Plenty of jabs, but no knockout in final debate
Donald Trump gambled everything Wednesday night in the third and last presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, holding to his dramatic contention that he faces a “crooked” opponent and a “corrupt” media that has “rigged” an election that he may not accept.
Citing ongoing revelations about Clinton’s private email server, the media, and his allegations that there are “millions” of improperly registered voters, Trump refused to say he if he would accept the results of the Nov. 8 election if he did not win.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump told Fox News moderator Chris Wallace. “I will keep you in suspense.”
Clinton’s response to Trump’s unprecedented assertion about the election: “That’s horrifying.”
Clinton, Trump added, “she shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked. She’s guilty of a very serious crime. She shouldn’t be allowed to run, and just in that respect I say it’s rigged.”
Clinton, for her part, spent much of the 90-minute confrontation parrying Trump’s thrusts, at once landing hits and seeking to rise above the negative mudslinging that the race has seen in recent weeks.
However, Clinton did not ignore the recent accusations of sexual impropriety against Trump, who dismissed them all as “largely debunked.”
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said.
With 20 days until Election Day, the Democratic nominee arrived in Las Vegas with a widening lead in almost every major poll, dictating a cautious debate strategy that put much of the spotlight on the Republican challenger.
The final debate at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas at times took on the air of a title bout for which the city is known, with Trump, playing the comeback kid, taking on Clinton, the odds-on favorite employing goading, rope-a-dope tactics.
The debate even borrowed from boxing’s notorious pre-fight antics, with Trump inviting one of President Barack Obama’s estranged half-brothers, Malik Obama, who backs the Republican ticket to sit in the audience. Clinton answered with billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a frequent Trump critic.
Both candidates came into the debate battling negative perceptions, as they have throughout the race.
Trump, needing a dynamic moment to change the trajectory of the race, made good on pre-debate predictions of a “scorched earth” assault on Clinton’s character, reciting a litany of popular Republican attacks on her private email server and the Clinton Foundation’s complex relationship to foreign governments when she was Secretary of State.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” Trump said of the “pay-to-play” allegations involving Clinton Foundation donors’ access to Clinton’s State Department.
Added to Trump’s indictment of Clinton was the accusation of fomenting violence at his campaign rallies. The charge is based on a new activist video appearing to show low-level Democratic operatives – since dismissed – bragging about inciting trouble. The Clinton campaign has denounced the tactics and questioned whether they actually occurred.
Although Clinton enjoys a commanding Electoral College lead as early voting gets underway, her campaign has endured a bumpy week of hacked Wikileaks email revelations bearing on her days as Secretary of State.
Clinton sought to blunt the Wikileaks revelations by calling them the result of Russian espionage, which she said is directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to support Trump.
“He’d rather have a puppet,” she said of Trump.
“You’re the puppet,” Trump shot back, charging that Putin has outmaneuvered Clinton and the Obama administration on foreign policy.
Some of the new email disclosures have intensified questions surrounding her overall honesty and authenticity, showing her tendency to present a carefully-vetted public image, sometimes at odds with her private views.
Trump failed to highlight one of the most damaging Clinton revelations: a new report suggesting that a State Department official tried to pressure the FBI to change the classification of at least one of her emails.
But in one singular act of message discipline, Trump held back from his previous attacks on the alleged sexual transgressions of her husband, former President Bill Clinton – the subject of a press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers before the last debate.
It is a strategy Trump has used up until now to deflect criticism of his own behavior toward women, an issue that exploded on the presidential race after the release of a damaging 2005 video this month capturing the reality TV star’s lewd language and predatory boasts. That was followed by personal allegations of sexual impropriety brought forward by nine women who have crossed paths with Trump over the decades, complicating his efforts to close a record gender gap with women and dispel concerns that he is unfit for the office.
Leading up to the final debate, Trump has sought to portray the accusations as part of an orchestrated effort by the media to help promote the Clinton campaign, all evidence of a wide-ranging conspiracy to cripple his campaign.
He did not back down on that charge Wednesday night.
“It was all fiction,” Trump said, “it was lies, and it was fiction.”
Trump failed to plow new ground or resuscitate his campaign. With time running out and his chances slipping, he recently has introduced a new plan calling for congressional term limits, a popular idea he has opposed in the past.
However, he did not raise it in the last debate, which ranged over the national debt and entitlements, immigration, the economy, the Supreme Court, foreign “hot spots,” and fitness to be president.
Immigration, once the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, provided some of the early sparks.
“She wants to give amnesty, which is a disaster,” Trump said of Clinton. He emphasized the need for a border wall, saying he would decide later what to do with illegal immigrants who already are in this country. Then he added: “we have got some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out.”
Clinton rejected the idea of mass deportations, which Trump has proposed before. “It is not an idea that is in keeping with who we are as a country,” she said.
Trump also played to his base by emphasizing the importance of appointing “pro-life” Supreme Court justices. “The Supreme Court – that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Clinton emphasized her support for abortion rights and safety restrictions on gun rights.
With polls having showed that Clinton won Rounds 1 and 2, some analysts said Trump needed a knockout punch to turn around his fortunes in the race. The coming days will tell if he delivered the blow.