In an election characterized by remarkably unorthodox debates, the third and final night of Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump often offered much more traditional fare on policy and politics — until one of the two nominees for the presidency of the United States refused to say if he’d accept the results of the Nov. 8 election.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said.
When moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, sounding aghast, pressed Trump on whether he would accept a peaceful transition, the hallmark of American democracy, Trump held fast: “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
“That’s horrifying,” Clinton interjected.
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“Every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him,” she said, rattling off a long list of examples. “There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row — and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.”
“Should have gotten it,” Trump said.
Trump’s unprecedented refusal stood out in a 90-minute debate that Wallace kept tightly focused on the issues — a welcome change, perhaps, from the theatrics and mudslinging of the first two debates, though parts of Wednesday night also felt detached from the questions that have been driving the past few frenzied weeks of the presidential campaign.
For Trump, the debate, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, presented a final opportunity to get a handle on an election in which he’s been steadily slipping in battleground states across the country — including Florida, where hundreds of thousands of voters have already cast mail ballots and early voting begins Monday. Declining to explicitly accept the election results seemed unlikely to help persuade skeptical voters about Trump’s presidential temperament.
His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, had both said Trump would abide by the results. His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, had said she didn’t “believe” Trump’s unfounded claims of a “rigged” election system and widespread fraud. At the first debate, Trump had said: “The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.”
Instead of broadening his appeal to undecided and swing voters Wednesday, Trump appeared aware at the start of debate of his recent political losses among Republicans. He spent much of the time articulating positions — on the U.S. Supreme Court, gun rights and abortion rights — aimed at reassuring conservatives.
“The Supreme Court: It’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Despite his ongoing trouble winning over female voters, Trump at one point interrupted Clinton to call her “such a nasty woman.”
In recent days, Trump had gone as far as to suggest House Speaker Paul Ryan — the nation’s top elected Republican who has essentially conceded the presidential race to focus on preserving the GOP House majority — might be sabotaging Trump’s candidacy to preserve Ryan’s potential future presidential ambitions.
Trump’s Republican trouble, simmering since the party’s primary, boiled over after the release of an “Access Hollywood” video from 2005 showing Trump bragging about forcing himself on women. In the second debate 10 days ago, moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN pressed Trump on whether he’d ever acted on his words.
“No, I have not,” Trump said.
Since then, nine women have accused Trump of unwanted groping or kissing, some Republicans renounced their Trump support, and the nominee posited that a grand conspiracy involving Clinton, the GOP establishment and the news media was under way to defeat him.
“I don’t know those people,” Trump said Wednesday, falsely declaring that the women’s allegations had been “debunked.” “I believe it was her campaign that did it,” he said, referring to Clinton and to video showing two former Democratic staffers discussing causing disruptions at Trump events.
“I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who’s sitting right here,” Trump said, “because I didn’t do anything.”
Clinton pounced, noting that Trump has said at recent rallies “he could not possibly have done those things to those women because they were not attractive enough.”
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” she said.
“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump shot back. “Nobody.”
The audience laughed. Wallace scolded them.
Up until those two exchanges, which came in a section about “fitness” for the presidency, Trump had delivered a more disciplined and polished performance than in the candidates’ two previous exchanges.
For the first time, the candidates discussed one of the election’s defining topics, immigration. Clinton said the idea of mass deportation “is not in keeping with our nation.” Trump maintained he’d build a wall along the Mexican border — and get rid of “bad hombres.”
Trump tried to brush off questions about self-dealing at the Trump Foundation. Clinton dodged a question about “pay-to-play” allegations against the Clinton Foundation — which Trump used to refer to Florida.
And Clinton was put on the defensive on WikiLeaks, a question first brought up by Wallace. The emails showed she praised “open borders” in the transcript of one speech she gave to a Brazilian bank. During the debate, Clinton gave a meek explanation about the power grid crossing borders.
Clinton called the emails, which her campaign had so far declined to confirm, an illegal Russian hack — and chided Trump for praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump said Putin “has no respect” for Clinton.
“Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton retorted.
“You’re the puppet!” said Trump.