Trump doubles down on defiance after damaging tape
His party in crisis, his campaign in meltdown, Donald Trump entered his second presidential debate against Hillary Clinton with no clear path to political survival.
Some suggested he “tone it down” and “show contrition” after the airing of an explosive tape of him speaking crudely about women, sending some Republicans fleeing from his candidacy.
Instead, Trump doubled down Sunday on the defiance that has marked his campaign all year.
He was sarcastic and combative. He interrupted Clinton. He sparred with moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC.
In one astonishing exchange, Trump vowed to prosecute his political opponent if he becomes president.
If he were in the White House, “You’d be in jail,” Trump said to Clinton, referring to her handling of emails as secretary of state.
“If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception,” he said.
Clinton accused Trump of trying to create a “big diversion” in the debate, “anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it's exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.”
She quoted first lady Michelle Obama’s convention speech, saying, “When they go low, we go high.”
But she also accused Trump of living in an “alternate reality” and said he “never apologizes for anything” despite a history of divisive attacks.
Livestream replay: Complete town hall debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Somehow, the second presidential debate topped the first one in its breathtaking hostility.
For Trump, it was a more aggressive and animated performance than he had in his first debate, widely regarded as a political setback. Politically, it might have made it harder for some in his party to abandon his languishing campaign. It was sure to please his core supporters.
But whether it gained him new ones or reassured undecided voters about his temperament was far less clear.
At one point Trump flatly disagreed with his own running mate’s position on Syria.
At another, he accused Clinton of having “tremendous hate in her heart.”
He fired off insults. When Clinton complained about the interruptions and said she hadn’t interrupted his answers, he shot back, “because you have nothing to say.”
Pressed about the 2005 tape that has rollicked his campaign, Trump said: “I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I'm not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.”
Then, on the subject of the treatment of women, he pivoted to the attack. He accused Hillary Clinton of attacking women who have accused her husband of sexual misconduct. And he attacked former President Bill Clinton, saying he was more abusive to women than “anybody in the history of politics.”
RELATED: Things get nasty at second debate
To underscore that message, Trump placed in the debate audience in St. Louis several women who prominently accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct years ago. He also held a news conference with them before the debate, a gambit that stunned many political observers.
Matthew Dowd, a strategist for President Bush’s 2004 re-election and now a commentator for ABC News, observed on Twitter, “Trump/his campaign are insane at this point.”
No presidential candidate had ever gone into a general election debate in such a political free fall.
“It's the worst week a presidential candidate has ever had in October in a presidential election, ever,” Steve Schmidt, a strategist for GOP candidate John McCain in 2008, said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
And Schmidt was referring to the period before the release of the tape showing Trump bragging in crude language about making unwanted advances on women.
The furor over the tape had a strange effect on the buildup to Sunday night’s debate.
It raised the suspense over Trump’s performance and how he would handle his political crisis.
But it reduced the level of suspense around the race itself, because of the apparent political damage it has done to a candidate who was already behind and who is now in such peril that it has fueled speculation he could be replaced on the GOP ticket (an improbable option for the party).
Trump was far more aggressive than Clinton Sunday in claiming time from the debate moderators, and at times Clinton seemed willing to let Trump dominate the airtime.
She was on the defensive for stretches, but also took her shots.
When Clinton was asked about the damaging tape, she answered:
“You know, with prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them on politics, policies, principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve.
"Donald Trump is different. … I think it's clear to anyone who heard it that (the tape) represents exactly who he is. Because we've seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. … It's not only women, and it's not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims and so many others.”
After 90 minutes of almost nonstop rancor, the biggest surprise may have been that the debate somehow ended on a collegial note.
Both candidates were asked if they had anything nice to say about their opponents.
Clinton complimented Trump’s children and said that reflected well on him as a father. “I do respect that,” she said.
Trump said of Clinton (whose stamina he questioned in the first debate) that she “does fight hard and she doesn’t quit and she doesn’t give up and I consider that to be a very good trait.”