's debate, and alleging on stage - before tens of millions of viewers - that the former president was "abusive."
But heading into the final stretch of the brutal campaign, it appears the tables have been turned - with allegations of sexual misconduct instead tipping Trump's campaign into chaos, and fuelling a crisis that Republicans fear could cause lasting damage to the party.