The tension between Trump and Clinton was palpable from the start of their 90-minute debate, the second time they have faced off in the presidential campaign.
They did not shake hands as they met at center stage. Trump, who is several inches taller than Clinton, stood close behind her as she answered questions from the voters. At other times, he paced the stage, repeatedly interrupting her and criticizing the moderators.
Trump struggled at times to articulate detailed policy proposals, repeatedly dancing around questions about how he would replace President Barack Obama’s health care law, a measure he has vowed to replace. But he leveled several charges against Clinton that will likely energize his supporters, including saying she should have been criminally charged for her controversial email practices at the State Department.
In a rare public break with his running mate, Trump made clear that he did not agree with Mike Pence on how to deal with war-torn Syria. Last week, Pence said that the U.S. military should be ready to strike Syrian military targets that are under the command of President Bashar Assad.
The threat of military action against the Russia-backed Assad government marks a departure from Trump’s preference for a focus on Islamic State targets. Said Trump: “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.” Trump’s campaign was already struggling before the new video was released, due in part to his uneven performance in the first presidential debate.
Many Republicans saw Sunday’s showdown as his last best chance to salvage his campaign. It was unclear whether Trump’s performance did anything to expand his support beyond his core backers. He did repeatedly cast Clinton as a career politician who had accomplished little during her years in Washington and would be incapable of bringing about change, one of his strongest argument in a campaign that has highlighted American’s deep frustration. “With her, it’s all talk and no action,” Trump said.
The new revelations about Trump overshadowed potentially damaging revelations about Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street firms. Emails released by WikiLeaks last week showed Clinton told a group that it’s acceptable for a president to project differing positions in public and private.
Asked in the debate whether that’s “two-faced,” Clinton pointed to Abraham Lincoln, saying he did whatever he could to get the 13th Amendment passed, allowing emancipation of the slaves, by lawmakers who did not support African-American equality. “I was making the point it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want them to do. That was a great display of presidential leadership.”
Rolling his eyes, Trump said, “Now she’s blaming the late, great Abraham Lincoln.” The political firestorm that preceded the debate was sparked by a video obtained and released Friday by The Washington Post and NBC News. In the video, Trump, who was married to his current wife at the time, is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. He also brags to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” about women letting him kiss them and grab their genitals because he is famous.
NBC said Sunday that it had indefinitely suspended Bush, now a “Today” show personality, for his role in the crude conversation with Trump.
Trump used the revelations as an opening to make good on his repeated promises to throw Bill Clinton’s sexual history into the center of his campaign against his wife. Less than two hours before the debate, he brazenly met publicly with several women who have accused Bill Clinton of unwanted sexual advances and even rape.
Trump refused to answer questions from reporters about his own aggressive sexual remarks about women during the meeting in a hotel conference room with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey.
Kathy Shelton, a fourth woman who appeared with Trump, was a 12-year-old Arkansas sexual assault victim whose alleged assailant was defended by Hillary Clinton. In the heated debate’s final moments, the candidates briefly put aside their animosity when asked by a voter if they respected anything about each other.
Clinton said she respected Trump’s children, calling them “incredibly able and devoted.” Trump, as if pulling a line directly from the Clinton campaign, called his Democratic opponent a “fighter.” “She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up,” he said. “I respect that.”
Dawn Ennis contributed to this report.
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