Trump’s mission not accomplished at debate
Columnist Dana Milbank says the GOP nominee failed to change the trajectory of the race in the final faceoff.
In the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, the famous Mirage Volcano has been delighting tourists for 27 years with its faux eruptions, spewing fire, smoke and water 100 feet into the air.
A small sign at the volcano’s base announces, “Volcano show eruptions Sunday through Thursday, 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.”
But there were a series of additional eruptions in Las Vegas on Wednesday at the third and final presidential debate. Donald Trump erupted at 6:30 p.m. local time. And 6:34. And 6:48. And 6:52. And 6:54. And then, at 7:06, the crater blew off, leaving a gaping caldera where Trump’s presidential campaign once stood.
Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he would “absolutely accept the result of this election.”
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said, adding that “what I’ve seen is so bad” in terms of corruption.
“But sir,” Wallace persisted, admirably reminding Trump that “one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner.” Wallace asked again: “Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump replied. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
Suspense? The refusal to accept this bedrock principle of democracy was shocking, even for a candidate who had told audiences about a “rigged” and “stolen” election. And it should pour hot lava on any notion that Trump is going to revive his candidacy.
Ironically, Trump had tried to keep his magma cool — and he succeeded for the first half-hour. Wallace kept the focus firmly on policy, and Trump and Hillary Clinton gave the voters a lot of what they’ve asked for: talk about the Second Amendment, abortion policy, immigration, nuclear weapons.
But gradually, with Clinton’s baiting, Trump began to rumble.
On Clinton’s accusation that he’s Vladimir Putin’s puppet: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!”
On Clinton generally: “She’s been proven to be a liar in so many different ways, this is just another lie.”
Gradually, the interruptions increased. “Wrong!” he said when Clinton justifiably said he had been cavalier about nuclear weapons. “Wrong!” he said when Clinton correctly noted that he mocked a disabled reporter. When Clinton tried to “translate” something Trump had said, he blurted out: “You can’t!”
But it was when the topic turned to his treatment of women that Trump truly began to spew molten rock. “Give me a break!” Trump interjected when Clinton mentioned, correctly, that he called former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “an eating machine.”
He said the nine women who accused him of sexual misconduct were spouting “lies” and “fiction.”
He said, without evidence, that the accusers probably were brought out by Clinton “and her sleazy campaign.” Declared Trump, “I didn’t even apologize to my wife ... because I didn’t do anything.”
Trump needed to change the race in a big way Wednesday night. He needed to expand his appeal to a broader swath of the electorate. But rather than taking the race in a new direction, he decided to do what he’s done before when his back is to the wall: lash out with fury.
At first — and probably because Wallace chose to begin the debate with substantive issues of policy — Trump was uncharacteristically mild, even as Clinton tried to needle him. Clinton noted that “when I was in the Situation Room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting the ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” When Trump mentioned that he was staying at his “beautiful hotel” in Las Vegas, the Trump International, Clinton shot back: “Made with Chinese steel.”
Clinton mocked Trump’s charitable foundation for buying a “six-foot portrait of Donald. I mean, who does that?”
Clinton gradually got under Trump’s skin, and he returned to his bombastic form: “She’s lied hundreds of times. ... Her crooked campaign . ... She caused the violence.”
“Such a nasty woman!” Trump blurted out in the waning moments of the debate.
But Trump did nothing to reduce the likelihood that this “nasty woman” will beat him Nov. 8 — whether or not he accepts the results.