Trump Crosses a Red Line in Third Debate, Refuses to Say Whether He Would Accept Election Results
Donald Trump told Americans Wednesday night they would have to wait and see if he would recognize the results of the presidential election, suggesting in 2016’s last debate there may not be a peaceful transition of power if Hillary Clinton were declared the winner on November 8.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said, when pressed by debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, before reciting one of the Republican Party’s big and thoroughly debunked lies on voter fraud. “If you look at your voter rolls, you will find millions of people there that are registered that shouldn't be registered to vote.”
Trump then abruptly pivoted and declared that Hillary Clinton “shouldn’t be allowed to run—she is guilty of a serious crime… in that respect, it is rigged.”
Wallace ignored the smear and again asked Trump if there would be a peaceful transition of power.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump replied. “I will keep you in suspense.”
That outburst and Clinton’s response was indicative of much of what unfolded in the final debate of the presidential campaign. Trump started the evening sounding composed and serious, but slowly began to unravel, interrupting Clinton and insulting her, repeatedly calling her a liar, getting red-faced and jumping erratically from topic to topic in his answers.
Clinton’s response to Trump’s declaration that he would not abide by the officially announced election results—unless, of course, he wins—was to point out the pattern in his boasting and excuses that Americans have seen time after time in the past year: if Trump does not get his way, he accuses the process of being rigged against him.
"Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that's horrifying," she said. "You know, every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him."
Clinton said Trump accused the FBI of rigging its conclusion that Clinton’s use of an email server did not rise to a prosecutable offense; he accused the Republicans running the Iowa caucus and the Wisconsin primary of rigging those votes against him; he accused the federal judge overseeing the fraud suit against Trump University of rigging the process against him because he was of Mexican descent; he even accused the Emmy awards of being rigged when his TV show didn't win three years in a row, to which Trump interjected, "Should have gotten it," prompting audience laughs.
She then quoted President Obama, who on Tuesday told Trump to "stop whining” and said his thin-skinned temperament and his refusal to respect the electoral process, show he is unfit to be president. “It just shows you're not up to doing the job," Clinton said. "And let's—you know, let's be clear about what he is saying and what that means. He is denigrating and talking down our democracy."
There were plenty of other exchanges during the debate, where at times it seemed that Trump was more controlled than in past debates and attacked Clinton in so many ways she could only respond to a few of them, while making points she wanted and attacking him. When Trump was asked why nine women had come forward to accuse of him of groping or touching them sexually in uninvited ways, he said they were all lying—and ludicrously accused the Clinton campaign of fabricating the accusations.
“Those stories are all totally false,” he said. “I didn't even apologize to my wife, who's sitting right here, because I didn't do anything. I didn't know any of these—I didn't see these women.”
The debate covered much of the same ground as past debates, with Clinton and Trump giving very different assessments of America’s problems and what solutions were needed. It opened with Wallace asking what kind of justices they’d appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court; Trump said he’d appoint an anti-abortion majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, while Clinton said she wanted the court to uphold reproductive rights, LGBT rights, campaign finance reform and put ordinary Americans ahead of wealthy interests and corporations.
It continued with immigration; Trump said he would build a wall on the Mexican border, but backed away from his pledge to deport 11 million undocumented migrants and their 4 million citizen children. Clinton not only said she favors comprehensive immigration reform like former Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but that Trump’s mass deportations would require a police state that raids homes, schools and businesses.
When the arguing drifted to Russia, Clinton said the recent Wikileaks release of stolen e-mails from her campaign showed that Russia’s intelligence agencies and its dictator, Vladimir Putin, were siding with Trump “because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” That prompted Trump to lose his composure and start yelling that she was “the puppet.”
She calmly continued, saying, “It’s pretty clear you won’t admit that… Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.”
Trump started interrupting her, saying, “You have no idea.” Clinton continued that 17 military and civilian intelligence agencies have reached the same conclusion, to which he interrupted, “Our country has no idea.” She replied, “you doubt 17 military and civilian…” He replied, “Yeah, I doubt it, I doubt it.” Clinton pressed on, “Well, he'd rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely…"
That exchange ended with both speaking simultaneously. The rest of the night continued in the same vein, with Trump accusing Clinton and Obama of causing virtually everything wrong in the country and the world, and Clinton doing her part to say why her proposals were grounded in reality, would be paid for by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and were designed to expand the middle class.
The debate ended in a way that perfectly encapsulated the campaign Americans have had to endure for more than a year. Clinton, in her remarks, took the high road, and said she was hoping to be the president of all Americans and stand up for average people against the country’s most powerful interests, while helping to create jobs and solve many problems.
“I have made the cause of children and families really my life's work. That's what my mission will be in the presidency,” she said. “I will stand up for families against powerful interests, against corporations. I will do everything that I can to make sure that you have good jobs, with rising incomes, that your kids have good educations from preschool through college. I hope you will give me a chance to serve as your president.”
And Trump, as has been the case, painted a dark and apocalyptic picture of America falling apart, and demeaned many of the institutions that traditionally have been part of the GOP’s base. He called the military depleted. He said illegal immigrants were getting treated better than veterans. He called for law and order, and said American inner cities were cauldrons of violence and despair and he “will do more than she can in 10 lifetimes.”
“All she's done is talk to the African Americans and to the Latinos, but they get the vote, and then they come back, they say, we'll see you in four years,” Trump said. “We are going to make America strong again, and we are going to make America great again, and it has to start now. We cannot take four more years of Barack Obama, and that's what you get when you get her.”
Trump needed a game-changing performance to stop what has been a slide in almost every nationwide poll since the last debate 10 days ago. While he is likely to have stopped some of that bleeding among core supporters and far-right-wingers—by sticking by his pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border, saying he would appoint anti-abortion federal judges and cut taxes for the wealthy and businesses—there was little in Trump’s performance that would attract new or undecided voters.
Trump is now polling in the low 40s, which means in a election where perhaps 125 million people vote, he will receive upwards of 50 million votes. Trump signaled that he is likely to tell those people the White House is being stolen from him. How that plays out politically remains to be seen, but you can bet he is not going to leave the public stage.