What a difference two weeks makes. The second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis was already a highly anticipated match in which Trump would have to mount a significant comeback after his dismal performance in the first. But after the recent revelations about Trump’s potential tax-dodging and the even more decimating impact of Friday’s release of his degrading comments about women, Trump went into the debate with his campaign reeling. The big question was whether he would be able to remain on script and regain some legitimacy as a presidential candidate, or, once again, descend into a maelstrom of bluster and ill-advised attacks. Clinton’s own Friday controversy, the Wikileaks release of her Goldman Sachs speech transcripts, has received far less media attention, but Trump was expected to seize on the issue to drive home Clinton’s cozy relationship with Wall Street.
In a surprising move an hour before the debate, Trump fulfilled a long-promised threat to attack Bill Clinton and Hillary’s supposed role in covering up her husband’s misdeeds in a Facebook live news conference in St. Louis, where he presented Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Wiley, three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and Kathy Shelton, who was 12 years old when Hillary Clinton successfully defended her alleged rapist in court. Any notion that Trump would appear contrite at the debate was thrown into serious doubt with this surprise move. Ultimately, the pressure on Trump to perform well on Sunday night was no longer a matter of wooing the undecided; it was also a test of whether or not the Republican Party would stick by his side.
The second debate was in a town-hall format, with half of the questions coming from undecided voters selected by Gallup and from social media sources, and the other half from moderators ABC anchor Martha Raddatz and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Here are seven highlights:
Trump Reaches for the “Locker Room” Defense
The second debate opened with the topic on everyone’s minds: Trump’s recently released boasts about kissing women without their consent and “grabbing them by the pussy.” Anderson Cooper charged directly into the fray, asking Trump, “You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent grabbing the genitals. That is sexual assault. You brag that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
In response, Trump once again reached for the “locker room” defense. Although he didn’t answer Cooper’s question about whether he understood that his behavior amounted to sexual assault, Trump inadvertently said all we needed to know: No, he still doesn’t get it.
Hillary Nails the Broader Implications of the Trump Tape
As The New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued, Clinton successfully reframed the most recent scandal from the Trump campaign, using it as a launchpad to make a larger argument about Trump’s unsuitability for the office: “The video, she argued, represents a long history of Trump abusing people: women, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled.”
Trump Goes After Bill Clinton
With his plummeting poll numbers and a dramatic series of Republican defections over the weekend, Trump decided to defend himself by pulling the Bill card. Before the debate, he held a Facebook live event with several of Clinton’s accusers and invited these individuals to be in the debate audience. At the debate itself, he pivoted from the infamous “grab them by the pussy” tape to Bill Clinton, saying, “If you look at Bill Clinton ... his was far worse.” He added, “There’s never been anyone in the history of politics in this nation who has been so abusive to women.” He also alleged, as he has in the past, that Hillary Clinton participated in “viciously” silencing these women.
Clinton’s response was brief: She said that much of what he alleged was not true. Then, drawing the audience’s applause, she quoted First Lady Michelle Obama, “When they go low, you go high.”
Trump Fights Islamophobia With Islamophobia
Trump has maintained an Islamophobic message and outlook throughout his presidential campaign, from the call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” to suggesting most recently “we must suspend immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place.” This position has been one of the pillars of his image as a politician against political correctness and as a leader of the right’s ethno-nationalist wing. And so perhaps it was unsurprising that his suggestion for combating Islamophobia was that Muslims should spy on each other: “There is a problem, whether we like it or not. Muslims have to report the problems when they see them.”
Trump Admits that he Gamed the Tax System—and Blames Hillary
Somehow Trump turned a golden opportunity to discuss the WikiLeaks release of Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches into a moment to bring up his own taxes. “I pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes but but as soon as my routine audit is finished, I’ll release my returns,” he said.
When Anderson Cooper asked more directly if Trump had taken advantage of a loophole to avoid paying taxes for nearly two decades because of a $916 million loss, he replied, “Of course I do.” He added, “And so do all of her donors, or most of her donors. … A lot of my write-off was depreciation and other things that Hillary, as a senator, allowed.”
It was a staggering admission: He hadn’t paid his taxes because of a tax loophole that Clinton, as senator, hadn’t been able to get rid of. According to Trump, this was because she wasn’t an “effective senator,” and “all talk and no action.”
Trump Throws Mike Pence Under the Bus
At the vice-presidential debate, Pence threw some shade at Vladimir Putin, saying of the conflict in Syria: “I just have to tell you that provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” At the presidential debate, Trump flat-out contradicted Pence, saying, “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.” What’s going on there, guys?
Trump Threatens to Prosecute Hillary Clinton if Elected
Trump’s campaign has thrived on the slogan, “Lock her up!” but the Sunday night debate was the first time where Trump explicitly promised to do so himself. During a discussion of Clinton’s use of a personal email server, Trump promised that, if elected, he would prosecute her, even though the FBI had already found no evidence of criminal misconduct with regard to her emails.
Clinton responded that it was good that “someone like Donald Trump with his temperament isn’t in charge of the law,” to which Trump snapped back, “Because you’d be in jail.”