Candidates spar in nasty, personal debate
ST. LOUIS — An embattled Donald Trump, his campaign in crisis over his own explicit and sexually aggressive statements caught on tape, offered only a brief apology Sunday at the second presidential debate and instead launched a scorching attack on Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president.
Trump threatened to jail Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server, called her the devil, said she had “tremendous hate in her heart,” and accused Bill Clinton — who was sitting in the audience — of sexually abusing women. Trump invited three of the former president’s 1990s-era accusers to the debate, where they sat in the gallery.
Clinton sought to stay focused on Trump’s many controversies, offering a blanket statement that he was wrong about her husband without addressing the scandals of his presidency.
From the first seconds of the debate, the animosity between the candidates was clear: Neither extended a hand for a customary handshake.
The debate was the first time Trump was questioned about the controversial videotape of his lewd comments about women — which surfaced Friday and sent his campaign reeling.
“That was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it,” Trump said when questioned about the video. He avoided striking any clear moments of contrition, as many Republicans had urged. Instead, he stayed on the counterattack.
“If you look at Bill Clinton — far worse. Mine are words; his are actions,” Trump added. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women. Attacked them viciously. Four [of] them [are] here tonight.”
Clinton didn’t take the bait and instead focused on Trump’s many controversies.
“I said back in June that he is not fit to be commander in chief,” Clinton said. “What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said the video doesn’t represent who he is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. We have seen this throughout the campaign. . . . This is who Donald Trump is.”
During the debate, Trump was pacing behind Clinton and often scowling at her. As she answered an audience question about health care, Trump stood several feet behind her. During one exchange he pointed at her and said, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’’ In what became a point of commentary after the first debate — and something Trump blamed on a faulty microphone — he was sniffing heavily throughout the debate.
The second presidential debate — a 90-minute face-off with a town-hall format — came at the most tumultuous point of Trump’s campaign, with Republicans wondering if their nominee was on the verge of a total collapse, or if he could muster a performance that would save his campaign.
Two days after the Washington Post revealed a 2005 videotape showing Trump bragging how he forces himself on women, kissing and groping them uninvited because he is famous, a sense of crisis gripped the Republican Party. His campaign seemed in freefall, possibly beyond repair, and it appeared that GOP leaders would now turn their attention to down-ballot races with the assumption that Trump will lose.
Trump struck a defiant posture throughout the day.
He added to the sense of spectacle with a provocative move just 90 minutes before the debate, in which he staged a bizarre press statement where he introduced the three women accusing Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties.
The women — Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey — were joined by Kathy Shelton, who has not forgiven Hillary Clinton for her role, as a court-appointed attorney, representing a man accused of raping Shelton when she was 12 years old.
“Mr. Trump may have said some bad words,” Broaddrick said. “But Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
Clinton’s campaign quickly responded with a statement: “We’re not surprised to see Donald Trump continue his destructive race to the bottom.”
When Trump brought up the issue during the debate, Clinton largely avoided responding in detail.
“When I hear something like that, I am reminded of what my friend, Michelle Obama, advised us all,” she said. “When they go low, you go high.”
Broaddrick publicly accused the former president of raping her in 1978 in a Little Rock hotel. Clinton has long denied the accusations, which never resulted in a criminal investigation. Broaddrick’s allegations were complicated by the fact that she denied the episode when giving a 1997 affidavit.
The 90-minute debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, was conducted with the candidates sitting on stools and some of the questions coming from undecided voters in the audience. But the candidates clashed so often — and moderators pushed with follow-ups — that the voters seemed like an afterthought.
Trump at times complained that he wasn’t getting enough time to talk, telling Cooper, “One on three!”
Trump seemed to be playing to his base and alienating Democratic voters, at one point referencing Senator Bernie Sanders and saying of his support for Clinton, “I was so surprised to see him sign on with the devil.”
Trump also took the extraordinary step of saying if he is elected president he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server and whether she improperly deleted any e-mails as secretary of state.
“The people of this country are furious,” Trump said. “There has never been anything like this.”
Trump accused Clinton of “acid washing” her server and “bleaching” it.
“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament like Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in this country,” Clinton said.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump shot back.
Trump was also pressed on his tax returns, which he has not yet released. The New York Times, which obtained a small portion of his 1995 state tax returns, reported that he wrote off nearly $1 billion in losses that could have allowed him to go 18 years without paying federal income taxes.
When asked at the debate whether he used deductions to not pay taxes, he said, “Of course I do. Of course I do. And so do many of her donors.”
He would not say how many years he did not pay federal income taxes, but added, “I pay tax. And I pay federal tax.”
Trump and Clinton also clashed on foreign policy, with Clinton saying Trump was insensitive to the Khan family, who lost a son in Iraq. Trump criticized them when they spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
“Captain Khan is an American hero,” Trump said. “If I were president at that time, he would be alive today.”
Trump said his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims has “morphed” into a different policy he calls “extreme vetting.”
“People are coming in to our country. We have no idea who they are.”
Clinton, who has proposed an increase in Syrian refugees, said she, too, would do thorough vetting. “I will not let anyone in our country who I think poses a risk to us,” she said.
In addition to disagreements with Clinton, the debate also revealed that Trump and his running mate aren’t on the same page in key policy areas.
Last week Mike Pence, the GOP vice presidential nominee, said in the vice presidential debate that the United States should be prepared to use military force to prevent the Syrian rebel city of Aleppo from falling. Asked about that comment, Trump offered a very different perspective.
“He and I have not spoken, and I disagree,” Trump said of his running mate.
Trump added that he believes Aleppo is a lost cause. “I think it basically has fallen,” Trump said. “It has fallen.”
Later in the debate, Clinton was asked for the first time about the partial transcripts of her paid speeches to financial institutions and others that were released Friday via WikiLeaks.
In one of the more damaging sections, Clinton told the private audience that politicians sometimes need to conceal their true beliefs on issues from the public.
“All of the back-room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least,” Clinton said behind closed doors. “So, you need both a public and a private position.”
Clinton said she was referring to scenes from the movie “Lincoln,” which details back-room deals the president had to make to end slavery.
“It was principled, and it was strategic,” Clinton said of President Abraham Lincoln’s maneuverings.
Lincoln, she said, showed how a president sometimes must make one argument to one set of people and a different argument to a different set.
Trump wasn’t buying it.
“Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said.
The debate concluded with a lighter question, with the candidates each asked to name one thing they admired about their opponent.
“I respect his children,” Clinton said. “His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does. But I do respect that.”
Trump, who has spent time on the campaign trail saying Clinton did not have the right “stamina,” changed course.
“She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up,” Trump said. “I respect that.”