Donald Trump stands during the second presidential debate. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

Over the weekend, Donald Trump did what he always does when things go south for him. He walked away. He announced he is not the man at 70 he had been at 59 when he had boasted of sexual assault, and he pledged “to be a better man tomorrow.” With that, he effectively declared moral bankruptcy, paying about a dime on the dollar of sincerity.

It was, of course, what Trump had done six times in business, only this time the crisis was not about his finances, but his character. He had been caught talking trash about women. He has been caught boasting about committing the sort of sex crimes transit cops are always on the lookout for. He said he had hit on a married woman soon after he himself had been married. For all of that, he had “regret.”

Then, like the angel he thinks he is, he took flight. He left his own body and, looking down, pronounced in his videotaped apology that the Donald Trump who said all those repugnant things, the Donald Trump who managed to break centuries of newspaper tradition against using certain words, the Donald Trump who issued a casting call for the alleged victims of Bill Clinton, the Donald Trump who often talked about women in the most despicable terms, the Donald Trump who listened to Howard Stern take apart his daughter’s physique like she was a Lego creation, the Donald Trump who went vile on Megyn Kelly and who has called women “dogs” and “pigs” and who berated a former Miss Universe for gaining weight and who made a tabloid spectacle of his extramarital affair with Marla Maples, that that Donald Trump doesn’t exist anymore. The man erased his own past.

Anderson Cooper, one of the two moderators at Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, begged to differ. “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

“No, I didn’t say that at all,” Trump replied. “I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker-room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker-room talk.” And then, forsaking segues and showing contempt for his audience, he veered into the blood-soaked Middle East. “You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.”

Here are key moments from the fiery town-hall style presidential debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Bill Clinton was in the audience. He smiled from time to time, but God only knows what he was thinking. It has been almost two decades since his affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed and yet the scandal stalks him like a vagrant cat looking for a handout of milk. We have become inured to all this — the sex, the lying, the slippery definitions of sex, the bouncing tenses — is, is, was, was — the tawdriness of it all, the erasure of the line between private and public. Two men in that debate room had much to account for.

Hillary Clinton had the chance to put away Trump. She failed. He was able to pivot, to move on to other subjects, some of which, like her emails, were awkward for her. She did not dwell on the odious tape, 11 years old and stinking with rancid sexism, a dialogue between morons, two men frozen in their adolescence, and she may not have done so because of those Bill Clinton accusers sitting in the audience and who had been all over TV just an hour or so earlier. They seemed so pleasant, middle-aged like Hillary. She could not possibly attack them. The whole subject must bring her pain. Best to talk about something else.

And so Trump’s diversion worked. He lives to fight another day, to continue to bring embarrassment and shame to the Republican Party and the political careerists who would risk a debacle of a presidency rather than take a stand on principle. Lies spill from Trump’s mouth and he exudes bigotry, yet he learned long ago that only suckers pay their debts and take responsibility for what they’ve done. He simply moves on. If he succeeds this time, then we are not his creditors, but as morally bankrupt as he is.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more on this topic:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: A vicious presidential debate

George F. Will: Donald Trump’s vile candidacy is chemotherapy for the GOP

Michael Gerson: Republicans deserve their sad fate

Stephen Stromberg: Trump lost the debate in these three lines (if not all the others)

The Post’s View: A new low, even for Donald Trump