Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump engaged in one of the most negative presidential debates in recent memory Sunday, centering over his sexually charged language toward women, sexual assault accusations against her husband, her emails and Russian hacking and his taxes.
Though the tone was low-key and major policy issues were discussed, the words were harsh in an extraordinary back and forth.
Trump, the Republican, admitted that he paid no federal income taxes for nearly 20 years. He backed away from his proposed ban on all Muslim immigration, saying it “morphed into extreme vetting.” He said he also disagreed with his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, on how to respond to violence in Syria.
And he made an outright threat to appoint, if he is elected, a “special prosecutor” to investigate Clinton’s handling of emails while serving as secretary of state.
Clinton was on the defensive about the emails and the problems with the health care law known as Obamacare. She noted that federal investigators had said Russians have been hacking American emails in an attempt to sway the election.
But it was Trump who seemed more on the spot in their second debate in the wake of dozens of Republicans abandoning him in the last 48 hours after a 2005 video was published in which he bragged about groping women and saying his fame allowed him to “do anything” to them.
Trump apologized and dismissed it as “locker room talk.” But he sought first to turn the discussion to the Middle East and, after moderators returned to the video, the Republican went on the offensive about Clinton’s husband — saying “no one in the history of politics has been so abusive to women” as the former President Bill Clinton. When the two moderators (ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper) tried to rein in the candidates, Trump paced around, frowned and complained it was “three on one.”
“Yes, I am very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk,” Trump began. —
He denied that he did any of the things he bragged about in the video, which was recorded in 2005. Moderator Raddatz asked: “When you walked off that bus at age 59, were you a different man?”
Hillary Clinton countered that the video showed Trump is not fit to be president.
“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,” Clinton said. “I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander in chief . . . what we all heard on Friday was what Donald thinks of women.”
In the 48 hours before the debate, dozens of Republicans— including some members of Congress— pulled their support and some have called for him to drop out of the race. Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), a conservative, said Trump should quit and “allow a responsible, respectable Republican to lead the ticket.”
Trump responded by vowing retaliation, calling them “traitors.”
“So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers — and elections — go down!” Trump said on Twitter. And in what was called by some a “stunningly brazen move,” Trump met with several women who have accused former President Clinton of sexual assault and released a video of the gathering.
And this wasn’t the lone flashpoint of the evening at Washington University.
Trump at one point essentially confirmed a New York Times story earlier this week that said he likely claimed a business loss that allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for almost 20 years.
“I absolutely used it,” Trump said, then adding that “Hillary Clinton has friends that want all of these [tax] provisions” that help the wealthy.
But he was on the offensive about her emails.
“If I win I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there have never been so many lies,” Trump said. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Everything he said was absolutely false, but it’s not a surprise,” Clinton said. Later, she added: “It’s just awfully good that someone like Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in this country.”
“You’d be in jail,” Trump interrupted.
Clinton acknowledged the use of a private email server was a mistake. “It was a mistake, I’m not making any excuses,” she said. “There is no evidence anyone hacked the server I was using.”
The forum is the only debate that used questions from the audience. One woman asked about immigration and “Islamophobia,” sparking another exchange.
Trump called it “a shame,” adding “but whether we like it or not, there is a problem.” He backed off a pledge made during the Republican primaries to ban all Muslim immigration, saying it “morphed into extreme vetting.”
Clinton called it “very short-sighted and dangerous” to be engaged in anti-Muslim sentiment as stated by Trump.
“This is a gift to terrorists,” she said. “We are not at war with Islam.”
On the Middle East, Trump said he disagreed with his own running mate, who has said the U.S. should be prepared to militarily strike Syria and the Russian-backed Assad regime.
“I haven’t talked to him and I disagree,” Trump said. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS . . . We have to worry about ISIS.”
Clinton said she would not send soldiers into Syria.
“I would not use American ground troops in Syria,” Clinton said. She said she would continue to use special forces and build support among local residents.
The two also bickered on Obamacare.
Trump called it a “disaster” and said he’d repeal it to allow more competition between insurance companies, a move he said would lower household costs. Clinton said a repeal would return all the rate-setting power to insurance companies — which would drive up costs.
Despite numerous bitter exchanges, the rivals softened a bit when the final question, coming from an audience member, asked each to name something admirable about the other.
Clinton, going first, said she admired Trump’s accomplished children and their loyalty to him. Trump said he admired that Clinton “never quits” no matter the issue or the odds.