WASHINGTON (AP) — His presidential campaign in peril, Donald Trump left no doubt he’ll spend the final weeks before the election dredging up decades-old sexual allegations against Hillary Clinton’s husband, even if it turns off voters whose support he desperately needs.
Faced with questions at Sunday’s debate about his own vulgar remarks about women, Trump accused Bill Clinton of having been “abusive to women” and said Hillary Clinton attacked those women “viciously.” He declared the Democratic nominee had “tremendous hate in her heart.”
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Clinton tried at times to take the high road, glossing over Trump’s charges and accusing him of trying to distract from his political troubles. “Anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding,” she said.
Indeed, Trump entered Sunday night’s debate facing enormous pressure from the Republican Party and even his own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Numerous Republicans revoked their support for Trump following the release of a 2005 video in which he is heard bragging about how his fame allowed him to “do anything” to women. Clinton said the tape “represents exactly who he is.”
For voters appalled by Trump’s words, the businessman likely did little to ease their concerns. He denied he had kissed and groped women without their consent, dismissing his comments as “locker room” talk.
But Trump’s intensely loyal supporters were likely to be energized by his vigorous criticism of Clinton. He labeled her “the devil” and promised she would “be in jail” if he were president due to her controversial email practices at the State Department. On one substantive matter, Trump acknowledged for the first time that he had paid no federal income taxes for many years.
The debate was the culmination of a stunning stretch in the race for the White House, which began with the surprise release of the video in which Trump is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. The businessman said he wasn’t proud of his comments and insisted he had “great respect for women.”
The tension between Trump and Clinton was palpable from the start of their 90-minute debate, the second time they have faced off in the presidential campaign. They did not shake hands as they met at center stage.
Trump, who is several inches taller than Clinton, stood close behind her as she answered questions from the voters. At other times, he paced the stage, repeatedly interrupting her and criticizing the moderators.
In a brazen pre-debate move, Trump met with three women who accused the former president of sexual harassment and even rape, then invited them to sit in the debate hall, not far from where Bill Clinton was seated with his family. The former president never faced any criminal charges over the allegations, and a lawsuit over an alleged rape was dismissed. He did settle a lawsuit with one of the women who claimed harassment.
Trump struggled at times to articulate detailed policy proposals, repeatedly dancing around questions about how he would replace President Barack Obama’s health care law, a measure he has vowed to repeal.
In a rare public break with his running mate, Trump made clear he did not agree with Pence on how to deal with war-torn Syria. Last week, Pence said the U.S. military should be ready to strike Syrian military targets that are under the command of President Bashar Assad. The threat of military action against the Russia-backed Assad government marks a departure from Trump’s preference for a focus on Islamic State targets.
Said Trump, “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.”
Trump’s campaign was already struggling before the new video was released, due in part to his uneven performance in the first presidential debate. Many Republicans saw Sunday’s showdown as his last best chance to salvage his campaign.
The Trump video overshadowed potentially damaging revelations about Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street firms. Emails released by WikiLeaks last week showed Clinton told a group that it’s acceptable for a president to project differing positions in public and private.
Asked in the debate whether that’s “two-faced,” Clinton pointed to Abraham Lincoln, saying he did whatever he could to get the 13th Amendment passed, allowing emancipation of the slaves, by lawmakers who did not support African-American equality.
“I was making the point it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want them to do. That was a great display of presidential leadership.”
Rolling his eyes, Trump said, “Now she’s blaming the late, great Abraham Lincoln.”
In the debate’s final moments, the candidates briefly put aside their animosity when asked by a voter if they respected anything about each other.
Clinton said she respected Trump’s children, calling them “incredibly able and devoted.”
Trump, as if pulling a line directly from the Clinton campaign, called his Democratic opponent a “fighter.”
“She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up,” he said. “I respect that.”