A new low? Trump ignores party’s advice to tone down and threatens to jail Clinton
Second debate instilled new fears in Republicans, as there is more than just the presidency at stake
So much for the contrite Donald Trump. Running mate Mike Pence and other senior Republicans had warned him he had to show regret and humility in the aftermath of a bombshell video that showed him boasting about his sexually predatory behaviour toward women.
Spoiler alert: He didn’t take their advice. And what followed was the most bizarre presidential debate of the television age.
The combative spectacle was launched even before the second debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton began. Trump held a media event – streamed live on his Facebook page – with four women who have accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in cases dating back to his time as Arkansas governor.
In the debate, Trump labelled Clinton the worst abuser in the history of politics after dismissing his degrading language in the video as “locker-room talk”.
“It’s just words, folks; it’s just words,” he said. “I apologised to my family; I apologised to the American people.”
For her part, Clinton was measured and cutting. “With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them on politics, policies, principles,” she said in her first comments on the tape since it was released on Friday. “But I never questioned their fitness to serve. Donald Trump is different.” She called him “not fit to be president and commander-in-chief”.
She called him a misogynist. He called her a liar.
If elected, Trump said he would instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton said.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump interjected.
There was an early clue about what was to happen. When they were introduced on stage at Washington University in St Louis, the two candidates walked to the centre but didn’t shake hands – although they did after the debate.
At times when Clinton spoke, Trump stood behind her, rocking on his heels and scowling. He repeatedly interrupted her – she sometimes did the same – and tangled with the moderators, ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Forty undecided voters were seated to the sides of the debate stage, but the intimate and empathetic tone that has marked past debates with a town-hall format was missing. The mood was icy and fierce. While several in the audience did pose questions on issues such as Supreme Court appointments and the Affordable Care Act, those concerns were overwhelmed by the flurry of invective – the harshest and most personal rhetoric of any presidential debate in modern times.
Once again, as he has since he launched his campaign more than a year ago, Trump decided to defy the Republican establishment and ignore the conventions of campaigns. He apparently concluded that he would rather risk going out in a firestorm of his own making rather than make the amends customary for a candidate in trouble.
He blasted Clinton as a creature of the political establishment that has led the US astray. At one point, he referred to her as “the devil”. He used the seats allocated to him in the debate hall for his wife, his three eldest children and three women who have accused Clinton of unwelcome sexual advances: Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.
The first set of overnight polls indicated that Trump’s core supporters are still loyal to him. But the possibility of expanding his appeal to the swing voters needed to win the White House – moderates, independents, college-educated women – seemed a distant prospect indeed. With his words to a hot microphone on a Hollywood backstage in 2005, Trump created an October surprise the likes of which no previous presidential candidate has survived to win.
Now the question being discussed by senior Republicans is whether Trump’s likely defeat ensures a Democratic takeover of the US Senate and even risks the party losing control of the House. The furor raises questions about the future of the Republican Party (often referred to as the GOP or Grand Old Party), once the day of reckoning comes between Trump’s most fervent supporters and those who have rebuked him. The cascade of political reaction in the space of a weekend was unprecedented.
The Republican nominee and his degrading language towards women was denounced by the national chairman of his party. The nation’s highest-ranking party official, House Speaker Paul Ryan, withdrew his invitation to an event on Saturday. South Dakota Senator John Thune called on him to withdraw from the race. New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte said she would write in the name of his running mate on her ballot. Pence himself released an extraordinary statement saying he did not “condone his remarks and cannot defend them”.
Trump was defiant.
“So many self-righteous hypocrites,” he said in an afternoon tweet, referring to Republicans rescinding their endorsements. “Watch their poll numbers – and elections – go down!”
The 90-minute town hall capped what was one of the worst two weeks any presidential candidate has endured. It started with his widely panned performance at the first presidential debate, followed by a late-night tweet-storm targeting a former beauty queen and leaked tax returns that showed he reported a US$916 million loss in 1995. That could mean he avoided paying federal income taxes entirely for 18 years.
Trump has seen his standing slip and Clinton’s rise in polls nationwide and in battleground states.