Dhaka – Sunday night’s (early Monday morning Bangladesh time) presidential debate was unusually dark and bitter, with the two candidates taking steps unheard-of in the genteel tradition of Presidential debates, with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump refering to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as “the devil,’ and promised that – if elected – he would order the Justice Department to investigate her. Clinton said at one point that Trump lives “in an alternate reality,” MSN News reported
The first half-hour of the debate was dominated not by questions from the undecided voters in the audience, but by interruptions and accusations by Trump himself. At one point, Trump referred to the endorsement by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) of Clinton as a deal with “the devil.”
The debate opened with a question as to whether the campaigns were setting a good example for the nation’s youth, but it quickly turned to discussion about a recent revelation of a damaging video for Trump.
The Republican nominee rejected a question that called his remarks about groping women – captured in a 2005 video – “sexual assault,” during the second presidential debate on Sunday night.
“That is sexual assault. You bragged that you committed sexual assault,” moderator Anderson Cooper said, and then asked Trump if he understood the implications of what he said.
“I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker-room talk,” Trump said. “Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker-room talk.”
Cooper kept on, asking Trump if he had actually committed the acts he alluded to in the video – which included kissing women without their consent, and groping women’s genitals. Trump repeatedly sought to turn the subject to other subjects, including in some cases with seeming non-sequitor.
“I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. It’s locker room talk,” Trump said at one point. “I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
Clinton, in her response, said that she considered Trump different than past Republican nominees.
“I never questioned their fitness to serve. Donald Trump is different,” she 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 that the video doesn’t represent who he is…It represents exactly who he is.”
The words “sex tape” also made their debut in the solemn tradition of American presidential debates, as Trump denied doing something he had actually done: Asking his Twitter followers to “check out sex tape” of a former Miss Universe with whom he was feuding.
“It wasn’t, ‘Check out a sex tape,’” Trump said, saying instead that he wanted followers to examine the life of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe. His rival Hillary Clinton had brought her up in the previous debate, talking about a 1990s episode when Trump made a public spectacle of Machado’s weight gain.
Trump’s message, sent out on Twitter on September 30, was this: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?”
That exchange came as an especially bitter, boundary-breaking debate neared its conclusion. At one point in the debate’s last half-hour, Trump accused his rival of having “She has tremendous hate in her heart. . . . She’s got tremendous hatred.”
Trump seemed to concede that he had avoided paying any federal income taxes for some recent years, by taking advantage of tax loopholes and a massive $916 million loss he reported in 1995.
“Of course I do. Of course I do,” said Trump, when moderator Anderson Cooper asked if he’d used that loss – first reported by the New York Times – to erase all his federal income tax liabilities. “And so do all of her donors,” he said, referring to large bankrolled Clinton supporters.
Trump did not provide any details about how many years he had avoided paying income taxes, but affirmed again that he had. “I absolutely used it,” he said, when Cooper asked. Trump also repeated an argument he had made on the campaign trail, that his skillful use of loopholes in the tax code made him best-qualified to eliminate those loopholes. “I understand the tax code better than anybody that’s ever run for president,” he said, and argued that Clinton could not fix the system because of Wall Street donors, and because she had failed to reform the system during her years as a senator and first lady.
Clinton, in her response, argued that Trump would only cement an unfair system in place: “Donald always takes care of Donald, and people like Donald,” she said.
Trump said his proposal to ban foreign Muslims from entering the United States has “morphed,” but the Republican nominee declined to give details about what it had morphed into, during Sunday night’s presidential debate.
“The Muslim ban is something that, in some form, has morphed into an extreme vetting from certain areas of the world,” Trump said, when asked if he had backed off the position.
Moderator Martha Raddatz sought to gain clarification, interrupting Trump at several points to ask what his position was. “Would you please explain whether or not the Muslim ban still stands”
“It’s called extreme vetting,” Trump said, but did not say much more about how the vetting process would work – or how it would be different from the current methods used to screen immigrants and refugees for terrorist affiliations.
Trump also asserted, once again, that he had opposed the War in Iraq before it began. That is incorrect. In fact, Trump was asked on Sept. 11, 2002 — before the invasion — if he supported the war.
“Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly,” Trump told interviewer Howard Stern during a radio interview, referring the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“It’s been debunked,” Clinton said, about Trump’s claim to have opposed the war.
“I was against the War in Iraq, and it hasn’t been debunked,” Trump said.
Earlier, in an unprecedented threat during a presidential debate, Trump promised that – if he was elected – he would instruct the Justice Department to investigate his rival.
“I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say this, and I hate to say it, but if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” Trump said. “There’s never been anything like it. And we’re going to get a special prosecutor.”
Trump seemed to be speaking specifically about Clinton’s use of a personal email server to handle government business while she was secretary of state. That has already been the subject of an FBI inquiry, which ended with FBI Director James Comey calling Clinton and her staff “extremely careless” but recommending no criminal charges.
His promise to use his executive power to re-open that case, and have it investigated again, was unlike anything in recent presidential debates.
“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton said.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump said.
The dark tone of the debate was presaged by a news conference held by Trump about 90 minutes before the debate began at Washington University in St. Louis. Four women, all of whom said they had been mistreated by Hillary Clinton or former president Bill Clinton, joined Trump at the news conference. One of the women was Paula Jones, who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment in the early 1990s. Another was Juanita Broaddrick, who at the news conference said Bill Clinton had raped her in 1978.
“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.”
Broaddrick has made such statements before, but it has never been criminally litigated, and the Clintons deny the accusations.
As Trump began and ended the news conference, reporters shouted questions related to the 2005 video. ““Mr. Trump does your star power allow you to touch women without their consent?” a reporter asked. Trump ignored the questions, then left.
For Trump, the stakes for this debate would have been high in any event: He had seen his poll numbers begin to slide after a weak and rambling performance during the first debate in late September.
Now, however, Trump is in worse shape — and in far greater need of a surprising, campaign-changing performance. That’s due to the release of the 2005, video, first published by The Washington Post. It set off a cascade of criticism from Trump’s fellow Republicans — and led dozens of them to formally renounce the party’s nominee.
Trump’s supporters said they were hoping to see a humble, focused performance, in which he could seem contrite about the 2005 remarks, and then move on.
“He has to reach inside himself and realize what he’s capable of doing. He has to live it out, and it’s going to be a uniquely personal moment. No one else can figure it out,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
On Sunday, however, Trump was showing no sign of a contrite approach. Instead, in interviews and social media posts, Trump made clear that he has no plans to back down — and that he intends to criticize Clinton for her treatment of women who over the years have accused her husband of unwanted sexual advances.
Trump also seemed to blast his fellow Republicans, scorning them for leaving him at this moment.
“So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers — and elections — go down!” read one Trump tweet Sunday.
“Tremendous support (except for some Republican “leadership”). Thank you,” another read.
Dozens of elected officials, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said Saturday that they could no longer support Trump. A growing chorus called for him to drop out of the race. Even his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said he could not defend Trump’s remarks. Trump was scheduled to campaign with House Speaker Paul Ryan on Saturday in Wisconsin, but Ryan asked the nominee not to attend. Pence was scheduled as a stand-in, but he, too, decided to stay away. Although Ryan criticized Trump’s remarks, he has not withdrawn his support for the candidate.
As Trump jetted to St. Louis, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was on the campus of debate host Washington University on Sunday afternoon with his phone to his ear urging fellow congressional Republicans to settle down and stick with the party’s standard-bearer.
“He’s charged up,” Sessions said of Trump in an interview with The Post. “I believe he can turn this around. I think our party leaders need to slow down and give him a chance to make his case.”
Robert Costa, Jose A. DelReal, Abby Phillip and John Wagner in St. Louis; Anne Gearan in Washington; and Mike DeBonis in Chicago contributed to this report.