LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump declined in the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night to say whether he would accept the results of the election, breaking not only with tradition but also with his running mate, advisers, and many prominent Republicans.
The Republican nominee’s refusal to commit to recognizing the outcome raised the prospect of continued political conflict after Nov. 8, if he indeed loses to Hillary Clinton, as polls suggest is growing ever more likely with three weeks remaining in the contest.
Trump has repeatedly said in recent days, citing no credible evidence, that the election is rigged against him.
“I will look at it at the time,” he said Wednesday night. “What I’ve seen is so bad. The media is so dishonest and so corrupt. . . . They poison the minds of the voters.”
Reminded by moderator Chris Wallace that there is a tradition of peaceful transition of power in which a loser concedes, and asked if he was unwilling to uphold that tradition, Trump said: “I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense.”
“That’s horrifying,” Clinton said.
“When you’re whining before the game is even finished, you’re not up for the job,” Clinton responded.
“I, for one, am appalled that the nominee for one of our two major parties would take that position.”
Trump staked out his unprecedented position in the last debate with Clinton that featured a bitter battle over allegations that he groped women, questions about the candidates’ dealings at their private foundations, and the historically negative tenor of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump accused Clinton of instigating what he called false allegations from 10 women who say he kissed and touched them against their will. He said the accusations were “possibly, probably started by her and her sleazy campaign.’’
The debate put on full display the utter disdain the candidates had for one another.
They didn’t shake hands before or after the debate, refusing to engage in a customary tradition honored in nearly every competition from Little League to the Super Bowl.
“Such a nasty woman,” Trump said into his microphone in the final minutes of the debate.
The debate started out on a substantive note, as Trump outlined a number of traditionally conservative positions and seemed to be keeping his penchant for insults in check. But as the evening wore on, his tone grew more agitated, as Clinton’s salvos appeared to get under his skin. He rolled his eyes, grimaced, and shook his head, shouting “Wrong!” several times into his microphone.
Trump attacked Clinton for the operations of the Clinton Foundation, which he said was a criminal enterprise engaged in influence peddling at the State Department. He called her a “liar’’ who has “lied hundreds of times.’’
Clinton stayed on the attack, portraying Trump as painting a “dark’’ vision for America in his campaign and accusing him of “whining’’ that the 2016 election is being rigged against him.
In an exchange about WikiLeaks’ release of hacked e-mails that have portrayed Clinton’s campaign in unflattering ways, she accused Trump of being a “puppet’’ for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“No puppet. No puppet,” Trump said. “You’re the puppet.”
The third debate, like the two that preceded it, was marked by questions of Trump’s treatment of women.
Trump, asked for the first time about the 10 women who have come forward to say they’ve been groped by him, dismissed the allegations as “fiction.”
“Those stories have been largely disputed,” Trump said. “Those people, I don’t know those people.”
He added: “I didn’t even apologize to my wife who is right here because I didn’t do any of these things.”
Clinton, speaking slowly and clearly, recited quotes from Trump from the past few days, reminding him that he suggested one of the women wasn’t attractive enough for him to grope.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said. “He goes after their dignity, their self worth. I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.”
Trump interrupted at one point, saying “nobody has more respect” for women than he does.
That caused outcries in the audience.
“Please, everybody!” Wallace said, trying to restore order in the room.
Trump also emphasized a policy position that may complicate his efforts to win over female voters, stating outright that he would seek to appoint Supreme Court justices willing to repeal the Roe v. Wade decision that upheld the right to abortion.
“If we put another two, perhaps three, justices on, that will happen,” Trump said. “That will happen automatically, in my opinion.”
Clinton said the government should not be involved in health decisions that women make, saying it is the “most intimate, most difficult” decision for a woman.
Trump focused his remarks on late-term abortions. “You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb,” Trump said.
“That’s not what happens in these kinds of cases,” Clinton replied.
One of their most pointed exchanges came about the role Russians have allegedly played in the American election, with hacked Clinton campaign e-mails released through WikiLeaks, and with Trump’s praise of President Vladimir Putin.
“Will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election — that he rejects the help of Russian espionage?” Clinton asked.
“I don’t know Putin,” Trump responded. “He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good.”
He said Clinton was “playing chicken” by not talking about the details illuminated in some of the e-mail hacks of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Trump returned to a theme from earlier debates, ridiculing Clinton’s long tenure in the public eye in an election that has been marked by populist anger.
“The one thing you have over me is experience. But it’s bad experience,” he said. “What you’ve done, it’s turned out badly. The problem is you talk, but you don’t get anything done, Hillary.”
Clinton contrasted what she was doing in each decade with some of the things that Trump was doing.
“On the day I was in the [situation] room monitoring the raid that captured Osama bin Laden, he was hosting the ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ ” she said in conclusion.
The debate was the last best chance for the candidates to reshape the race, with all signs showing that Trump was in desperate need of a shakeup.
He is slipping in national polls, and Democrats are feeling confident that they can capture states that they have lost for decades.
Trump did not appear to notch the sort of breakout performance required to change the trajectory of the race; instead, the third meeting between the candidates reinforced the impression, with his assertions of media bias and a rigged election, that Trump is already making arguments to explain a loss.
Trump is coming off a dismal month, in which he has feuded with House Speaker Paul Ryan, fended off accusations from nearly a dozen women accusing him of sexual assault, and has attempted to turn toward Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
Before the first debate, Hillary Clinton held a 3-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of various polls.
She is now ahead by 7 points. She is also leading in nearly every important swing state, choking off the most plausible pathways that Trump has to capturing the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Trump has a lead in Iowa, and Ohio polls signal a dead heat. But he trails significantly in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, and by smaller margins in North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Florida.
The political map is growing so dire for Trump that Democrats are now pushing resources into states like Arizona and Georgia.
Still, Clinton is not immune to stumbles or blowing a big lead.
Clinton has largely kept a low-key public schedule, preferring to spend time raising money in private or preparing for the debates.
Now that the last debate is over, she is planning to pick up the pace. She has stops planned in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina in coming days and will campaign in New Hampshire on Monday with Senator Elizabeth Warren before jetting down to New York to raise money.
Trump has been holding numerous rallies each day, but with an uncertainty of where he’ll be going day to day, depending on what pathway to the 270 electoral votes seems most plausible at any given moment.
Trump has recently started pushing his belief that the election is “rigged,” without citing any proof but giving his most ardent supporters a rallying cry.
But even some of those closest to him struck more conciliatory notes recently.
Trump’s running mate said Sunday — just four days ago — that he will accept the results of the election.
“Look, one of the great traditions of America is the peaceful transfer of power,” Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential nominee, said on Meet the Press Sunday. “I’ll say to you again today, we’re going to accept the will of the American people.”
His oldest daughter and one of his closest confidants, Ivanka, said Wednesday that her father “will always do the right thing,” while his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told CNN on Monday that he would honor the results “absent overwhelming evidence of any kind of fraud or irregularities.”
During the debate, Clinton listed a series of competitions that Trump has claimed were rigged, including an Emmy that he wasn’t awarded.
“Shoulda gotten it,” Trump said.