One of Harvey Weinstein’s legal advisers called his behavior illegal and gross on Friday as the fallout over claims the powerful Hollywood producer spent decades exploiting and harassing young women caught in his orbit continued.

In an interview with ABC News, presenter George Stephanopoulos said to Lisa Bloom, a lawyer better known for representing alleged sexual harassment victims: “This is a real pattern over 30 years. This is like textbook sexual harassment.”

“It’s gross, yeah,” Bloom replied.

“It’s illegal,” claimed Stephanopoulos.

“Yes. You know, I agree,” said Bloom. She went on to define herself as Weinstein’s “adviser”, saying: “I’m not defending him in any sexual harassment cases – there aren’t any sexual harassment cases.”

Bloom later told the New York Times, which broke the story of his alleged sexual misconduct on Thursday: “The allegations if true would constitute sexual harassment. However, Mr Weinstein denies many of them and was not given a fair opportunity to present evidence and witnesses on his side.”

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As a handful of celebrities praised the women who had taken their accusations public and politicians in the Democratic party, where Weinstein is a longtime fixture, hastened to return his campaign contributions, the Weinstein Company boss threatened a libel lawsuit against the New York Times and launched a scorched-earth attack on the newspaper’s reporting methods.

“What I am saying is that I bear responsibility for my actions, but the reason I am suing is because of the Times’ inability to be honest with me, and their reckless reporting,” Weinstein told Page Six. “They told me lies. They made assumptions.”

Weinstein – producer of Oscar winners Shakespeare in Love, The Artist and The English Patient, and patron to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh – has apologized for inappropriate behavior, but he insists, through an attorney, that many of the accusations against him are inaccurate. The Times story was “saturated with false and defamatory statements”, lawyer Charles Harder said in a statement on Thursday.

The Times report claimed, citing company officials, that Weinstein had reached private settlements with at least eight women over accusations of sexual misconduct over a period of years, and reported the claim that he had created a toxic working environment through decades of inappropriate sexual advances. Among the accusers who allegedly reached settlements are two former assistants, an actor and an Italian model, the paper reported.

In the most high-profile allegation, Kiss the Girls star Ashley Judd claimed to the Times that two decades ago, Weinstein invited her to a breakfast meeting at his Beverley Hills hotel and used the occasion to ask her to give him a massage or watch him shower.

Weinstein’s status in the entertainment industry seemed to tumble overnight. English actor Jessica Hynes claimed on Friday that Weinstein once asked her to audition wearing nothing but a bathing suit.

“I was offered a film role at 19, Harvey Weinstein came on board and wanted me to screen test in a bikini,” the Spaced star wrote on Twitter. “I refused and lost the job.” The Guardian has contacted Hynes and Weinstein’s legal team for comment.

Girls star Lena Dunham blasted Weinstein’s apology as “pathetic”, and fellow actor Amber Tamblyn tweeted: “Heed the mantra and never forget: Women. Have. Nothing. To. Gain. And. Everything. To Lose. By. Coming. Forward.”

Scream star Rose McGowan, who according to the Times reached a $100,000 settlement with Weinstein after an undisclosed incident in 1997, appeared to accuse Hollywood of being “complicit” without naming Weinstein outright.

“Anyone who does business with __ is complicit,” she tweeted. “And deep down you know you are even dirtier. Cleanse yourselves.” She added: “Women fight on. And to the men out there, stand up. We need you as allies.”

Donations returned

Meanwhile, four Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Patrick Leahy, announced that they would be donating the equivalent of Weinstein’s previous campaign contributions to charity – roughly $5,000 each.

But the party at large will not have an easy time expunging its associations with Weinstein, who has donated or raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Democrats, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, over many years. In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Weinstein produced a star-studded fundraiser for Clinton on Broadway.

Related: Lisa Bloom, lawyer who helped oust Bill O’Reilly, to defend Harvey Weinstein

As shockwaves from the story shook the liberal elite on both coasts, Weinstein, who told the Times he wished to “sincerely apologize” for “the way I’ve behaved with colleagues” and planned a leave of absence from work, went on the offensive.

Harder, the California attorney best known for representing Hulk Hogan in the libel suit that bankrupted Gawker, claimed to be preparing a $50m lawsuit against the Times on Weinstein’s behalf. “It relies on mostly hearsay accounts and a faulty report,” Harder said of the news report.

In an interview with Page Six, Weinstein said the Times’ “reckless” reporting methods justified a lawsuit.

“The Times had a deal with us that they would tell us about the people they had on the record in the story, so we could respond appropriately, but they didn’t live up to the bargain,” he said. “They spent six months researching this article, then they gave us just 24 hours to answer it.”

His account of the Times’ reporting was at odds, however, with that of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the reporting duo behind the story.

On an episode of The Daily, a Times podcast, recorded on Thursday, the reporters said Weinstein was aware of their investigation and in contact with them for months before publication.

“His tone in these phone calls varied enormously,” said Kantor.

A Times spokesperson told Page Six it was “confident in the accuracy” of its reporting.

“Harvey Weinstein was aware that we were working on this story for months, and he sort of assembled a legal team to handle us,” Twohey added on The Daily. “And then finally, today, issued these pretty remarkable statements.”

Weinstein said through his lawyer, Lisa Bloom, that “he denies many of the accusations as patently false,” but official response to the Times took a more contrite tone.

“I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he wrote. “That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse, in the office – or out of it. To anyone.

“I realized some time ago that I needed to be a better person and my interactions with the people I work with have changed. I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.”

He added: “I so respect all women and regret what happened.”

Despite this apology, however, Weinstein did not comment in the statement on any of the specific allegations made against him, including Judd’s.

His only reference to one of the specific allegations came in his interview with Page Six, when he noted that a 2015 memo written by former employee Lauren O’Connor alleging sexual harassment had been withdrawn.

In his statement to the Times, the film producer said that during his leave of absence, he would work with therapists, and “learn about myself and conquer my demons”.

Attempting to restate his liberal credentials, he also attacked the NRA – currently in damage-control mode following the Las Vegas shooting – and said he had been “organizing a $5m foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC” for the last year.

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