A rattled and defiant Donald Trump sought Sunday to move past the video of him musing about sexually assaulting women that since its Friday revelation has sent his presidential campaign into a tailspin. But in trying to answer for the 2005 comments in the opening round of the second presidential debate, the Republican nominee mixed qualified contrition with angry counterattacks on Hillary Clinton unlikely to endear him to anyone not already in his camp.
Trump described his comments as “locker room talk,” issued a dismissive apology, and when pressed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, said he never kissed or groped women without their consent as he’d claimed in the recording. He also sought to turn the question around as rapidly as possible.
He accused Clinton of smearing women who’ve accused her husband of assault and said she should be “ashamed” for discussing his comments. More strikingly, he pledged to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s email controversy and later told his opponent that if he’s elected, “you’d be in jail.”
The moment is likely to reverberate. It amounted, after all, to a major party presidential candidate promising to use the criminal justice system to satisfy a personal vendetta against his challenger — a threat more likely from a tinpot dictator than an aspirant for the highest office in the world's most powerful democracy.
Trump's performance overall, channeling the same rageful id that lifted his outsider bid all the way to the GOP nomination, may have been enough to calm his most committed supporters. Whether it stops Republican officialdom from continuing their abandonment of his candidacy will become clear in the next few days. A pair of snap polls of debate watchers found that Clinton won: CNN/ORC survey gave her a 57-34 advantage, with YouGov registering a narrower Clinton win, 47-42.
Clinton, for her part, sought to keep Trump at an arm's distance, literally and rhetorically. After taking the stage, the candidates said a chilly hello but avoided the traditional handshake. Clinton then hewed to a strategy apparently aimed at letting Trump hang himself. She rarely interrupted his answers, and while she had harsh words about his video comments — offering her first direct response since the story broke, she said it reinforces his unfitness for office — she also avoided twisting the knife, referring only obliquely, for example, to the dozens of prominent Republicans who ditched him over the weekend.
"This is who Donald Trump is," Clinton said of his recorded comments, and pointing to its consistency with derisive remarks he's made publicly during the campaign about Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims and POWs. "And the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are." Shortly thereafter, in response to Trump needling her about deleted emails from her private server, she finally lashed out: "OK, Donald. 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."
For the most part, though, Clinton wore a poker face of disinterest and occasional bemusement as Trump stayed on the attack. “Believe me, she has tremendous hate in her heart,” Trump said at one point.
The clash and counter-clash over Trump’s taped comments and the Clintons’ own history dominated the first third of the debate. The issue of how to create more jobs — which voters consistently name as their top concern in this election — got scant attention. The meatiest economic exchange occurred over the candidates’ respective tax plans.
Asked how they’d change the tax code to ensure the wealthiest Americans are paying their fare share, Trump responded first by naming the capital gains treatment of carried interest as a loophole he’d eliminate. “One of the greatest provisions for people like me, to be honest with you,” he said. And he promised tax cuts for corporations of all sizes and a “big league” cut for the middle class while warning Clinton will “raise your taxes really high.” True to his theme, Trump also used his answer to press the argument that Clinton represents the status quo, charging her with accomplishing nothing over her 30 years in public service.
Clinton responded first by dismissing Trump's answer in its totality as untrue. "I'm sorry I have to keep saying this, but he lives in an alternative reality," she said, noting the irony of arguing over the code with a candidate who may have avoided paying any federal income tax for nearly two decades. She went on to call his plan a giveaway to the very rich, "more than the Bush tax cuts by at least a factor of two." Instead, she said she'd shield anyone earning less than $250,000 from any hikes while pushing the Buffett Rule for anyone earning over $1 million and a surcharge on incomes above $5 million.
The exchange allowed the moderators to follow up with Trump about his alleged nonpayment. And he appeared to acknowledge it. Asked if he used the $916 million loss he recored in 1996 to avoid paying income taxes for years, Trump said, "Of course I do. Of course I do," adding that Clinton's top donors have done the same.
The unremittingly dismal encounter at least ended on a slightly brighter note. Prompted by the last audience questioner to name something admirable about the opposition, Clinton called Trump's children a credit to him while he praised her tenacity. It felt like a genuine if cautious exchange of goodwill — the candidates then concluded the debate by shaking hands — and one sure not to last.