Rocked by allegations of sexual assault, Donald Trump on Thursday lashed out at his female accusers as “horrible, horrible liars” as the deeply divisive presidential campaign sank further into charges and countercharges of predatory treatment of women.

The Republican businessman devoted much of a Florida speech to defending himself against multiple reports of inappropriate sexual behavior — accusations that he blamed on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the news media.

“These vicious claims about me, of inappropriate conduct with women, are totally and absolutely false. And the Clintons know it,” Trump declared. His accusers, he said, “are horrible people. They’re horrible, horrible liars.”

The comments came minutes after he called a reporter “a sleazebag” for asking whether Trump had ever touched or groped a woman without her consent.

Michelle Obama, meanwhile, offered an emotional counter-argument in battleground New Hampshire, warning that Trump’s behaviour sends a dangerous message to the nation’s children.

“The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman, it is cruel, it is frightening, and the truth is it hurts,” Obama said. She added, “We can’t expose our children to this any longer, not for another minute, let alone for four years.”

Michelle Obama attacks Trump’s comments about women1:36

Times stands by story

The New York Times and the Palm Beach Post on Wednesday reported stories about three women who alleged Trump had inappropriately touched them. Separately, a People Magazine reporter wrote a detailed first-person account of being attacked by Trump while interviewing him for a story on the businessman and his wife, Melania Trump.

One woman, Jessica Leeds, appeared on camera on the New York Times’s website to recount how Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt on a flight from the Midwest to New York in or around 1980.

The second woman, Rachel Crooks, described how Trump kissed her “directly on the mouth” in an unwanted advance in 2005 outside the elevator in Trump Tower in Manhattan, where she was a receptionist at a real estate firm.

On Wednesday night, Trump’s campaign made public a letter to the newspaper from a lawyer representing Trump, demanding it retract the story, calling it libellous, and threatening legal action if it did not comply.

“This entire article is fiction, and for the New York Times to launch a completely false, co-ordinated character assassination against Mr. Trump on a topic like this is dangerous,” the Trump campaign’s senior communications adviser, Jason Miller, said in a statement.

APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump kisses a ‘Women for Trump’ sign during a campaign rally on Wednesday in Florida. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The New York Times said on Thursday it stood by its story and rejected claims the article was libellous.

“Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself,” said David McCraw, vice-president and assistant general counsel for the newspaper, in a letter to Trump’s lawyer.

If Trump believes that the story was libellous, “we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight,” McCraw said.

‘Pure fiction’

Trump said the claims “are all fabricated.”

“They’re pure fiction, and they’re outright lies. These events never happened,” he said at the West Palm Beach rally.

He added, “I will not allow the Clinton machine to turn our campaign into a discussion of their slanders and lies.”

At the same time, Trump’s flailing campaign signalled it would spend the election’s final month relitigating Bill Clinton’s marital affairs and unproven charges of sexual assault, as well as what Trump says is Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s role in intimidating the women who were involved.

‘Bill Clinton was abusive to women,’ says Trump1:26

The developments come less than a week after the publication of a 2005 recording in which the Republican nominee boasted of using his fame to kiss and grab women without their consent.

In an interview broadcast Thursday, the soap opera actress in the video said Trump’s comments were offensive. But actress Arianne Zucker, on NBC’s Today, said she wasn’t shocked, given “that type of personality.”

The revelation of the video last Friday prompted many Republicans to withdraw their support for Trump — with some calling for him to drop out of the race — though a handful have since switched back to supporting him.

Clinton adviser Jennifer Palmieri said the latest revelations match “everything we know about the way Donald Trump has treated women.”

Taken together, the stories about Trump and his retorts about Bill Clinton have plunged an already rancorous campaign to new lows. The real estate mogul has also aggressively charged that Hillary Clinton not only needs to be defeated in November but also imprisoned: “Honestly, she should be locked up,” he said Thursday.

APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Trump -- Oct. 13, 2016

‘These vicious claims about me, of inappropriate conduct with women, are totally and absolutely false,’ Donald Trump said on Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

And his campaign is facing questions about ties to Russian interests accused of hacking Democratic groups, as well as the hacking of a top Clinton adviser’s emails.

For Trump, the cumulative effect appears to be a tumble in the battleground states he needs to win in November. What was already a narrow path to the 270 electoral college votes needed for victory is virtually indiscernible for Trump unless there’s a significant shake-up in the race between now and Nov. 8.

Alleged assaults now campaign focal point

Rather than trying to make up ground by shifting attention back to issues like trade that have energized Trump backers and could appeal to new voters, the Republican campaign appears to be moving swiftly to make Bill Clinton’s past a centrepiece of its campaign.

Campaign 2016 Debate -- Sept. 26, 2016

Trump’s campaign has highlighted Bill Clinton’s marital affairs and sexual assault allegations, as well as what Trump says is Hillary Clinton’s role in intimidating the women who were involved. The Clintons are seen here after the first presidential in New York in September. (Joe Raedle/Pool/Associated Press)

Building on Trump’s decision to bring three Bill Clinton accusers to last week’s presidential debate, the Republican nominee is expected to have the women appear with him on stage at rallies and do television interviews, according to a person briefed on the plan but not authorized to discuss it publicly. They were not on stage in West Palm Beach.

The Trump campaign’s hope is to showcase the decades-old accusations to young voters, particularly women, who may not have been old enough to remember the controversies that dogged the Clintons in the 1990s. If the campaign can’t get them to vote for Trump, the hope is that they will stay home and depress turnout, which would likely hurt Democrats.

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