Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined salacious charges about past sexual scandals with sober discussion of substantive topics during their second presidential debate Sunday night following a weekend of unprecedented crisis in the Republican nominee’s campaign.
But it wasn’t clear that the temporary diversion from sex scandals would enable Trump to stop the free-fall of his campaign or the flood of top Republicans rescinding their support for him.
Trump revived past accusations against former President Bill Clinton in a dramatic fashion, convening three of his most prominent accusers in a pre-debate appearance broadcast live on Facebook and repeatedly addressed the topic from the debate stage. He also said if elected he would name a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton and that she would be put in jail over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state.
Clinton said Trump’s vulgar comments captured on a video from 2005 that was released Friday demonstrate he’s unfit for office and that he’s spread so many falsehoods it’s as if “he lives in an alternative reality.”
Yet a full hour of the town-hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis touched on topics from the Syrian war to Muslims in America to the candidates’ views on Obamacare. The exchanges were pointed, but Trump generally refrained from the bombastic language that marked his first debate performance.
Trump dismissed his vulgar comments on the video, which put his presidential bid in crisis, as nothing more than “locker room talk” and repeatedly pointed to Clinton’s husband as he made his attacks.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” Trump said. “Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he’s done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women. So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women.”
Clinton said the video presented a window into Trump’s character and fitness for the presidency.
“Look, if this were just about one video, maybe what he’s saying tonight would be understandable, but everyone can draw their own conclusions at this point about whether or not the man in the video or the man on the stage respects women,” she said. “But he never apologizes for anything to anyone.”
Overshadowed by the questions about the Trump video and Clinton’s e-mail use, Trump conceded that the almost $1 billion in losses he claimed on 1995 tax forms allowed him to avoid paying federal income tax. Trump said he pays federal taxes and noted that other billionaires such as Clinton supporter Warren Buffett and George Soros take tax write-offs as he does.
Clinton declined to respond directly to the comments about her husband, but she lit into Trump, saying his comments caught on the video are a reflection of the kind of man he is. She said was trying to draw attention away from the downward spiral of his campaign.
“I know you’re into big diversion tonight, anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you,’’ Clinton said.
In a sign of how bitter the campaign has become, the two candidates didn’t even shake hands as they took the stage. Later in the debate, Trump said, “She has tremendous hate in her heart” for calling many of his supporters deplorable.
The Republican nominee returned to several times to attacks on Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” Trump said.
The Democratic nominee said she took responsibility for the decision to use a private server rather than the government system and called it a mistake. She dismissed any concerns of a security breach.
“There is no evidence that anyone hacked the server that I was using” or that any classified material was stolen, she said.
Clinton was questioned about purported excerpts of speeches she gave to Wall Street that were released by WikiLeaks. In those comments, Clinton indicated that she saw as the need to have “both a public and a private position” in politics to make deals.
Clinton said the comment was based on the movie “Lincoln’’ about the president’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment and quickly pivoted to allegations Russia is trying to influence the U.S. election. She suggested that the Russian government would rather have Trump in office instead of her. She also turned his complaints about a lack of transparency into a plea for him to release his tax returns.
Trump denied being influence by Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin. Although the U.S. has blamed Russia for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and and attempts to breach state election systems, Trump questioned whether Russia really was behind the hacking. He said the U.S. would benefit by having better relations with Russia.
In yet another odd moment in an unusual presidential campaign, Trump said disagreed with his own running mate on what the U.S. policy should be in terms of dealing with Russia to confront the Islamic State in Syria. “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree,” he said.
In a quick telephone poll conducted by CNN immediately after the debate, 57 percent of 537 registered voters who watched said Clinton won the debate, while 34 percent said Trump did. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points, according to CNN.
The debate closed out a weekend of drama that had Trump’s White House bid sinking, Republican leaders openly rebelling against him, and the party that he technically leads facing its biggest crisis in decades.
In the video of Trump, unearthed by the Washington Post, he bragged in obscene terms that his celebrity status allowed him to grope women in the most personal of spots. It was widely reported and played repeatedly on television all weekend. It triggered a rush of Republican officeholders — including Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 nominee — to distance themselves or call for his exit from the race.
Trump vowed never to quit his campaign and lashed out on Twitter against the Republicans abandoning him: “So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers – and elections – go down!”
Some veteran Republican strategists have concluded Trump is too damaged to rebound whatever he does. With less than a month before the election, the timing of the video’s release could hardly be worse for Trump and his party. Ballots are already being cast in about a dozen states and the situation threatens the party’s hold on the Senate and potentially the House.
Even before the latest controversy, polls showed Clinton widening her lead nationally and in key states such as Ohio that Trump probably needs to win.
The town hall-style debate featured about half the questions coming from uncommitted voters screened by Gallup, with the rest posed by moderators Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and Anderson Cooper of CNN.
The final question of the night came from an audience member who asked whether either candidate would name one positive thing that they respect about one another.
“His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald,” Clinton said. “I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that.”
Trump praised her tenacity. “She doesn’t quit; she doesn’t give up,” Trump said. “She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for.’’
The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.