No contrition about a lewd 2005 recording. No pulled punches on summoning ugly personal histories. No handshake to commence the evening.
Round 2 of the presidential debates on Sunday night at Washington University in St. Louis, will go down as one of the most brutal in modern election history, dredging up searing moments of private pain for the family of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and producing a quasi-admission from Republican nominee Donald Trump that he used a $ 916-million business loss to avoid paying federal taxes for as long as 18 years.
Clinton maintained her cool in the face of harsher attacks than during the first presidential debate. The tone this time was uglier, foreshadowed by a pre-debate presser in which Republican nominee Donald Trump introduced “four courageous women” to members of his press pool, three of whom — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathleen Willey — have accused Clinton’s husband former president Bill Clinton of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
The fourth woman, Kathy Shelton, was 12 years old when Hillary Clinton was hired to represent the 41-year-old Arkansas man who raped her.
The press event was an apparent bid to unnerve Clinton minutes before their town hall debate. It came after a turbulent two days in which Trump dismissed as “locker-room talk” a damning recording on a hot microphone from 2005 in which he boasted about a predilection for groping women by the genitals.
“Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything,” he says on the recording.
The Trump tape
Sunday’s town hall debate began with a voter question about presidents as role models before it quickly turned to the topic of the leaked recording.
“What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women; what he thinks about women, what he does to women, and he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is,” Clinton said.
Rather than express sincere contrition for his lewd remarks, as debate experts believed would be wise, Trump reiterated his defence of what he termed “locker-room talk.”
“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.”
“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” he said at another point.
‘You would be in jail’
Trump, who has branded himself the “law and order” candidate, vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to re-investigate Clinton’s email practices. Clinton, once again pleading for fact-checkers to parse Trump’s allegations about deleted emails, used the opportunity to take another shot at Trump as someone who lacks the temperament to responsibly take “charge of the law in our country.”
“Because you would be in jail,” Trump said, a reply that some pundits interpreted as a threat. (Trump’s surrogates say he was likely joking.)
Health care ‘fix’
Asked how they would bring health-care costs down and improve coverage under he Affordable Care Act, Clinton agreed for a need “to fix it” because of high premiums and other costs, but to also preserve what’s good about it and to “save what works” for the estimated 170 million Americans now covered.
The question was an opportunity for Clinton to restate her defence of Obamacare’s merits — no lifetime limits, no cost disparities based on gender, the ability for people under 26 to go under their parents’ policy — after Bill Clinton raised criticisms about the system during a recent stump appearance.
Trump got in a shot at Canada on his turn.
“She wants to go to a single-payer plan, which would be a disaster, somewhat similar to Canada,” said Trump. “And if you haven’t noticed the Canadians, when they need a big operation, when something happens, they come into the United States in many cases because their system is so slow. It’s catastrophic in certain ways.”
Dragging in Bill Clinton
Trump, still reeling from the fallout over his most recently disclosed lewd remarks concerning women and predatory sexual behaviour, decided to go on the attack. He attempted to shift the focus to the Clintons.
“There’s never been anyone in the history of politics in this nation who has been so abusive to women,” Trump said of Bill Clinton’s improprieties.
Although Trump said he held back from the most stinging personal attacks he could have used against Clinton in the first debate, he resurrected several names, including Paula Jones, with whom the former president settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $ 850,000 US.
Clinton’s response: “I am reminded of what my friend Michelle Obama advised us all: ‘When they go low, you go high.'”
A president for all
An audience question about which candidate can be a devoted president “to all the people” of the U.S. gave Clinton an opening to lay out her 30 years of public service.
“I started off as a young lawyer working against discrimination against African-American children in schools and in the criminal justice system,” she said, before talking about her younger years in South Texas registering Latino citizens to vote.
The moment allowed Clinton to remind voters of her advocacy work and experience even before she became a former First Lady, New York senator and secretary of state.
Trump’s split with Pence
On perhaps one of the most widely-watched presidential town hall debates in history, Trump diverged from his presidential running mate on a major foreign policy issue on Syria: The use of military force to potentially target the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The moment showed either an eye-opening lack of co-ordination with his running mate on basic talking points regarding a major international conflict and humanitarian crisis, or deeper rift between Trump and Pence.
Moderator Martha Raddatz, after hearing Trump say he had not spoken with his No. 2 about the matter, was incredulous: “You disagree with your running mate?”
On the issue of new documents released by WikiLeaks that purportedly detail Clinton’s paid Wall Street speeches, she was asked to defend a reported excerpt that says politicians should have both a private and personal stance on certain issues. Clinton drew on the backroom discussions and wheeling and dealing that allowed Abraham Lincoln to get Congress to approve the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.
“Honest Abe never lied. That’s…a big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you,” Trump said, in one of his more inspired retorts. “That’s a big, big difference.”
A positive thing about each opponent
Clinton said one thing she respected about Trump was is “incredibly able and devoted” children. “I think that says a lot about Donald.”
Trump said he respects that Clinton is a “fighter” who doesn’t give up.
Mood in the room sufficiently lightened, both candidates concluded the debate with a cordial handshake.
Watch The Choice 2016 on the Passionate Eye on Sunday October 16 at 10 pm ET & PT on CBC News Network for new insights into Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and why they both want one of the most difficult jobs imaginable.