St. Louis — This city’s professional football team relocated to Los Angeles in the offseason, but for one Sunday this fall, its residents had front-row seats to a different kind of contact sport.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump came to Washington University for the second of three presidential debates, and the hostility inside the hall was palpable from the outset. When co-moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz introduced the two candidates, they entered from opposite wings of the auditorium and approached one another, only to stop abruptly and stand several feet apart. They nodded and sized each other up. But there would be no handshake — an apparent first in the modern history of presidential debates, yet not remotely surprising given the events leading up to 8 p.m. Central Time.
By night’s end, the audience — here in St. Louis and scores of millions more around the globe — was exposed to a presidential debate that will be remembered by historians for its vitriol and visceral unpleasantness. Trump improved upon his feeble performance in the first debate, and might even have halted the freefall his campaign has been in since Friday’s explosive publication of his decade-old remarks about groping women. Still, nothing Trump did or said Sunday changed the fundamental trajectory of the race, which points to an almost-certain Clinton victory.
Surprisingly, the first question wasn’t related to Trump’s taped remarks about sexual assault, or to the dozens of Republicans who have abandoned him over the past 48 hours as a result. Rather, a schoolteacher in attendance opened the event by asking both candidates about the examples they were setting for the nation’s children.
Pressed on what his comments meant, Trump replied, “I have great respect for women, nobody has more respect for women than I do.” There were audible groans from the audience.
Trump replied, ‘I have great respect for women, nobody has more respect for women than I do.’ There were audible groans from the audience.
When the moderators turned to Clinton for a response, she, like Trump, commenced with a clearly practiced soliloquy. “With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them . . . but I never questioned their fitness to serve,” Clinton said. “Donald Trump is different.” Noting that he’d apologized by saying the taped remarks don’t represent the kind of person he is, she recited his repeated offenses against various groups throughout the campaign, and argued, “I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.”
A few minutes later, Trump was asked to elaborate on his explanation in Friday’s apology video that the campaign had changed him. Trump initially repeated himself — it was simply “locker-room talk” that he wasn’t proud of — before he grabbed the elephant and dragged it into the middle of the room.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse, mine were words, his was action,” Trump said. “What he’s done to women, there’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women. . . . Hillary Clinton attacked those same women, attacked them viciously, four of them here tonight.”
After telling the story of Kathy Shelton, who was raped at age twelve, and whose assailant was defended by Hillary Clinton, Trump concluded, “So don’t tell me about words. . . . I will tell you that when Hillary talks about words that I said eleven years ago, I think it’s disgraceful and I think she should be ashamed of herself, if you want to know the truth.”
It was just 13 minutes into the debate.
Clinton, asked to respond to Trump highlighting her husband’s well-documented history of sexual misconduct, opted to avoid specifics. “So much of what he just said is not right. But he gets to run his campaign any way he chooses,” she said. Then, taking a page from the playbook used by her running mate, Tim Kaine, in last week’s vice-presidential debate, Clinton pivoted to focus on how Trump has never apologized for his insults of various individuals and groups.
Then, citing her “friend” Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention, Clinton said she would take the high road in response to Trump’s comments about her husband. Trump promptly mocked her response, noting the negative ads President Obama ran against her in 2008 and the bruising Democratic primary battle in 2016. Trump then name-checked Bernie Sanders, who “never had a chance” in what he described as a rigged primary contest this year, and said of his endorsement of Clinton: “I was so surprised to see him sign on with the devil.”
Trump then aggressively pivoted toward Clinton’s e-mail server scandal — an issue he failed to raise during the first debate on September 26 — and announced, “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there have never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it.”
Trump shot back: ‘Because you’d be in jail.’ Some audience members cheered.
Raddatz attempted to follow up with her own question about the e-mails, but Clinton cut her off. “Everything he just said was absolutely false,” she said, reminding viewers of her warning in the first debate that it would be “impossible’ to fact-check Trump during these exchanges. After some rambling remarks about the virtue of fact-checking, Clinton concluded, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
Trump shot back: “Because you’d be in jail.” Some audience members cheered.
Radattz did press Clinton her handling of classified e-mails, and the Democratic nominee recited her message of being “very sorry” for her “mistake.” She then said she’d always been sensitive to the handling of classified material, a point which Trump jumped on. After an extended back and forth in which the candidates talked over one another, Trump teased Clinton about wanting to move onto another question.
“Okay, Donald,” she said. “I know you’re into big diversion tonight — anything to get away from talking about your campaign and how it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you” — the room filled with “oohs” — “but let’s get to the issues people care about tonight.”
As Cooper called on an audience member for his question, Trump interrupted him. “I’d like to know, Anderson, why aren’t you bringing up the e-mails?” When Cooper said that they just had, and tried to move to the next question, Trump muttered into his microphone, “One on three.”
The ferocious tone and frenetic pace of those first 25 minutes seemed unsustainable, and indeed it was.
That aside, despite being backed into a corner at the beginning of the debate, Trump settled into a groove for a lengthy period. He delivered a string of solid (if unspecific) answers to audience members’ questions and was disciplined in repeatedly turning his responses into a piecemeal prosecution of Clinton’s career.
Despite being backed into a corner at the beginning of the debate, Trump settled into a groove for a lengthy period.
There were exceptions, of course. Trump missed a golden opportunity, when asked about the Supreme Court, to remind Republicans (and especially social conservatives) of why they should vote next month in spite of their reservations about him. Trump cited the Second Amendment being “under siege” but failed to mention abortion, marriage, or religious liberty.
He also offered numerous sound bites that distracted from an otherwise productive stretch of Sunday night’s affair.
There was the time Trump said U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, whose parents spoke at the Democratic convention, would still be alive had he been president at the time of the Iraq invasion. (Trump argued yet again, falsely, that he opposed the war.)
There was the time Trump, in response to Clinton’s anecdote about drawing inspiration from the film Lincoln, referred to the 16th president as “the late, great Abraham Lincoln.” Moments later, he looked at Clinton and added, “Honest Abe never lied. . . . That’s the difference between Abraham Lincoln and you.”
And there was the time Trump broke with his running mate on the subject of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. When Raddatz recounted Mike Pence’s comments that “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength” — and his suggestion that the U.S. should be willing to strike government targets in Syria — Trump replied, “He and I haven’t spoken. And I disagree.” Trump said his priority would be taking out ISIS “before” dealing with Syria or Russia. (After the debate, Trump adviser Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “I think that may just be one of those things where they need to sit down and have that conversation.”)
But Trump also effectively continued to cast Clinton as a relic of America’s failed political system, questioning why, if she had so many lofty aspirations, she had failed to accomplish any of them in three decades of public life. At one point, when Clinton explained that she had long wanted to eliminate carried interest from the tax code, he interrupted her: “Then why didn’t you do it?”
Clinton answered that she’d been a Democratic senator serving with a Republican president.
“If you were an effective senator you could have gotten it done,” Trump replied.
Clinton was her steady, unspectacular self throughout, carefully sidestepping Trump’s attempts to drag her into a bare-knuckled political brawl. She entered Sunday night’s event the clear and prohibitive favorite to win the presidency, and with less than a month remaining until Election Day, she was visibly determined to speak slowly and carefully so as to avoid self-inflicted wounds.
Clinton was her steady, unspectacular self throughout, carefully sidestepping Trump’s attempts to drag her into a bare-knuckled political brawl.
Even as the aggressive tone of the debate’s first 30 minutes gradually softened, there was no avoiding the tension inside the debate hall. Clinton repeatedly reminded voters of Trump’s insults against women, minorities, and veterans, among other groups, and Trump pointed to her infamous remark about half of his supporters being “deplorables” who are “irredeemable.”
When the moderators turned to Clinton late in the debate to ask that very question — how could she unite the country despite such rhetoric? — she expressed remorse and acknowledged the polarizing effect of the 2016 campaign. “My argument is not with his supporters,” Clinton said of Trump, “it’s with him.” When it was Trump’s turn to respond, he agreed that “we have a very divided country.” Then, he said of Clinton, “She has tremendous hate in her heart.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway suggested afterwards that his aggressive and personal attacks on Clinton were likely to continue moving forward. “I think tonight he realized that being gracious and restrained last time with Hillary Clinton really didn’t pay him any dividends,” Conway told reporters.
For its part, Clinton’s camp declined to engage on her opponent’s pre-debate stunt or the nastiness of the debate itself. “Trump is desperate. He’s trying to take this race to a place in the gutter, and we’re not going there,” said campaign chairman John Podesta. “He was trying to rattle her, I guess, and she wasn’t rattled.”
Appropriately, the last question of the night came from an audience member who wanted to know — after the most brutal campaign in the modern history of American politics — if the two candidates could say a single nice thing about the other?
Clinton responded by complimenting Trump’s children. “They are incredibly able, devoted, and that says a lot about Donald,” she said.Anyone expecting a memorable sound bite from Trump got exactly that — although in a totally unexpected way. “She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that,” Trump said of Clinton. “She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But 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.”
It was only fitting that the ugliest, most intensely personal debate of the mass-communication era ended with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump complimenting one another for the very first time in 2016.
— Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent. Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.