WASHINGTON – Republican Donald Trump, reeling from a scandal that has threatened to consume his presidential campaign, clashed bitterly with his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on Sunday night in a debate that dealt with Trump’s treatment of women, new WikiLeaks revelations about Clinton, the war in Syria, immigration policy and more.
The tense, sometimes brutal exchange at Washington University in St. Louis saw Clinton call Trump unfit for office and accuse him of perpetuating a “racist lie” about where President Barack Obama was born, while Trump repeatedly threatened to jail Clinton if elected and declared that she “has tremendous hate in her heart.”
The town hall forum quickly addressed the 11-year-old “Access Hollywood” videotape that surfaced in the media on Friday showing Trump bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent. Clinton suggested Trump’s comments should disqualify him from serving in the White House.
“With prior Republican (presidential) nominees, I disagreed with them – their policies, politics, principles – but I never questioned their fitness to serve,” Clinton said. “Donald Trump is different. What we all saw and heard on Friday (in the videotape) was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women.
“I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it is exactly who he is,” she added.
Trump apologized for his words on the tape during the debate, and said he was “very embarrassed” by them. But pressed by moderator Anderson Cooper, Trump also denied ever having actually done what he bragged about.
The Republican nominee said repeatedly that his words in 2005 were merely “locker room talk” that paled in comparison to what he described as former President Bill Clinton’s abuse of women and what Trump said Hillary Clinton did to cover up those allegations. Bill Clinton was never charged with any crime but three women who said he sexually mistreated them – each of whom maintain their allegations to this day – were invited to the debate by Trump, who held an unprecedented news conference with them beforehand. A lawsuit over an alleged rape by Clinton was dismissed, but the former president settled a lawsuit with one of the women who claimed harassment.
“She should be ashamed of herself,” Trump said, referring to Hillary Clinton.
Brian Sanderoff, the Journal’s pollster and a longtime political observer, said neither candidate delivered a knockout blow Sunday night, but Trump wasn’t as easily baited into missteps as he was in the first debate with Hillary Clinton. Trump may have outperformed expectations among at least some Americans who saw him as deeply wounded by the videotape controversy, Sanderoff said.
“He needed to stop the bleeding and I think he at least slowed it down some,” Sanderoff said. “She was on the defensive a good part of the night.”
On the issue of war-torn Syria, Trump made clear that he did not agree with running mate Mike Pence on how to deal with the catastrophe. Last week, Pence said that the U.S. military should be ready to strike Syrian military targets that are under the command of President Bashar Assad. The threat of military action against the Russia-backed Assad government marks a departure from Trump’s preference for a focus on Islamic State targets.
Said Trump: “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.” The disconnect between Trump and his running mate on the critical issue triggered derision in some quarters on social media.
The Trump videotape controversy has overshadowed in the media potentially damaging revelations about Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street firms. Emails released by WikiLeaks last week showed Clinton told a group that it’s acceptable for a president to project differing positions in public and private.
Asked in the debate whether that’s “two-faced,” Clinton pointed to Abraham Lincoln, saying he did whatever he could to get the 13th Amendment passed, allowing emancipation of the slaves, by lawmakers who did not support African-American equality.
“I was making the point it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want them to do,” she said. “That was a great display of presidential leadership.”
Rolling his eyes, Trump said, “Now she’s blaming the late, great Abraham Lincoln.”
When moderators pressed Trump on his call to impose a ban on Muslim immigrants, Trump was defiant.
“It’s called extreme vetting,” he said. “People are coming into our country, like, we have no idea where they are from or what their feelings about our country are. This is going to be the great Trojan horse of all time.”
Debbie Maestas, chairwoman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, cheered Trump’s performance.
“Donald Trump’s resilient performance in the debate was what his campaign needed tonight,” she said. “Mr. Trump effectively redirected the narrative back toward the critical issues this country faces and the many failures of Hillary Clinton.”
Meanwhile, Deb Haaland, chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, said Clinton delivered a more positive vision for America.
“Hillary Clinton addressed the issues at stake in this election and has real plans and ideas to improve the lives of millions of American families,” she said. “Hillary Clinton has a record of delivering results for the American people, and during tonight’s debate she exemplified the Democratic values of inclusiveness and respect.”