Donald Trump’s second presidential debate performance was never going to repair the damage done by his first, let alone by the audio of lewd comments in which Trump boasted in 2005 of talk about sexual assaults and discussed his own daughter in base, sexualized terms in 2004. The only question was whether he could stem the tide of GOP defections and restore a smidgen of personal dignity. That went out the window when, contrary to the advice of nearly every Republican, he decided to retaliate against Bill Clinton, parading four past accusers for a Facebook news conference. His staff and any Republicans still on board deserve the blistering loss that awaits them in November and the professional humiliation that goes with enabling a creep.
After that, all Hillary Clinton had to do was remain upright for 90 minutes and she’d have gone the last little way in wrapping up the election. Her campaign put out a brief statement after Trump’s stunt: “We’re not surprised to see Donald Trump continue his destructive race to the bottom. Hillary Clinton understands the opportunity in this town hall is to talk to voters on stage and in the audience about the issues that matter to them, and this stunt doesn’t change that. If Donald Trump doesn’t see that, that’s his loss. As always, she’s prepared to handle whatever Donald Trump throws her way.”
She was and she did, and under the circumstances added a great deal of sympathy for conducting herself with decorum. With Trump standing next to her, she calmly recited his abuse of women, his refusal to apologize to Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the Khan family. “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” Trump threatened. It is a good thing Trump isn’t in charge of the law, she responded. Trump shot back, “Because you’d be in jail.” There it was — Trump underscoring why he should never be given executive power.
For his part, Trump kept repeating that it was “locker room talk” captured on “Access Hollywood,” and that he really respected women. He sounded muted and tired at the onset. Asked several times if he did the things he described, he finally said he hadn’t. He soon was interrupting and looming over Clinton’s shoulder. He, as he had in the first debate, kept sniffing. She ignored him.
Trump rambled about the threat of terrorism when asked by a Muslim woman about making her a target for anti-Muslim fervor. Instead of condemning Islamophobia, Trump doubled down, seeming to accuse Muslims of harboring Islamist murderers. Clinton walked up to the woman, calmly recited his incitement and explained why cooperation with the Muslim community is essential for fighting terrorism. Asked about his Muslim ban, Trump fumbled around, finally offering, “The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into . . . . extreme vetting.” Huh? Clinton calmly defended taking in women and children as refugees while insisting she wouldn’t let dangerous people into the country. She reminded the audience that Trump’s words serve as a recruiting tool. And yes, he once again insisted he was against the Iraq War — a claim both Clinton and Martha Raddatz rebuked.
Clinton segued from a question on her leaked speech to claim the conversation was about Abe Lincoln. (Trump retorted, “That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you. He doesn’t lie.”) She, however, got to the heart of the matter: Russia wants Donald Trump to win. Clinton explained that never before has a foreign power tried so hard to get one candidate elected. Trump tried to claim we do not know who hacked us (we do) and bizarrely claimed, “I know nothing about Russia.” Finally, he spoke the truth.
On taxes, Trump insisted he was going to tax the rich. Clinton came back with a standard attack on tax breaks for the rich, reminding the audience Trump avoided paying any taxes for a period of time. Trump admitted he used a $916 million loss to avoid paying taxes and accused Clinton’s donors of doing the same.
Trump seemed to have a good line of attack, namely that Clinton was all talk and no action. Clinton, however, used the chance to reel off a list of her legislative accomplishments and her reputation for bipartisan action. If her intent was to convey she is a problem solver, someone Republicans need not fear, she succeeded.
On Syria, Clinton detailed the Russian offensive — an implicit indictment of the president who refused her advice. She spoke up on behalf of prosecuting Syria and Russia for war crimes. Trump bizarrely tried to tie Clinton to the “line in the stand” on Syria; he was reminded she was long gone from the State Department by then. Pressed to explain his Syria policy, he filibustered. Asked about Aleppo, Trump vamped saying it already has fallen. (It hasn’t.)
At times Trump was unintelligible. He promised to “bring economics” to the people. Grilled on his replacement for Obamacare, Trump once again retreated to talking about “drawing lines around the states.” Asked about his late-night Twitter habit, he declared, “I am not unproud of it.” He spent far too much time arguing with the moderators, complaining of the time allocation.
Clinton was best when facing the audience questioners directly, expressing a desire to bring the country together and reminding them of her accomplishments. But she won the debate early on. In keeping her cool and indicting Trump’s bad behavior and finally provoking him to threaten to put her in jail, she made certain no one not already in Trump’s corner would sign on with him. As in the first debate and the vice-presidential debate, she created more than enough material for a new raft of ads. She’s well on her way to a victory in November; how big it will be is the only question.