Donald Trump’s refusal Wednesday night during the third and final presidential faceoff to say he’d accept the election results dominated the post-debate conversation and resonated with politicians and pundits alike.
“I will look at it at the time,” the GOP nominee said onstage in Las Vegas with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s answer came in response to a question from moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace about Trump’s assertions on the campaign trail that the election system is “rigged.”
Pressed again by Wallace for a more specific answer, Trump held firm.
“I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said.
Trump has repeatedly cited voter fraud and media bias in his campaign-trail denouncements of what he said is a voting process stacked in favor of Clinton.
His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN after the debate: “Donald Trump will accept the results of the election, and he’s going to win the election, so it’ll be easy to accept.”
Some of the candidate’s fellow Republicans weren’t so generous.
“During this debate Mr. Trump is doing the party and country a great disservice by continuing to suggest the outcome of this election is out of his hands and ‘rigged’ against him,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted after the debate. “If he loses, it will not be because the system is ‘rigged’ but because he failed as a candidate.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted that Trump saying he might not accept the results is “beyond the pale.”
Several political experts said Trump had his best debate performance Wednesday night, but his statement about what has long been accepted as a free and fair election system overshadowed it all.
Some recalled the historically close 2000 race in which Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Republican George W. Bush.
Trump did not qualify his comments on a certain scenario such as irregular results, as was the case in 2000. His wait-and-see approach also contradicted the stances of his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and his own children and top aides.
Pence said earlier this week that he and Trump would “absolutely” accept the results of the Nov. 8 election. On CNN just before the debate, Pence said Trump is only asking that voters, whatever their political affiliation, be “vigilant” at the polls.
“Voter fraud is real, and it happens and has happened throughout our history,” Pence said.
Eric Trump, one of the billionaire’s sons, told Fox News the feeling of unfairness comes from what he said was biased media coverage and instances of “dead people who are on the voter rolls.”
On a CNN panel, conservative commentator Kayleigh McEnany also brought up deceased voters, but independent pundit Michael Smerconish interjected to say that many of them had just died and had yet to be removed from the rolls.
He said the deceased will not be going to the polls in November, but McEnany shot back that Clinton supporters may be out to vote fraudulently under dead people’s registrations.
“He had an incredible night, he used her experience against her,” McEnany said, before criticizing her colleagues for focusing on the “most negative thing.”
On MSNBC, conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt likened Trump’s debate performance to a boxing match in which one fighter dominates throughout, only to lose in the end.
“I thought he won 14 out of 15 rounds, but he hit himself on the head and knocked himself out,” Hewitt said, adding that Trump’s use of “contingent rhetoric about the results is not within our political norms.”
Chris Matthews of MSNBC did not dispute that there have been past instances of voter fraud in major cities, and elections that are not “perfectly clean,” but he rejected the notion that they can be disruptive enough to upset an election.
“The idea that they would affect the results is insane,” Matthews said.