Suffice it to say, the American public had never seen the sort of debate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in Sunday: a disdainful, tense — and at times cringeworthy — exchange that more than once shattered what used to be political paradigms of the race for the White House.
For starters, Trump said if he were in charge of federal law, Clinton would be “in jail.”
“If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception,” he said, after railing against Clinton for 33,000 emails deleted from the private email server she used as U.S. secretary of state.
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Trump also casually referred to Clinton as “the devil.”
“I was so surprised to see him sign on with the devil,” he said of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s chief primary opponent.
But in a jaw-dropping night, neither of those comments qualified as perhaps the most stunning moment. That came 17 minutes in, when Trump brought up former President Bill Clinton’s sexual history.
Trump was wrestling for his political survival some 48 hours after elected Republicans started abandoning their support for him, following the release of a 2005 recording revealing Trump’s vulgar and predatory remarks about women. Republican leaders hoped that a remorseful Trump would show sincere contrition, in an effort to stop losing women voters’ support and protect down-ballot candidates who suddenly feared being tarred by the actions of the party’s unpredictable nominee.
But Trump continued to excuse his comments on the recording, which cavalierly described sexual assault, as private banter.
“I don’t think you understood what was said — this was locker-room talk,” he told one of the moderators, CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family, to the American people.”
He tried to change the subject by talking about the ISIS terrorist group, saying they were “chopping off heads.”
Cooper pressed him on the groping and forced kissing described in the tape: “Have you ever done these things?”
“No, I have not,” Trump said, though several women have alleged unwanted sexual advances from him over the years.
Clinton said the recording proved she was right to argue Trump wasn’t qualified for the presidency.
“With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them — politics, policies, principles — but I never questioned their fitness to serve. Donald Trump is different,” she said. “We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to 10. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We’ve seen him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms. So yes, this is who Donald Trump is.”
That’s when Trump detonated the political nuclear bomb.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” Trump said. “Mine are words, this was action.”
He’d telegraphed his attack for weeks, playing coy about whether he’d use it or not. Even at the first debate, 13 days ago, he boasted he restrained himself only because, he said, Chelsea Clinton was in the hall.
She was back this time, but that no longer seemed to matter.
Shortly before the debate, Trump — without notice — convened a panel comprising three of Bill Clinton’s accusers and aired their conversation on Facebook Live. “These four very courageous women have asked to be here, and it was our honor to help them,” Trump said.
His campaign later said the women — Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey — would be among Trump’s guests inside the debate hall. A fourth woman invited by Trump, Kathy Shelton, has attacked Hillary Clinton for defending the man accused of raping her when Shelton was 12 years old. (Clinton was a legal aid lawyer in Arkansas; the case ended in a plea deal.)
“Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me, and Hillary Clinton threatened me,” said Broaddrick, who said during Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment proceedings that he raped her when he was Arkansas attorney general in 1978. He denied the accusation and no charges were filed. “I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign called the surprise event an “act of desperation.”
Needless to say, when Trump and Clinton took the stage, they didn’t shake hands.
Once the debate moved on from the tape, Trump appeared to be on surer footing, though whether he did enough to win over new voters was unclear. He had clearly done some prep work after unsuccessfully winging it last time, and more forcefully targeted Clinton over her deleted emails (“They were personal emails,” she insisted) and what he characterized as inaction during her three decades of public life.
“It’s just words, folks. Just words,” he said. “Those words, I’ve been hearing them for many years.”
Clinton didn’t seem to land as many clear political punches as she did in the first debate. The format of Sunday’s exchange was a town hall-style meeting, with undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization sharing the stage at Washington University and asking questions. Other questions read by Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz came from social media.
Clinton was far more experienced with the town hall-style format, having held similar gatherings during both of her presidential campaigns and around the world as secretary of state. Trump’s last two “town halls” featured friendly questions in New Hampshire and no questions in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Both Clinton and Trump head to Florida to campaign next week.
Still, Clinton offered far more detailed policy plans than Trump. Asked about how he’d rewrite the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, he offered: “I’ll tell you: You’re going to have plans that are so good, because we’re going to have some competition.”
Asked about his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants, Trump referred to it as “extreme vetting.” His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, had said at last week’s vice-presidential debate against Tim Kaine that the proposal was a no-go.
Trump also acknowledged, for the first time, that he wrote off nearly $1 billion in federal taxes in 1995 — which, as reported last week by The New York Times, could have kept him from having to pay Uncle Sam for 18 years.
“Of course I do,” Trump said of using the tax write-off. “Of course I do.”
With one more debate left — in 10 days in Las Vegas — the moderators tried to end on a more positive note: An audience member asked each candidate to essentially say something nice about the other.
“I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted,” Clinton offered.
“I’ll say this about Hillary,” Trump chimed in. “She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up.”