This time, what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas. With less than three weeks to Election Day, the third presidential debate at the University of Nevada was the last chance for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to take advantage of a national stage to make an impression on voters.
Trump’s performance in the first two debates, along with a wave of sexual assault allegations, led to a precipitous drop in the polls in almost every state he needs to win. But if there was any chance of a new and improved Trump at the third debate, his decision to invite Malik Obama, Barack Obama’s estranged half-brother, and Pat Smith, a Benghazi victim’s mother, only demonstrated his continued commitment to stoking the tabloid fever dreams of the far right. Meanwhile, his repeated insistence that the election will be rigged, and his ominous call to supporters to monitor the polls, were indicative of an unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a potential defeat.
Clinton entered this final debate with a clear lead, but had been kept on her toes by WikiLeaks’s release of campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails. The debate was seen as one of her last opportunities to put doubts about her trustworthiness to rest. It was also seen as an opportunity to offer herself as a viable alternative to Republicans who have been jumping Trump’s sinking ship—and to perhaps expand the Democratic map to traditionally red states like Arizona and Georgia.
This final debate was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News, the first time an anchor from the network had been chosen to oversee a general election debate. Wallace was expected to be equally tough on both candidates. The topics selected by Wallace, divided into six 15-minute segments, were: immigration, debt and entitlements, Supreme Court, the economy, foreign hot spots, and fitness to be president. Here are six highlights from the debate.
Trump Proves He Doesn’t Understand How the Supreme Court Works
In the first debate segment, Wallace asked Trump whether his Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump replied that his appointment of one or more pro-life justices would “automatically” overturn the landmark decision affirming a woman’s right to an abortion. But this is not how the Supreme Court works—a case challenging the precedent would have to make its way to the high court.
When Wallace moved to the topic of late-term abortions, Trump accused Clinton of supporting a practice in which “in the ninth month you can ... rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” No, that’s not how late-term abortion works either. His hyperbolic rhetoric should not be a surprise, however. As The New Republic’s Clio Chang pointed out, he has stated in the past that if abortion is banned in the U.S., women who seek abortions should be subject to “some kind of punishment.”
Trump Says Immigrants Are “Some Bad Hombres”
Trump began his campaign more than a year ago with an attack on immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump has not changed his overarching message since then, doubling down on the notion that immigrants are criminals during Wednesday’s debate. But this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. As The New Republic’s Laura Reston wrote, “Immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than the native born population—so much so that cities with large immigrant populations, such as El Paso in South Texas, have far lower crime rates than the average American city.”
Putin and Trump Are Not Best Friends, According to Trump—But it Wouldn’t Be so Bad if They Were
Clinton addressed the WikiLeaks hack by questioning Trump’s active encouragement of Russian espionage against “the American people.” Trump said, “Now we can talk about Putin. I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good.” Many online immediately pointed out that, in fact, Trump’s aides are quite cozy with Putin and senior Russian officials.
When Trump questioned whether the election espionage was definitely linked to Russia, Clinton retorted, “He’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us.” Trump shot back, “She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.” Again, he stressed that Putin “is not my best friend.” And again, he added, “But if the United States got along with Russia, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
Trump’s Gaslights the Nation on His Record with Women
The number of women who have come forward to allege that Trump sexually assaulted them in the past runs between nine and 13. Trump has denied these allegations, and worse yet suggested that some of the accusers were too ugly, and “would not be [his] first choice.” Tonight, Trump alleged, without any evidence, that all the allegations had been “debunked.” As Clio Chang pointed out, Trump’s description of the well-documented allegations as “‘one big ugly lie’ created by the ‘establishment’” is itself a bold-faced lie. As someone who has repeatedly asserted that “no has more respect for women than I do,” Trump’s attempt to gaslight the entire nation is rich even for him.
Trump Cannot Promise to Respect the Election Results
As expected, Wallace brought up Trump’s alarmist cries about a rigged election. As Wallace noted, Trump’s campaign manager, running mate, and daughter have all publicly vowed to respect the poll outcomes. Trump only offered a hedge, saying, “I will tell you at the time, but I will keep you in suspense.”
This is an unprecedented admission, and perhaps the most direct challenge to the American democratic system offered by the nominee of a major party. Clinton responded, “This is horrifying. ... Let’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means. ... He is taking down our democracy.”
Trump Says Clinton Is “Such a Nasty Woman”
In all three debates, Trump interrupted Clinton without remorse despite continued rebuke from moderators. It is not surprising given Trump’s record and his attitude towards women in general. But in 2016, it is still a sad spectacle. As The New Republic’s Laura Reston wrote about tonight’s debate, “When he gets up on stage and attempts to silence a better qualified woman, it sends a powerful message: that any man can do the same, whether it’s in a debate, a meeting, or a job interview.”
Trump’s behavior shows that even the first female presidential nominee of a major party isn’t immune to the lowest level of mistreatment from self-entitled men. “Such a nasty woman,” Trump said at one point. Ugh.