Reince Priebus looked battered. It was Monday, October 10—the morning after the final presidential debate—and our eyes met as I boarded a Southwest Airlines flight from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. It had been an extraordinary weekend: On Friday night, the biggest bombshell of the 2016 campaign dropped when the Washington Post published a decade-old audio recording on which Donald Trump made lewd comments about groping women. Speaker Paul Ryan disinvited Trump from a unity event in Wisconsin scheduled for the following day, and Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, quietly made the case to Trump and his associates that he should quit the race. Trump refused. The Sunday debate, 48 hours after the tape’s release, was dominated by discussion of Trump’s history with women. He dismissed his recorded remarks—“grab them by the pussy,” Trump had said, boasting that his celebrity status allowed him to get away with aggressive advances on the opposite sex—as “locker room talk.”
Priebus occupied a window seat, a pair of staffers to his left. The chair behind him sat empty; my instinct was to grab it and start firing questions through the slit at his left shoulder. But after studying Priebus—the slouched posture, the uncharacteristically rumpled suit, the groaning bags under his eyes—I decided it might backfire. Whether it was pity or strategy, or a bit of both, I settled in two rows back, deciding it would be better to talk upon landing in Washington.
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It was an eventful flight: Ryan, while we were at 30,000 feet, had told House Republicans on a conference call that he wouldn’t be defending the president anymore—and urged them to do whatever was necessary to survive in their districts. Meanwhile, there were reports Priebus would hold his own call with RNC members to discuss ousting Trump. Priebus was understandably not keen to discuss any…