LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton received a pointed question during the final debate that echoed a criticism she has faced for months: Was her family’s global charity a “pay-to-play” arrangement in which donors got special favors from her State Department?
She did not initially respond with a direct yes or no.
“Well, everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values,” she said as she went on to list a number of Clinton Foundation achievements such as distributing HIV medication.
When moderator Chris Wallace asked her again, Clinton responded that “there’s no evidence” — but was cut off as Wallace turned to Republican nominee Donald Trump, who railed against the foundation for taking money from foreign countries hostile to women and gays.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” Trump said, adding later: “Why don’t you give back the money?”
The exchange illustrated an often-overlooked aspect of Clinton’s otherwise strong performance through her three encounters with Trump, in which she showed discomfort in the face of scrutiny about her record and struggled at times to provide crisp, clear answers about the controversies and policy positions that have dogged her for months.
Clinton demonstrated more deftness Wednesday night in dealing with touchy issues such as trade that have tripped her up in the previous debates.
Nonetheless, Clinton was pushed repeatedly to defend positions she had taken in support of a no-fly zone in Syria and enhancing border security.
Taken cumulatively, the debates have revealed real weaknesses on the part of the Democratic nominee that could nag at her in the campaign’s final days and, if she wins, hamper her ability to pull the country together and govern effectively following a long and bitter race.
Before Wednesday, her performances did little to turn around the public’s largely negative impression of her — a handicap that would loom larger in the race if not for the many controversies surrounding Trump. Heading into the final debate, just 36 percent of likely voters said they found her to be “honest and trustworthy,” according to last week’s Washington Post-ABC poll.
Clinton’s often-lawyerly and halting answers during all three debates could foreshadow challenges ahead should she win the election and face the task of reassuring a skeptical American public and courting a potentially hostile Republican-led Congress.
Moreover, a failure to put to rest the controversies that have damaged her standing would only fuel the rationale for congressional investigations and outright hostility from Republicans. When the campaign ends, it will not matter that Trump was just as untrustworthy — the burden will be on Clinton to overcome her weaknesses.
“Longer term, she’s got to do a better job of articulating her views,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic operative and former senior aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s something that’s going to continue to haunt her if she doesn’t.”
Clinton’s aides signaled before Wednesday’s debate began that they hoped to use the faceoff here as an opportunity to lay out her vision for the country rather than set more traps for Trump.
But Clinton’s ability to accomplish that goal was undercut by charged exchanges about the Clinton Foundation, embarrassing revelations about her campaign brought to light by the hacked emails published by WikiLeaks, her paid speeches to big banks and continuing questions about her use of a personal email server as secretary of state.
At one point, Wallace asked Clinton about her apparent statement during a paid speech to a Brazilian bank in which she said she dreamed of “open trade and open borders.”
“I want to clear up your position,” Wallace said, then read from a transcript that was among the documents posted by WikiLeaks. “Is that your dream, open borders?”
“Well, if you went on to read the rest of the sentence, I was talking about energy,” Clinton said before quickly moving on to condemn the role Russians might have played in illicitly bringing the transcript to light.
“She wants open borders,” Trump shot back. “People are going to pour into our country.”
Clinton’s use of a private email server was a topic Wednesday night, as it has been in previous debates. But Clinton — who has given meandering defenses of her conduct in the past — largely stayed silent on the issue, even as Trump accused her of having “destroyed 33,000 emails criminally, criminally, after getting a subpoena from the United States Congress.”
Clinton immediately pivoted back to talking about Trump’s treatment of women and controversial remarks he has made about other groups of people.
Clinton boosters point out that she has always been better-liked while in office than while running for one. When Clinton won a seat to the U.S. Senate from New York, she won over colleagues from both parties by showing an unanticipated work ethic and a willingness to compromise to move legislation forward.
It is unclear whether she could replicate that kind of dynamic upon entering the White House.
In recent days, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has continued to raise questions about why the FBI did not recommend an indictment of Clinton in its probe of her email setup and said he sees a need for hearings.
“This is a flashing red light of potential criminality,” he told Fox News on the day that allegations surfaced of a proposed “quid pro quo” between the State Department and the FBI related to classification of Clinton’s emails.
Clinton’s tendency to offer legalistic responses was perhaps most vividly on display during the first debate, when Trump accused her of flip-flopping on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pending trade deal that Clinton had called the “gold standard” while serving as secretary of state but came out against in the midst of a heated Democratic nominating contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out,” Clinton said. “The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated . . . which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn’t.”
“I wrote about that in my book,” Clinton added, referring to her 2014 memoir, “Hard Choices.”
During the second debate, Clinton undoubtedly left many viewers scratching their heads when she invoked the name of President Abraham Lincoln to explain her contention that presidents sometimes need “both a public and a private” negotiating position.
Her response opened the door for a memorable zinger from Trump, who derided Clinton for using “honest Abe” to duck a question.
David Weigel in Charlotte contributed to this report.