Ultimately last night's third and final presidential debate boiled down to just one brief exchange between Donald Trump and Chris Wallace, the one which all newspapers are leading with today: “What I’m saying, I will tell you at the time,” he told moderator Chris Wallace when asked if he would honor the results of the election. “I will keep you in suspense.” According to the WSJ, that response was "unprecedented and will be the answer for which this debate will be remembered."
'Threatening to upend a basic pillar of American democracy' pic.twitter.com/rEnL3gjugF— Ted Bridis (@tbridis) October 20, 2016
As AP lead with a story that will be carried across much of America's newspaper this morning:
Threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of American democracy, Donald Trump refused to say Wednesday night that he will accept the results of next month's election if he loses to Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee declared Trump's resistance "horrifying."
Trump's assertions raise the prospect that millions of his supporters may not accept the results on Nov. 8 if he loses, thrusting the nation into uncharted territory. Free and fair elections, with the vanquished peacefully stepping aside for the victor, have been the underpinning of America's democratic tradition since the country's founding 240 years ago.
While Trump carried himself well, and according to most commentators delivered a far better debate than his previous two appearances against Hillary, being constantly on the attack and managing to integrate the Wikileaks releases as part of his remarks, for the mainstream press just one thing mattered:
Donald Trump’s refusal to say that he will accept the presidential election’s outcome overshadowed all else during his third debate with Hillary Clinton, in Las Vegas on Wednesday evening.
While Trump's phrasing could have been better, and perhaps he was inspired by the recent revelations of vote rigging, brutally no one in the political world argued that the GOP nominee would benefit from the move. Trump’s remarks, he told moderator Chris Wallace, “I will look at it at the time” and “I will keep you in suspense”, stood in sharp contrast to recent comments from his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and even his daughter Ivanka.
Perhaps Trump was referring to the infamous 2000 recount of Florida votes, and Al Gore dissatisfaction with the initial outcome of that election, or even noted that "under extraordinary circumstances I may reassess", but he did not do that, and instead did what Trump is best known for doing: going a response not couched in political rhetoric.
His stance sent shockwaves through the Republican Party, where criticism of Trump was already running high. Sen. Jeff Flake quickly tweeted that Trump’s position was “beyond the pale” while Sen. Lindsey Graham released a statement asserting that Trump was “doing the party and our country a great disservice by continuing to suggest the outcome of this election is out of his hands and ‘rigged’ against him.”
Even Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tried to find an escape route from the position her candidate had enunciated, telling CNN moments after the debate ended that “Donald Trump will accept the results of the election because he will win the election.”
For better or worse, Trump’s stance erased any final doubt that he would remain the same candidate he has always been, one who stands defiantly outside the parameters of normal political discourse: a candidate who is at odds with the establishment in every way.
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Perhaps it was a calculated move setting him up for a contentuous November 8, or merely he tried to solidify his core base - which according at least to the latest polls (skewed as they may be) will be insufficient to win Trump the election - but based on the mainstream media's kneejerk response which still has a huge impact in setting the public mood, it will be difficult for Trump to reach out to independent voters who still are undecided less than three weeks ahead of the election, and whose support Trump urgently needs.
Not surprisingly, a CNN/ORC poll in the immediate aftermath of the Vegas debate found 52% of debate watchers thought Clinton was the winner, compared with 39% who picked Trump, even though CNN once again admitted the respondents once again skewed Democrat.
Among other things, on Wednesday evening Trump reiterated his plan to build a wall along the U.S-Mexico border, promised to deport “some bad hombres” and assailed Clinton as “such a nasty woman.” But the effectiveness of Trump’s approach looks much more limited with the general electorate than it was in the GOP primaries. Trump trails Clinton by about 7 percentage points in national polling averages and also lags in the battleground states. Some places that are normally Republican redoubts look competitive this year, including Arizona, Georgia and perhaps even Texas and Utah.
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The debate was the last big set piece of the campaign, a TV audience of 60 million or more was predicted, and it was not without some strong moments for Trump. He pressed Clinton again on her positions on free trade and sought to make a broader argument that she was part of a political status quo that was stale and dysfunctional.
“I say the one thing you have over me is experience, but it’s bad experience,” he told her.
Trump also seemed more sure of himself and comfortable in the environment than he had in their previous encounters. Seeking to defend his immigration stance, he reminded Clinton and the audience that “millions and millions of people” had been deported during President Obama’s tenure. He also complained that the president’s signature healthcare law had resulted in “bad healthcare at the most expensive price.”
As the debate moved on, the relatively restrained Trump of the debate’s opening stages gave way to a more dissenting and fractious candidate as time wore on. Trump denied any relationship with Putin and said he would condemn any foreign interference in the election. But he notably declined to back the intelligence community's assessment that Russia was involved in the hacking of Democratic organizations. The Clinton campaign has said the FBI also is investigating Russia's involvement in the hacking of a top adviser's emails.
The businessman entered the final debate facing a string of sexual assault accusations from women who came forward after he denied in the previous contest that he had kissed or groped women without their consent. That Trump denial followed the release of a video of in which he's heard bragging about exactly that. Trump denied the accusations anew Wednesday night, saying the women coming forward "either want fame or her campaign did it."
Trump pressed Clinton on immigration, accusing her of wanting an "open borders" policy, a characterization she vigorously disputes. The Republican, who has called for building a wall the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, blamed some "bad hombres here" for drug epidemics around the country, and promised "we're going to get 'em out." Clashing on trade, Trump said Clinton had misrepresented her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, noting that she had originally called it the "gold standard" of trade agreements. Clinton shot back that once the deal was finished, it didn't meet her standards.
"I'm against it now. I'll be against after the election. I'll be against it when I'm president," she said.
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Hillary had her share of moments too, issuing plenty of verbal jabs of her own. She hit back on her opponent over outsourcing, asserting that "the Trump hotel right here in Las Vegas was made with Chinese steel." In a discussion on foreign policy, she poked fun at his reality TV career, saying, "On the day when I was in the situation room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin laden to justice, he was hosting The Celebrity Apprentice.' " Clinton also pressed her advantage when the issue of Trump’s behavior toward women came up again. The GOP nominee has faced accusations of sexual misconduct from several women amid the fallout from a 2005 recording in which he said that his fame allowed him to grab women by the genitals.
Clinton, who began the debate with a lead in nearly all battleground states, forcefully accused Trump of favoring Russia's leader over American military and intelligence experts after the Republican nominee pointedly refused to accept the U.S. government's assertion that Moscow has sought to meddle in the U.S. election.
She charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin was backing Trump because "he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States."
Hillary has struggled throughout the campaign to overcome persistent questions about her honesty and trustworthiness, only reaffirmed by the recent Wikileaks releases. In the campaign's closing weeks, she's begun appealing to Americans to overcome the deep divisions that have been exacerbated by the heated campaign, saying on stage Wednesday that she intended to be a president for those who vote for her and those who do not.
Clinton faced debate questions for the first time about revelations in her top adviser's hacked emails that show her striking a different tone in private than in public regarding Wall Street banks and trade. But she quickly turned the discussion to Russia's potential role in stealing the emails.
A summary of the key debate highlights below:
The candidates did not shake hands at the beginning or end of the debate.
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Ultimately it was a familiar story: Trump against the world, and a candidate who - if elected - would break with most conventions expected in the president. The GOP nominee’s remarks on the election’s outcome only cemented that perception.
It remains to be seen if Trump's biggest gamble from the final debate will pay off. Casting aside the establishment in a shocking protest vote worked for Brexit. Will it work for Donald Trump too?