You could hear how hard it was for Donald Trump to say the words.
“Yeah, it was a mistake,” he said, sounding a bit chastened. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have sent it.”
I was telling him he lost my sister’s vote when he retweeted a seriously unflattering photo of the pretty Heidi Cruz next to a glam shot of his wife, Melania.
He repeated his contention that he didn’t view the Heidi shot “necessarily as negative.” But I stopped him, saying it was clearly meant to be nasty.
Trump also got into his schoolyard excuse of “he did it first” and “that wasn’t nice,” insisting that Ted Cruz wrote the words on the digital ad put up by an anti-Trump group aimed at Utah Mormons; it showed Melania in a 2000 British GQ shot posing provocatively and suggested that it was not first-ladylike. Cruz denies any involvement.
Truth be told, Trump said he “didn’t love the photo” of Melania. “I think she’s taken better pictures,” he said, also protesting: “It wasn’t a nude photo, either. It wasn’t nude!”
It’s ridiculous how many mistakes Trump has made in rapid order to alienate women when he was already on thin ice with them – and this in a year when the Republicans will likely have to run against a woman.
He did a huge favor for Hillary Clinton, who had been reeling from losing young women to a 74-year-old guy and from a dearth of feminist excitement. And for Cruz, who started promoting himself as Gloria Steinem, despite his more regressive positions on abortion and other women’s issues.
Wouldn’t it have been better, I asked, if Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had simply called the reporter Michelle Fields and apologized for yanking her arm?
”You’re right, but from what I understand it wouldn’t have mattered,” Trump said.
In an MSNBC interview with Chris Matthews, the formerly pro-choice Trump somehow managed to end up to the right of the National Right to Life Committee when he said that for women, but not men, “there has to be some form of punishment” if a President Trump makes abortion illegal.
Trump quickly recanted and even told CBS' John Dickerson that “the laws are set. And I think we have to leave it that way.”
”This was not real life,” he told me. “This was a hypothetical, so I thought of it in terms of a hypothetical. So that’s where that answer came from, hypothetically.”
Given his draconian comment, sending women back to back alleys, I had to ask: When he was a swinging bachelor in Manhattan, was he ever involved with anyone who had an abortion?
”Such an interesting question,” he said. “So what’s your next question?”
I pressed, how he could possibly win with 73 percent of women in this country turned off by him?
He chose another poll, murmuring, “It was 68 percent, actually.”
Trump doesn’t have a plan to turn it around with women, except to use Ivanka as a character witness and to chant that “nobody respects women more than I do.”
”I’m just going to be myself,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”
I asked how he would get past the damage done by his insults about women’s looks.
“I attack men far more than I attack women,” he said. “And I attack them tougher.”
Besides, he noted, he gets attacked on his looks, too.
“My hair is just fine, but I get attacked on my hair,” he said. “But if I attack someone else on their hair, they’d say, ‘Oh, what a terrible thing to do.’”
How do you rate your own looks, I asked.
“Phenomenal,” he said with a trace of self-deprecation. “Hey, it’s worked. What can I say?”
He was trying to be careful – an unfamiliar approach – in talking about women.
When I told him that Hillary called him “an id with hair” at a New York fundraiser, he was subdued. “Yeah, what is that all about?” he said. “Huh?”
And Rosie O'Donnell was there and compared him to a Harry Potter villain.
“Give me a break, Rosie,” he said. “I won’t comment on Rosie. I wish her the best. See? In the old days – tell your sister, I’m making progress.”
I mentioned that Megyn Kelly wants him on her show.
“I think I’d probably do it,” he allowed.
The front-runner has a right to be paranoid, with everyone plotting to steal his prize. He said he doesn’t want to “act like someone overly aggrieved,” but he was stewing in aggrievement about how “unbelievably badly” he gets treated by the press. The brand expert knows his brand is not so shiny these days.
“It’s a very interesting question because I do enjoy life a lot and I have fun with life and I understand life and I want to make life better for people, but it doesn’t come out in the media,” he said.
Has he missed the moment to moderate, to unite, to be less belligerent, to brush up on his knowledge about important issues?
”I guess because of the fact that I immediately went to No. 1 and I said, why don’t I just keep the same thing going?” he mused. “I’ve come this far in life. I’ve had great success. I’ve done it my way.”
He added: “You know, there are a lot of people who say, ‘Don’t change.’ I can be as presidential as anybody who ever lived. I can be so presidential if I want.”
Maureen Dowd is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.