If someone missed the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s presidential debate, they might have thought the event was an intense discussion between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton over Obamacare, terrorism, taxes and the role of Muslims in America.
Yet those first 30 minutes defined the candidates’ second encounter. Trump turned accusations that he spoke crudely about women into retorts that Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, did far worse by sexually assaulting women. Just before the debate began, he even brought those women together before television cameras.
Clinton used the town-hall style forum at Washington University in St. Louis to argue that Trump’s words showed the real man — one who isn’t fit to be president. She refused to engage in a point-by-point rebuttal of Trump’s charges against her husband but criticized the Republican’s temperament in an exchange over his late-night tweets.
In many ways, it was exactly the event Republicans feared — Trump living up to his threat to bring Bill Clinton into the debate and even saying he would try to jail Clinton if he wins the election — and it seems unlikely that Trump’s performance will do anything stop the defections from a campaign in free-fall.
And the public mudslinging — along with Trump’s admission he took hundreds of millions in tax deductions — seemed certain to overshadow attempts to hit Clinton over Obamacare, foreign policy, and revelations about her paid speeches to Wall Street.
Here’s the tale of the tape:
The early minutes were dominated by the story that has gripped the political world for the past 48 hours: Trump’s lewd comments about women in a 2005 tape that became public on Friday. Pressed on the issue, Trump repeatedly dismissed his words as “locker-room talk” while insisting that he had “great respect for women.”
“I’m not proud of it,” he said. “I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people.”
Trump has seen a flood of Republican leaders abandon his campaign after the release of the tape in which he crudely describes attempts to force himself on women sexually and to seduce a married woman. A number of Republican members of Congress and governors withdrew their support for his campaign, and close allies — including his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence — released statements critical of the comments.
Pressed by Anderson Cooper, one of the debate moderators, about whether he had actually carried out the sexual assault described in the conversation, Trump initially demurred, before saying that he hadn’t.
At first, Clinton avoided discussing the controversy head-on, responding to a teacher’s question about the tone and tenor of the campaign by describing her aspirations to bring Americans together. But as the conversation continued, Clinton said the tape was evidence of Trump’s true feelings about women.
“What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women,” Clinton said. “What he thinks about women. What he does to women.”
She also said it was evidence the Republican nominee was unfit to serve as president, unlike predecessors his party put forward.
“Donald Trump is different,” she said.
Bill Clinton’s Past
Trump telegraphed that he was ready to slam Clinton over her husband’s sexual misconduct shortly before the debate began, appearing in front of television cameras with women who had previously accused the former president of unwelcome advances.
Sure enough, Trump quickly pivoted from tough questioning about the 2005 tape to a condemnation of Bill Clinton’s conduct.
“Mine were words, his were action,” Trump said. The Republican nominee went on to describe the former president as having treated women worse than “anybody in the history of politics” and “disgraceful.”
“Bill Clinton was abusive to women,” he said. “Hillary Clinton attacked those women.”
Trump invited three of Clinton’s accusers — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — to the debate, as well as Kathy Shelton, a child rape victim angry that Hillary Clinton had served as defense attorney for her rapist.
Jones, an Arkansas state employee who accused Clinton in 1994 of making an unwanted sexual advance, also said the Clintons had attempted to find out sordid information about her. It was in a deposition for a lawsuit brought by Jones that the president lied about an affair he had with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Congressional Republicans launched impeachment proceedings over the incident.
During that investigation, Broaddrick, a campaign volunteer in the late 1970s, told FBI investigators that Clinton raped her. In subsequent interviews, she has said that Hillary Clinton was aware of the incident and had made veiled threats to her. The former president has denied a alleged sexual assault occurred.
Shelton was 12 years old when she was allegedly raped by 41-year-old Thomas Alfred Taylor on the side of an Arkansas road. Clinton, then a 27-year-old law professor, defended Taylor as part of her work for a law clinic for underprivileged defendants. Taylor’s charges were reduced from first-degree rape, and he served just 10 months in jail.
Clinton said Trump’s characterization of the cases was “not right,” and cited first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.
“When you go low, we go high,” Clinton said, echoing that address.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the debate, Trump looked at Clinton and said that as president he would seek a special prosecutor to investigate her use of a private e-mail server while working as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
It’s “just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Trump” isn’t in charge of law enforcement, Clinton responded.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump interjected.
The e-mail issue has haunted Clinton throughout her campaign and will continue to do so in the month remaining. It’s regularly cited as a reason many voters don’t trust her.
Trump falsely said that Clinton destroyed 33,000 e-mails after they were subpoenaed. She and her legal team did so earlier on the grounds that they were personal and not work-related. A technician said he acted on his own to delete an archive of e-mails after a congressional subpoena because he’d failed to do so earlier.
Pushed by the debate moderators to respond to specific statements made by the FBI after its investigation, Clinton responded by reiterating her position that using the private e-mail system was a “mistake.” She added, “I’m very sorry about that” and noted that the FBI probe found no criminal activity.
Clinton didn’t mention that FBI Director James Comey called her handling of classified information “extremely careless” or that her public explanations about the system have repeatedly changed. She initially said she sent no e-mails with classified information but later said she sent none that were marked classified and finally settled on saying she sent none that were marked classified in the “header” at the top.
Those shifting explanations came as the FBI concluded that more than 100 messages in more than 50 threads contained classified information at the time that they were sent and that three had markings in the body of the text showing they were confidential, a type of classification.
The e-mail issue isn’t over. The State Department on Friday started releasing hundreds of additional work-related e-mails found by the FBI but not turned over by Clinton. The department is under court order to release more of them before Election Day.
Clinton, who has posted nine years of her tax returns online, repeated her call for Trump to post his. Trump has declined to do so, saying he’s under audit by the Internal Revenue Service, and will release tax returns once that audit is complete. There’s no law to prevent him from releasing them, even if they are under audit.
Clinton referred to the recent disclosure of state tax forms from 1995 that showed Trump recorded a $916 million loss that year — a loss so large it might have allowed him to avoid or reduce his federal income taxes for as many as 18 years, according to tax specialists.
Trump acknowledged for the first time Sunday night that he had used that loss to avoid federal income taxes — though he didn’t say for how long, and he said such tax-avoidance is common practice among wealthy businessmen.
“Did you use that $916 million loss to avoid paying personal federal income taxes?” moderator Cooper asked.
“Of course I do,” Trump responded.
Trump also said that “most” of Clinton’s donors have done the same. “I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs,” he said.
Trump said that a lot of tax deductions over the years have come through depreciating the value of his real-estate holdings. “A lot of things that Hillary, as a senator, allowed,” Trump said. “And she’ll always allow them because the people that give her all this money — they want it.”
Trump also said: “I pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes” and said that includes federal taxes.
Syria and Refugees
Trump broke with his closest ally on his Syria policy during the debate: his own running mate.
Martha Raddatz, the other debate moderator, asked Trump if he agreed with his vice presidential nominee, Pence, who said during the vice presidential candidates’ debate that their administration would deploy ground forces in Syria.
“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree,” Trump said.
Trump proved evasive when Raddatz tried to pin down why he changed his policy on Muslim immigration amid the refugee crisis in Syria.
Trump said his position had “morphed into an extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees from areas with high terrorist activity, but didn’t answer — even after being pressed –about why he abandoned his original call for a ban on immigration by Muslims.
Trump called Syrian refugees “the great Trojan horse of all time” and said the U.S. had “no idea” who was entering the country. Refugees to the U.S. are subject to an intense vetting process that takes more than a year and involves background checks by multiple agencies.
Clinton has said she would increase the number of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. to 65,000. That would amount to an 81 percent increase over the current level.
She defended that position in the debate, saying the U.S. needed to shoulder more of the burden of the humanitarian crisis. She also attacked Trump’s earlier call for a ban on Muslim immigrants as anti-American.
“It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald said, we’re going to ban people based on religion,” Clinton said. “How do you do that? We are a country founded on religious freedom and liberty.”
The pair also sparred over support for the Iraq war, with Trump saying he “would not have had our people in Iraq.”
Clinton said fact-checkers had debunked that claim.
When Trump was asked whether he supported going to war in Iraq in a 2002 appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show, Trump said, “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” In a 2004 interview in Esquire magazine, he said “all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing!”
As a senator from New York, Clinton voted in 2002 to give President George W. Bush the authority to wage the Iraq war, a decision that may have cost her the Democratic nomination in 2008 and which she later called a mistake. Clinton has said she wouldn’t have voted for the war if she’d known at the time what the world learned later, that Iraq didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction claimed by the Bush administration.
Both candidates said Obamacare has problems. But while Clinton said she wants to improve “what works” about the Affordable Care Act, Trump called it “a disaster” and said it will “never work.”
The law has succeeded at its primary goal. It has expanded insurance coverage to 20 million Americans who previously lacked it, driving the U.S. uninsured rate down by better than six percentage points to 10.8 percent, according to a Gallup survey.
Clinton accurately described some of its most popular features, including allowing parents to keep their children on their health insurance plans until they turn 26 and prohibiting insurers from refusing coverage for sick people or charging more based on health or gender. She accurately said that those benefits would be “lost” if the law were repealed, absent a replacement policy.
Clinton said she would “get costs down and keep quality up” and would provide “additional help for small businesses.” She didn’t explain how she would do that, and the debate moderators didn’t challenge her vague promises.
Trump said he would improve U.S. insurance markets by “getting rid of lines around states” — a reference to a years-old Republican proposal to allow insurers in one state to sell plans in others without being subject to state regulators. State-level regulation of health insurance predates the Affordable Care Act, however, and changing that structure is opposed by state insurance regulators, including Republicans, who say consumers could be harmed and that out-of-state insurers would have trouble assembling sufficient local networks of doctors and hospitals.
Trump accurately said that “lines around states” were “almost gone” until just before the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress. The House version of the legislation would have created a single national insurance exchange. But Congress passed the Senate version of the bill, which created separate insurance exchanges in all 50 states.
Trump said that Clinton wants a “single-payer plan,” a system in which the government pays all of its citizens’ medical bills directly. She has never publicly advocated such a change, and accurately said during the debate that the U.S. “has an employer-based” health care system in which most Americans are covered through their jobs.
The candidate who has previously advocated for a single-payer plan, in fact, is Trump. He has since disavowed that position.