On the day after the third and final presidential debate, Donald Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the outcome of the presidential election overshadowed talk of the many other issues on which Trump and Hillary Clinton clashed.
The Republican candidate’s campaign manager, children and other supporters sought on morning TV news shows to shift attention back to the candidates’ stark differences on abortion, guns, trade and foreign policy.
But talk always returned to one debate moment.
That moment came when debate moderator and “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he would accept the election’s outcome, and Trump responded, “I will look at it at the time.”
When Wallace pressed him for an answer, Trump said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.”
On CNN Thursday morning, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said Trump “will respect the results of the election,” but he wants to “wait to see if they are verified and certified.”
Yet she also said Trump’s response at the Las Vegas debate was “not made without basis,” as Trump has been reading stories about massive vote fraud, millions of the dead on voter rolls, and a tape alleging Democrats plotted to disrupt his campaign events with violence.
She backed up Trump’s charge that the “system is rigged” by accusing Clinton of being corrupt in her tenure as secretary of state and through the Clinton Foundation, and charging that the news media has been biased in her favor in its coverage of the campaign.
Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, on MSNBC took Trump to task for that comment because it was made after he had spent more than a week complaining about how the system was rigged and he’s not getting a fair shake.
“It was a shocker,” Kaine said, accusing Trump of bringing down “a central pillar of our democracy” — the peaceful transfer of power after an election.
Asked what would happen if Trump does not accept a loss on Nov. 8, Kaine said, “Whether or not he concedes is probably irrelevant. The real question is: is the mandate very clear. Donald is still going to whine if he loses, but if the mandate is clear then I don’t think many people will follow him.”
Conway and other supporters of Trump compared his comment to Democrat Al Gore’s decision to withdraw his concession to Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election after the vote in Florida was too close to call.
Gore, however, never signaled ahead of time that he would withhold judgment, and he did concede after the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount, letting stand vote tallies showing that Bush had won.
Most pundits and conservative partisans said that Trump’s refusal to say if he would accept the election’s vote tally obscured what for him had been a solid performance in the first half hour of the debate.
“It was an undisciplined moment,” said Betsy McCaughey, a former New York lieutenant governor and pundit on Fox News, and it “overshadows” the points he made during the debate.
And it led Trump’s critics within the Republican Party to admonish him.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted that Trump’s response was “beyond the pale.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted that Trump had done a “disservice” to the country and the Republican Party.
“If he loses, it will not be because the system is ‘rigged’ but because he failed as a candidate,” Graham wrote.
But Rep. Renee Elmers (R-N.C.) defended Trump.
“I think a lot more is being made of this than really needs to be,” Elmers said on CNN. “The thing of it is, he didn’t say he wouldn’t accept the outcome.”
She added she does not share the views of Flake and Graham. “Donald Trump is the presidential candidate of the American people. He is not going to be beholden to the Republican Party,” she said.
On her campaign plane after the debate, Clinton repeated her criticism of Trump’s refusal to say he would accept the results of the election.
“You know our country has been around for 240 years and we are a country based on laws and we’ve had hot, contested elections going back to the very beginning,” Clinton said
“But one of our hallmarks has always been that we accept the outcomes as free and fair elections, and somebody wins and somebody loses,” she said. “What he said tonight is part of his whole effort to blame somebody else for his campaign and where he stands in this election.”
Donald Trump Jr., speaking to Fox News on Thursday morning, defended his father.
“We’ll accept a fair result, but were not going to accept them when they say, ‘We’ve been doing this for 50 years… we don’t play by the rules,’ ” he said. “The rules only apply to conservatives apparently, or maybe we’re the only ones with the morals to comply with them.”