The third and final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the most issue-oriented of all their match-ups, but already one moment is dominating the post-event instant analysis.
That was Trump’s refusal to commit to concede should he lose on Nov. 8, bucking American tradition.
“I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said, having been pressed by moderator Chris Wallace, who was asking about the Republican nominee’s attack on the system as being “rigged.”
Trump did do well in talking about trade and anemic economic growth — signature issues. His attacks on rising Obamacare premiums should be disconcerting for the defenders of the Affordable Care Act. Syria and Libya have been foreign policy dark spots of the past eight years.
But as in past debates, his attacks on Clinton can devolve into non-sequiturs — they’ll make sense to insiders but will leave the general public scratching their heads. John Podesta’s emails? To the average viewer, who’s John Podesta?
Clinton carefully answered a question about Iraq and the current operation to root ISIS out of Mosul. Wallace forced her to defend her call for a no-fly zone over Syria, and whether it could actually escalate the situation with Russia.
But Trump’s response to this critical foreign policy question was, to use a cliche, all over the map. He at once said that by announcing the Mosul operation, ISIS fighters were allowed to flee. But he then said that the operation was more difficult than anticipated, ostensibly because of the ISIS resistance. So which is it?
Credit is due to Wallace for generally keeping the candidates on the topic at hand, which probably helped this debate focus more on substance than scandal. Yet it’s likely that this one won’t get nearly the audience of the first two, despite this being just the type of “informational” match-up that the debate commission hoped for.
Another problem for Trump: “Saturday Night Live.” Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump’s debate interruptions had the effect of making the real Trump’s use of the tactic the stuff of caricature. As she made a dig about Trump’s use of tax loopholes, he chimed in, “Such a nasty woman.” Jot that down for this week’s show.
It also was probably just what Clinton could have wanted — she was on defense for a portion of the night, but that may not matter. As with much of the fall campaign, the post-debate focus will be on Trump, what he said, and when he said it.
‘Rigged’ system. Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the outcome of the election elicited Clinton’s best moment, as she went through the litany of instances in which he has called something “rigged” after losing. She even cited his response to losing out on an Emmy.
“I should have gotten it,” Trump interjected.
That was a funny line, but the idea that he won’t accept the results is going to be topic No. 1 for the coming days if not several weeks, as Republicans who continue to support Trump will be pressed on whether they agree that there is a voter fraud conspiracy.
Putin’s puppet? The WikiLeaks releases actually gave Clinton an opening to talk about the prospect that Russia is trying to influence the election, and that Trump is too praiseworthy of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. “I don’t know Putin,” Trump said, while saying that the Russian leader has no respect for her.
Clinton said that Putin would “rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
“You’re the puppet,” Trump said, sounding like a variation of, I know you are but what am I?
Trump continued to raise doubts about whether Russia was behind the hacking of government and political officials’ emails, and he argued that Putin has “outsmarted” Clinton “every step of the way.”
‘Bad hombres.’ Trump defended his plan for a border wall with Mexico by noting that Clinton once supported legislation that included one. He defended his call for deportations by citing the “millions and millions” of people who have been kicked out during the Obama years. One of his turns of phrase, however, stood out: “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out.”
This is where immigration has been tricky for Trump in the general election. He’s tried to show that his plans are not inhumane, while also maintaining his strong and sometimes harsh rhetoric.
“One of my first acts will be to get all the drug lords — we have some bad, bad people in this country that have to go out,” he said. “We’re going to get them out. We’re going to secure the border. Once the border is secured, at a later date we’ll make determination as to the rest.”
The latter comment has allowed Clinton to continue to claim that he’d enlist a “deportation force” to round up undocumented immigrants.
She also needled him on the idea that he would get Mexico to pay for the wall. When he met with the president of Mexico, she said, he didn’t even raise the issue. “He choked, and then got into a Twitter war because the Mexican president said we’re not paying for that wall.”
“I had a very good meeting with the president of Mexico,” Trump said.
Groping allegations. When asked about women who have accused him of unwanted sexual advances, Trump twice claimed that their stories had been “debunked.” They have not. They may not have been proven, but just on Tuesday, People magazine published the accounts of six individuals who corroborated the story from one of its reporters, Natasha Stoynoff.
The focus on the allegations during the debate was an opening for Clinton — not to try to prove the women’s stories were true, but to chide Trump for his response. She cited speeches at campaign rallies where he had suggested that they were not attractive enough for him to pursue them.
“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump said.
Foundation situation. Clinton defended her family’s foundation, but Trump actually got in one of his more effective moments of the night. He asked Clinton why she didn’t return money that the foundation received from countries with poor human rights records. He called the foundation a “criminal enterprise.”
Clinton, however, turned the tables on Trump’s own foundation. She referred to a Washington Post story that reported that he used money from the nonprofit to buy a portrait of himself. “Who does that?” she posited.
Even Wallace asked about another Post report that Trump had used funds to settle a lawsuit. “No, we put up the American flag,” the candidate said.