Trump Takes Second Presidential Debate Into the Gutter, With Sleazy Attacks on Bill Clinton and Bullying Threat to Jail Hillary

Election '16

Donald Trump threw everything nasty and vulgar he had at Hillary Clinton during 2016’s second presidential debate, in an effort to salvage his sinking campaign after a video was released Friday of him bragging about sexually assaulting women.

At the debate, Trump repeatedly brushed off the taped comments as regrettable “locker-room talk" that didn’t actually happen. He went on to accuse Clinton of being the serial liar, threatened to jail her over her use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State, brought up Bill Clinton’s supposed sexual assaults as a counterpoint to his own randiness, and stalked Clinton on the town hall debate’s circular stage, shadowing her as she spoke to the audience, interrupting and calling the moderators biased.

Clinton could not stop Trump’s verbal barrage, but she held her head high, showing self control and occasionally grimacing before answering. She recited his unacceptable behaviors and beliefs, the reasons his policy ideas are mistaken, what her alternatives are and why he is unfit to be president. More than Trump did, she tried to engage with the questioners, two-dozen undecided voters from the St. Louis, Missouri area.

But more than anything, the second debate was a bizarre drama in three acts that is not likely to change the dynamics of the race or attract new multitudes to Trump. The first third featured one of the sleaziest attacks by a presidential candidate on a competitor in decades, as Trump went after Clinton in an almost unhinged fashion by raising Bill Clinton’s “abusive” treatment of women. The middle section featured Trump assailing Clinton as a serial liar and even getting into an argument with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, one of two moderators who tried to grill Trump on what specifically he would do in Syria. Clinton replied that he lived in an alternative universe; she gave prescriptions on specific issues, from responding to the Russia-Syria alliance to fixing rising Obamacare costs. The final section saw Trump continually butting in with the last word and saying that Clinton had “tremendous hate in her heart," while Clinton, in contrast, tried to answer the audience’s questions before returning to the big picture.   

“This is not an ordinary time and this is not an ordinary election,” Clinton said, in her closing remarks. “We are going to be choosing a president who will set policy for, not just four or eight years, but because of some of the important decisions we have to make here at home and around the world, from the Supreme Court to energy and so much else—so there is a lot at stake. It's one of the most consequential elections we have had.”

Trump Blows Off Republican Advice

The debate began on the sleaziest possible note. Trump ignored Republican advice that he show some contrition in response to a video released Friday in which he bragged about being allowed to grab women by the genitals whenever he wanted to. Instead, he held a press conference 90 minutes before the debate with four women who claimed they had been sexually abused by Bill Clinton decades ago, saying that Hillary Clinton was part of a pattern of abusing these women.

That scorched earth ploy was in all likelihood not seen by tens of millions of people who were about to tune into the nationally televised debate. Some of those same viewers may not have been aware of Friday's sexual assault confession video, or Trump’s minions in pre-debate statements absurdly defending Trump’s move as a pro-woman defense of victims who were bravely speaking out.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign tweeted, “We’re not surprised to see Donald Trump continue his destructive race to the bottom.” Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Remember. Debate#,” with a video showing Michelle Obama from the Democratic Convention saying, “When they go low, we go high.”

Three of the women who were in the Trump press conference took front-row seats at the debate, a town-hall format, with two-dozen uncommitted voters seated on stage to ask questions. Since the last debate, Trump has fallen behind in almost every battleground state poll. He has alienated Republican officeholders and party luminaries, many of whom said he should drop out of the race. Even his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, criticized the Friday video, prompting Trump, toward the end of the debate, to say that Pence didn’t know what he was talking about when he said U.S. ground troops were needed in Syria.

But the debate started with CNN’s Anderson Cooper asking Trump about the sexual assault boasts, to which he replied it was “locker-room talk” that he was “not proud of.” When Clinton replied this wasn’t a one-off incident, but part of a larger pattern showing “exactly who he is,” and that includes targeting women, minorities, people with disabilities and more, Trump demurred. “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words,” he said. When Raddatz pressed him, saying this was the “single-most talked about story on Facebook,” Trump said he was merely bragging, while Bill Clinton “was abusive” to women and “Hillary attacked those women.”

Trump went on to cite the latest Wikileaks disclosures of Clinton's private e-mails, saying that Clinton stole the primary election from Bernie Sanders, and “I was so surprised to see him sign on with the devil.” He went on, saying, if elected, “I will insist my attorney general get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” Clinton replied, “Everything he said is absolutely false,” urged people to check the facts, and said, "it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.” Trump interrupted, “because you’d be in jail.”

Trump then attacked Republicans in Congress for failing to prosecute Clinton for the e-mails, which the FBI has said did not rise to criminal wrongdoing. The moderators turned to another topic from the audience, the rising cost of Obamacare premiums and co-pays, launching the debate into a discussion about President Obama’s signature achievement. Clinton reminded the audience that the law does many positive things, such as preventing insurers from refusing clients because of preexisting conditions and requiring that women be charged the same rate as men, but said steps were needed to lower costs to individuals and small businesses.

When Clinton tried to get into the specifics, Trump kept saying the law was a complete failure, would never work and promised to create “the finest plan there is” by allowing interstate competition among insurance companies. But trying to talk about policy details when Trump was offering bumper-sticker put-downs was an odd contrast.

The same type of exchange happened again when a Muslim-American woman asked how each candidate would deal with rising Islamophobia in the U.S. Trump said that Americans cannot take the risk of allowing any foreign Muslim into the country, because it’s impossible to know who might be a terrorist, and slammed Clinton for expanding refugee quotas from Syria. Clinton replied, as she has many times before, that America has had Muslims here since its founding more than two centuries ago and we need to work with patriotic Muslims to defeat terrorism and ISIS. On the Syrian refugee issue, she said many wartime refugees are homeless women and children and that compared to Europe, America is not pulling its weight.

The debate continued with another question for Clinton from the Wikileaks release: what did Clinton mean when she said political leaders have to take “public and private” positions? Clinton said the comment was in reference to the movie Lincoln, which she said showed how the president needed to work in principled and strategic ways to convince Congress to go along with freeing the slaves. Trump feigned outrage, saying, “She got caught in a lie. She blamed the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln?”

From there, the debate repeated remarks that anyone paying attention has heard before. Clinton said Trump “lives in an alternative reality,” while Trump accused her of promoting President Obama’s failed policies. Trump kept interrupting Clinton, trying to have the last word or mocking her. (He also seemed to have same odd case of the sniffles that he suffered in the first debate.) Meanwhile, Clinton tried to answer questions about what kind of Supreme Court justices she’d appoint, in favor of LGBT rights, voting rights, reproductive rights and campaign finance reform, as well as her plans for alternative energy.

The debate ended on a slightly more civil question: what did each candidate respect in the other? Clinton praised Trump’s children, saying they seem able and devoted. Trump replied, “She doesn't quit. She doesn't give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She is a fighter. I disagree with much of what she is fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases, but she does fight hard and she doesn't quit and she doesn't give up and I consider that to be a very good trait.”

It would seem that he was also acknowledging she has a lot of stamina.

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