Donald Trump declined to say during Wednesday night’s debate whether he would accept the results of the presidential election if he lost.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump told the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, after Wallace asked whether Trump would follow the American tradition of accepting the results of presidential elections. “I will keep you in suspense.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton interjected.
“Chris, let me respond to that,” Clinton said. “That’s horrifying.”
During this section of the debate, the third between the candidates, Trump referenced what he said was a “rigged” election: He blamed the news media for “poisoning” minds against him, and the FBI for not prosecuting Clinton for her use of a private email server to handle government business while she was secretary of state.
Clinton attacked Trump in turn for defying the long-standing tradition of accepting election results, and referenced an episode from Trump’s previous career as a reality TV host.
“He even tweeted that the Emmys were rigged,” Clinton said, referencing Trump’s gripes after he failed to win the award for “The Apprentice.”
“I shoulda gotten it,” Trump interjected.
The exhange followed closely after Trump rejected the accounts of women who have accused him of groping them or kissing them without their consent, calling those reports “lies” and fiction.
“I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who’s sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything,” Trump said, when asked by Wallace about nine women who have come forward in recent days. “I think they want, either fame, or her campaign did it.” He said Clinton had been running a “sleazy campaign,” and sought to turn the debate to other issues: reports that Democratic staffers had sought to organize violent protests outside Trump rallies, and the long-running scandal about Clinton’s private email server.
Clinton said that Trump’s treatment of women reflected a broader flaw in his personality, noting past episodes in which Trump seemed to mock a reporter with a physical disability, and when Trump feuded with the family of fallen U.S. soldier Humayun Khan.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth,” Clinton said. “And I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.”
About an hour into the debate, the two candidates also sparred over their respective charitable foundations. Trump attacked the Clinton Foundation, saying that it was wrong to accept large donations from foreign governments, including Middle Eastern countries which Trump criticized for their treatment of women, as well as of gay men and lesbians.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” Trump said, referencing what he said was Clinton’s favoritism toward Clinton Foundation donors while she was secretary of state. “I’d like to ask you right now, why don’t you give back the money right now?”
Clinton responded with criticism of Trump’s charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation. The Washington Post has uncovered examples where Trump used his charity’s money to buy things for himself or his businesses, including large portraits of himself.
“I’d be happy to compare what we do with the Trump Foundation, which took money from other people and bought a six-foot portrait of Donald,” Clinton said. “I mean, who does that?”
Trump sought to defend his foundation, saying it was small, and that he took no money for running it. Wallace, the moderator, pressed Trump about episodes where Trump spent money out of the foundation to settle lawsuits involving his for-profit businesses. In one case in particular, Trump’s beachfront Mar-a-Lago Club had agreed to pay $100,000 to Fisher House, a charity that helps military veterans, as part of a legal settlement with the town of Palm Beach, Fla. The Trump Foundation paid that debt instead, effectively saving Trump’s business $100,000. Tax experts have called that a classic example of “self-dealing,” a violation of federal tax law.
“The money, the money, went to Fisher House,” Trump said, seemingly not understanding the legal implications of using his charity to pay off a business obligation. “They build houses for our veterans.”
In another testy exchange earlier in the evening, Clinton accused her opponent of being a “puppet” of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“It’s pretty clear, he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton said, noting that Russian hackers had been blamed for releasing internal Democratic emails, apparently in an effort to help Trump’s cause.
“You’re the puppet,” Trump replied.
His logic, apparently, was that Putin had outmaneuvered Clinton – who was previously secretary of state – and President Barack Obama in nuclear treaties, and in Middle Eastern conflicts like the one in Syria.
“She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way,” Trump said.
Both Clinton and Wallace pressed Trump about those hacks, which U.S. intelligence agencies have blamed on Russia. Trump said he was not convinced. He seemed to attack the smarts and credibility of those intelligence agencies, saying that the hacks could have been carried out by China or another party.
Together, these arguments – praising the smarts of a foreign power, and doubting those of American personnel – made a bleak argument with few parallels in recent presidential debates.
“Hillary has no idea,” Trump said. “Our country has no idea.”
Trump also seemed to back off a key piece of his policy platform, giving up on the idea of a mass deportation of illegal immigrants.
The promise of mass deportation had been a bedrock part of Trump’s campaign during the GOP primaries. But during the debate, Trump offered another plan: He would first round up “the bad ones” among illegal immigrants.
“All of the drug lords, all of the bad ones – we have some bad, bad people in this country, who have to go out,” Trump said. “Once the border is secured, at a later date,” he said, he would make a decision about what to do with other illegal immigrants.
Clinton, in her response, sought to pin Trump’s past comments on him anyway – recalling his earlier comments in support of a “deportation force.” Clinton also mocked Trump for visiting Mexican President Enrique Peqa Nieto but not raising another key issue of his campaign: a plan to build a border wall, and to make Mexico pay for it by imposing controls on money remitted by Mexican immigrants.
“Didn’t even raise it,” Clinton said. “He choked.”
Trump said his meeting with Peqa Nieto had been pleasant, and he thought he would have good relations with Mexico as president. “Under her plan, you have open borders,” Trump said, citing an excerpt from an email from Wikileaks, the source of which has been identified as hackers affiliated with Russia.
Clinton defended her statement, saying she had been referring to open movement of energy and the electrical grid. She then sought to turn the debate to the Wikileaks releases themselves.
“Will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this, and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election, that he rejects Russian espionage in this election?” she said.
“That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders,” Trump replied.
At the beginning of Wednesday night’s debate, Trump said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“That will happen automatically, in my opinion. Because I am putting pro-life justices on the court,” Trump said, in response to a question from moderator Chris Wallace. Trump said he wanted to leave the decision about whether to legalize abortions to individual states.
Clinton said she did not want to limit abortions further, saying she felt that the government should not be allowed to intrude in such decisions.
“You can regulate (abortion), if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account,” Clinton said. She called abortion “one of the worst possible decisions that any woman or her family has to make.”
The first 20 minutes of the debate featured little of the insults or accusations of the first two presidential debates. Instead, the two candidates discussed the Supreme Court and gun regulations in quiet – and often quite vague – terms. There were no mention of the sex scandals that have dominated headlines for days before the debate, focused on both Trump and on Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee’s husband.
Things heated up, however, when the discussion turned to immigration, Wikileaks and Russia, and on temperament, with the two presidential hopefuls trading jabs and talking over each other and Wallace.
Trump – who has fallen dangerously behind in polls – came into Wednesday night facing a key choice: Would he use the third and final presidential debate to make a last-ditch lunge for the political center? Or would he use this moment to fulfill a long-held dream of the far right, and prosecute a litany of long-nurtured grievances against both Bill and Hillary Clinton before a national audience?