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Personal attacks in the forefront at bitter debate
ST. LOUIS — In a startling political maneuver before tens of millions of viewers, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of smearing women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexually assaulting or harassing them, turning their presidential debate into the tawdriest in modern history as he sought to salvage his presidential candidacy after explosive reports about his past lewd comments about women.
Tense at first, and then increasingly angry as he grew more comfortable on the attack, Trump made the charges and noted that three of Bill Clinton’s accusers were sitting in the audience.
Both candidates were visibly uneasy throughout the debate, even refusing to shake hands when they took the stage, as the 90-minute event unfolded on a small stage with an almost unremitting hostility.
“Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women — attacked them viciously,” Trump said, arguing that the accusations against Bill Clinton were “far worse” than Trump’s remarks in 2005 that he could kiss and grope women because he was “a star.”
Trump apologized for those remarks but also repeatedly minimized them as “locker-room talk,” and even tried to blame Hillary Clinton for raising them in light of Bill Clinton’s behavior.
“She brings up words that I said 11 years ago — I think it’s disgraceful, and she should be ashamed of herself, to tell you the truth,” Trump said to scattered applause.
Clinton did not specifically rebut Trump’s charges about Bill Clinton’s behavior, saying only, “So much of what he just said is not right.”
Instead, she broadened her indictment of Trump beyond the 2005 recording, assailing him for refusing to show contrition for his inflammatory statements.
“He never apologizes to anybody for anything,” Clinton said. She unfurled a litany of his provocations, including his mocking a Gold Star family, accusing a Hispanic judge of being biased by virtue of his ethnicity, ridiculing a reporter who has a disability, and falsely claiming that President Barack Obama was not born in America.
“Yes, this is who Donald Trump is,” Clinton said about his 2005 remarks. “The question for us, the question our country must answer, is that this is not who we are.”
Tumultuous: After a tumultuous political weekend, the debate was watched extremely closely by Republican members of Congress, who are deciding whether to join dozens of elected Republican officials who have broken away from their party’s nominee.
Trump’s attacks on the Clintons — including a promise that, as president, he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state — were a new low in a presidential campaign that has often seemed like a race to the bottom because of Trump’s no-holds-barred assaults on his rivals.
But no single answer by Trump seemed sufficient to put to rest the controversy over his remarks about women. As much as he apologized, he did not confess or reveal anything new about his treatment of women over the years. Nor did he say much to meet the goal set Saturday by his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana: “Show what is in his heart.”
Attacks: Instead, Trump alternated between sounding chastened and defensive about his treatment of women and moving to energize his base, which remains deeply hostile to Clinton.
He did so by blasting Clinton relentlessly over her State Department email practices and repeatedly interrupting her, barely concealing his contempt. He said again that Clinton should be “ashamed” of herself for deleting some of her personal emails while secretary of state.
“Oh, you didn’t delete them?” he said sarcastically. When she tried to answer, Trump again interjected. “What about the other 15,000?” he demanded.
Finally, Clinton, plainly exasperated, shot back: “OK, Donald. I know you’re into big diversion tonight — anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you.”
At several points, Trump expressed his frustration with the two moderators, Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC, demanding that Cooper focus more on one of Clinton’s biggest vulnerabilities, her email server.
“Why aren’t you bringing up the emails?” he asked, before flatly accusing the moderators of conspiring against him. “It’s nice, one on three,” he said.
Aggressive: Trump appeared more confident and aggressive than he did in the first debate, often dismissing Clinton’s arguments out of hand and painting her as a politician “for 30 years” who had no record of accomplishment.
“It’s just words, folks; it’s just words,” Trump said about Clinton’s policy proposals. Forty-five minutes later, he added, “It’s all talk and no action.”
“Well, here we go again,” Clinton said, arguing that Trump was misstating her record and getting his facts wrong. When Trump tried to interject, Cooper cut him off. “Please allow her to respond,” he said. “She didn’t interrupt you.”
Asked by a Muslim audience member about Islamophobia, Trump ignored the question almost entirely. Instead of answering, he used his allotted time to suggest that Muslim Americans were not reporting the terrorists in their community and to assail Clinton and Obama for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Clinton, striding past Trump to approach the audience member, accused Trump of engaging in “demagogic rhetoric about Muslims.” She took aim at his criticism of the family of Capt. Humayun Khan, the U.S. Army officer killed in Iraq whose parents Trump mocked.
Trump called Khan “an American hero.” But when pressed on whether he had backed off his proposal to ban Muslim immigration to America — as his running mate flatly said last week that he had — he refused to say unambiguously that he no longer supported the idea.
“It’s called extreme vetting,” he said, employing a phrase he has previously used to describe his proposal.
Trump then accused Clinton of supporting a huge increase of refugees to the United States, prompting Clinton to vow that she would not “let anyone into our country that I think poses a risk to us.”
Drama: The night unfolded in striking and often dramatic fashion. Shortly before the debate, Trump held a brief news conference in St. Louis with three women — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — who claim that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them during his years in office in Arkansas or as president. They were joined by a fourth woman, Kathy Shelton, who was 12 when she was raped by a 41-year-old in Arkansas; Hillary Clinton represented the man, who ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.
Trump’s gambit — which was broadcast on Facebook Live — was intended to rattle Hillary Clinton before the debate, but it went against the advice of leading Republicans and even some of Trump’s own loyalists that he resist the temptation of targeting women tied to Bill Clinton.
As Trump sat silently, the women described the experiences they said they had had with Bill Clinton and also defended Trump over his 2005 remarks. In the debate hall, the women sat in prime seats with Bill Clinton and Chelsea, the Clintons’ daughter, also in attendance.
Bill Clinton looked slightly uncomfortable as he entered the hall, looking at the crowd as he walked toward Trump’s wife, Melania. The two shook hands moments later, and Bill Clinton greeted Trump’s daughter Ivanka as well.
Preoccupied: Over the weekend, Trump’s preparations for the debate were unfocused and halting, as his campaign was preoccupied with the political fallout from his recorded remarks. By Sunday morning, even as Republican leaders pleaded with him to show more contrition, he and his campaign appeared increasingly defiant.
In a series of Twitter messages, Trump savaged those in the party who had renounced him, a troubling sign to some leading Republicans who had signaled that their future support for him would be based in part on how he responded to this crisis.
“So many self-righteous hypocrites,” he wrote of the defectors. “Watch their poll numbers — and elections — go down!”
Clinton campaign: For the Clinton campaign, the news of Trump’s lewd remarks was a political gift, and a timely one, during debate preparations. The recording fit neatly into the argument that Clinton was already planning to press about Trump’s attitudes toward women, an issue on which she capitalized strongly at their first debate 13 days ago.
Clinton advisers say they would like nothing more than for a fight about gender to dominate the final four weeks of the presidential campaign. Several of these advisers said in interviews that they were confident Trump’s words about women would hurt him far more than any backlash Clinton might experience as a result of renewed attention to Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs or her own behavior toward the women associated with him.
Hillary Clinton had been gaining in national and swing-state polls even before the latest Trump controversy began Friday afternoon. She has fought Trump into a statistical tie in Ohio, where he appeared to have a small edge through September, and she has regained solid leads in Colorado and Pennsylvania, according to recent polls. She also has a small lead in the latest North Carolina polls and is running closely with Trump in Florida.
The third and final presidential debate will be Oct. 19 in Las Vegas, with Chris Wallace of Fox News serving as moderator. Unlike Sunday’s town hall format, the next debate will be more traditional, with the two candidates at lecterns and fielding questions from Wallace.