The Republican nominee’s Hail Mary: Break ranks with his own running mate, and vow to put Hillary behind bars.
LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump entered the second presidential debate in one of the most contentious U.S. presidential elections in decades facing the potential collapse of his campaign over revelations that he’d bragged about sexually assaulting women.
The Republican nominee went to astounding lengths Sunday night to deflect from the fallout, going so far as to threaten to jail rival Hillary Clinton if he were to win, and contradicting his own vice-presidential pick on questions of foreign policy, while tossing in support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Expectations of a spirited clash were high after the Washington Post reported Friday that Trump was caught in a 2005 tape saying he’s assaulted women. That revelation has led to an avalanche of defections from the GOP ticket among Republican lawmakers at the state and national level, and reports that the Republican National Committee has throttled back efforts to get Trump elected in November.
Trump sought to deflect questions about the tape by attacking Clinton, calling out her husband Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and the investigation into her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
“And it’s a disgrace and honestly,” he said. “You ought to be ashamed.”
Trump also came out in support of two strongmen that have thrown a wrench in U.S. foreign policy, implicitly backing the Assad regime in Syria and arguing that a military partnership with Russia — which is currently reducing the city of Aleppo to cinders — is the best way to solve the Syrian impasse. He also denied, despite U.S. intelligence briefings and public findings to the contrary, that Russia could be behind recent hacks of the Democratic National Committee.
“I don’t like Assad at all,” Trump said, “but he’s killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, Iran is killing ISIS. Those three have lined up because of our weak foreign policy.”
In one of the debate’s many extraordinary exchanges, Trump said that if elected he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email system while secretary of state. When Clinton parried that it’s a good thing Trump isn’t in charge of American laws, Trump snapped back, “Because you’d be in jail.”
The townhall style forum, hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, was designed to both take questions from the audience and focus thematically on foreign policy. As expected, the latest scandal for by the reality-TV-star-turned-Republican nominee dominated early on, but for much of the debate the candidates exchanged blows on national security issues.
Trump repeatedly pivoted away from questions about his past behavior to talk about the Islamic State, promising as he has for months to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” though he gave no hints of any counter-terrorism strategy.
“This was locker room talk,” he said, in answer to a question about his recorded comments. Then he segued, “When you have ISIS chopping off people’s heads … I will knock the hell out of ISIS … People are pouring into our country and coming in from the Middle East and other places — we’re going to make America safe again.”
Clinton was faced with the release by Wikileaks this weekend of a trove of emails said to be from her chief of staff, John Podesta. Those emails included excerpts of paid speeches made to Wall Street banks, and came hours after the U.S. intelligence community said WikiLeaks was part of a campaign by Russia to influence the U.S. election.
She blamed Russia for the leaks, and suggested it was done for the benefit of her opponent.
“We have never in the history of our country been in a situation where an adversary — a foreign power — is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election,” Clinton said. “And believe me, they’re not doing it to get me elected. They’re doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump.”
Trump denied having any Russian business interests — though his son has bragged about the family firm’s dealings there — and questioned whether Moscow was responsible of recent breaches at organizations such as the DNC, even though the U.S. intelligence community on Friday concluded that Russia is behind the hacking.
“Maybe there is no hacking,” he said. “They’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia,” Trump added.
Trump called for a rapprochement with Russia, and said Moscow could serve as an effective partner in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s call to investigate Russia for war crimes for its indiscriminate bombing in Syria.
“I think it would be great if we got along with Putin so we could fight ISIS together.”
Clinton repeated her call for a no-fly zone in Syria, saying, “we need some leverage with the Russians.” But asked whether she’d threaten military force against either Moscow or the regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus, she instead repeated she would not send U.S. ground troops into Syria.
“Russia has decided they are all in in Syria,” she said.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said in the vice presidential debate last Wednesday that Putin is a “small and bullying leader” who must be answered with “American strength.” Trump ostentatiously split with his vice-presidential pick.
“He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree,” he said.
Trump has also seemed to break with Pence on his ever-evolving ban on Muslims entering the United States. Pence has said that the ban is no longer Trump’s position. Trump said he wants more screening.
“It’s called extreme vetting,” Trump said, claiming refugees are coming in by the “tens of thousands,” he said.The U.S. has only resettled some 10,000 Syrian refugees, and per White House statistics, zero Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. since 9/11 have come under suspicion of terrorist activity. “This is going to be the great Trojan horse of our time,” Trump said.
In the end, despite a debate that at times veered into the substantive, for many voters, it’s still about the body punches.
At a watch party for the Republican Party of Clark County, Nevada, David and Alicia Ivy said they weren’t bothered by the tape, and would still vote for Trump in November. They said they would love for the debate to focus on foreign policy, but weren’t expecting it.
“Honestly, I’m more here for the entertainment,” David said grinning. “That’s all this election has been about.”
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images