At the end of a rough night in the first presidential debate, Donald Trump congratulated himself for his restraint in not attacking his opponent with her husband’s sexual history.
A lot can change in two weeks.
The most shocking and dispiriting visual of the second debate on Sunday appeared before the candidates even faced off. Trump held a surprise news conference, broadcast on Facebook Live, with three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse, as well as one woman whose rapist Hillary Clinton was assigned to defend as a young lawyer.
The session was brief, raw and surreal. People have said before that this election has hit rock bottom. This weekend, it climbed inside a steam drill, bored through the rock and headed straight for the center of the earth.
You did not have to look hard to see Trump’s motive. The debate took place two days after the most stunning hot-mic TV moment since Robert Durst burped out “Killed them all, of course,” on HBO’s “The Jinx.”
In a 2005 video first revealed by the Washington Post, Trump boasted, to a giggling Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood,” that he could force kisses on women and “grab them.” The recording was creepy on its face. But as the most damaging scandals do, it also reinforced the candidate’s existing negatives: here, the impression that he sees women as objects.
Trump needed a viral moment to drown out his embarrassment from 2005. So he tried to bring back 1998.
The weekend’s frenzy had already recalled the first days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Then, cable news went on red alert, political allies bolted, audiences were transfixed to see their president declaring, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and pundits began speculating that Bill Clinton would have to step down.
Now Trump was reviving a right-wing narrative of Hillary Clinton as enabling co-conspirator that thrived around Bill Clinton’s impeachment. When a reporter asked why Trump said he touched women without their consent, Paula Jones — whose sexual-harassment lawsuit precipitated the Lewinsky investigation — cried out, “Why don’t you ask Bill Clinton that! Go ahead and ask Hillary as well!”
Having begun the weekend under fire as a man who sexually abuses women, Trump ended it accusing Hillary Clinton of being married to one. He offered the women front-row seats at the debate — with Bill Clinton in the crowd — counterprogramming his unscripted video scandal by staging a daytime talk-show drama.
That smoke-grenade overture hung a pall over the night. The candidates did not shake hands in greeting and both seemed tense. It looked as if this would be an ugly, personal debate.
It was, though Trump’s video and counteraccusations took up only a few minutes. To the one moderator, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump denied that he had bragged about sexual assault. It was “locker-room talk,” he said, and anyway, ISIL was out there “chopping off heads.”
Trump mentioned his guests only briefly. Maybe they were there to rattle his opponent, maybe to rally his base. Or maybe they were a shield and a cudgel — a warning he might do anything if Hillary Clinton brought up the video again.
From there, the debate moved on to being vicious in entirely different ways. Trump promised to have his opponent investigated and jailed, recalling the “Lock her up!” chants of his convention. He loomed behind her physically, glowering and clasping his hands, like a security guard, or a prison guard. (Hillary Clinton used the free-range format to approach the crowd often, framing Trump awkwardly behind her for the camera.)
Town hall debates, held in front of undecided voters and appealing to a Norman Rockwell ideal of direct-democracy Americana, usually force a less-combative tone — the “I feel your pain” approach Bill Clinton excelled with in 1992. This time, the citizens sat uncomfortably close watching the two nominees deal the pain.
Hillary Clinton was cautious-spoken, less effective than at the first debate at getting Trump to take bait and provoking him into outbursts. But she pressed attacks on his temperament and qualification when the questioners provided an opening. One asked about Islamophobia; answering another, she blamed a “Trump effect” for increasing bullying.
Trump, meanwhile, seemed better prepared with focused answers and lines of attack. Where he spent the first debate huffing and interrupting, this time he worked in sarcastic mode and improvised, jabbing Clinton for comparing her view of political strategy to Abraham Lincoln’s: “Honest Abe never lied.”
Some of the sharpest exchanges were with the moderators. The second moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC, was especially assertive in keeping the candidates on time and on topic, particularly Trump. She even went beyond following up to argue with him, when he called U.S. leaders “stupid” for announcing military offensives. “There are sometimes reasons the military does that,” Raddatz said. “Psychological warfare.”
No one watching these debates needs to be reminded of psychological warfare. Last time Clinton set up Trump by bringing up his mocking of Alicia Machado, a former winner of his Miss Universe pageant, and needled him by inviting his billionaire adversary, Mark Cuban. This time, Trump, in prosecutorial mode, showed up with his own jury box.
The tactics seem driven by the same recognition: that what happens in the 90 minutes of a modern debate matters less than the conversation before and after. It’s less about sustaining an argument than creating moments — generating news clips and viral memes, setting up your opponent to misstep (sometimes, as with Machado, days afterward), trying to drive the narrative.
This debate offered several dark forks in the road ahead.