ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump took a scorched-earth approach to trying to right his faltering campaign Sunday night, lashing out at his rival — and even threatening her with imprisonment — during a presidential debate where he confronted the turmoil that’s pushing his party toward mutiny.
Before an audience projected to be in the tens of millions, the GOP nominee faced his first public grilling over a 2005 video in which he boasted of sexually mauling women and getting away with tawdry behavior because of his celebrity; Trump responded by angrily accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of worse misdeeds.
“Never, was there anybody in the history of politics in this nation that was so abusive to women” as Bill Clinton, said Trump, who had three of the former president’s accusers in the debate hall in St. Louis as his guests. “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
Trump and Clinton did not make any effort to hide their disdain for one another. The two did not even exchange the traditional handshake as they walked onto the stage.
Trump signaled in the exchange after exchange Sunday that in the final month of the contest, he will disregard the advice of his advisers and Republican Party elders by choosing to embrace confrontation over contrition.
After starting the debate on an apologetic note over the 2005 video, Trump quickly shed any restraint. He became riled after Clinton, early on, used the lewd remarks that recently surfaced to spring into all the reasons she believes Trump is unfit to be president.
“If this were just about one video, maybe what he is saying tonight would be understandable,” Clinton said. “But everyone can draw own conclusions at this point. He never apologizes to anyone for anything.”
She accused Trump of attacking Latinos, blacks, women and veterans, pointing to the numerous controversies Trump created for his campaign. She said he should be ashamed of himself for the lead role he played in the movement attempting to delegitimize President Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Trump responded by repeating the widely debunked claim that it was Clinton herself who launched the so-called birther movement.
When the topic of Hillary Clinton’s email troubles arose, Trump made the astonishing and unprecedented move of warning the Democratic nominee that he would use the powers of the presidency to try to put her in jail.
“The thing you should be apologizing for are the 30,000 emails you acid washed,” Trump said, referring to free software Clinton’s techs used called BleachBit. “I am going to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. … Lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you have done.”
Clinton responded to the attacks on the emails just as she responded to Trump’s dredging up the accusers of her and her husband from the 1990s and earlier. She urged voters to seek out fact-checking organizations — most of which have generally found Trump’s claims to be not credible — and insisted she would take a high road.
“Everything he just said is absolutely false and I am not surprised,” she said. “It is just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
Trump immediately retorted: “Because you’d be in jail.”
Trump also suggested more than once that the two moderators were conspiring against him, including once after an extended discussion about Clinton’s emails, which Trump complained to CNN’s Anderson Cooper was not long enough.
“I’d like to know, Anderson, why aren’t you bringing up the emails?” Trump said. When the two moderators said it was time to move onto other questions, Trump said: “Nice … one on three.”
He even casually dismissed his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who said this week that Russian provocation in Syria and elsewhere needed to be met by American leadership.
When Trump seemed to praise Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as Russia and Iran for aggressively fighting Islamic State, moderator Martha Raddatz reminded Trump of what Pence had said.
“We haven’t spoken and I disagree with him,” Trump replied, a dramatic break between a major party presidential nominee and his running mate.
With more than two dozen Republican lawmakers and other party leaders rescinding their support since the video surfaced Friday — and the odds against him winning the White House growing steeper — Trump faced a political crisis unlike any candidate has faced in modern times.
Before the debate, Trump appeared unbowed, mocking the defectors on Twitter.
“So many self-righteous hypocrites,” he wrote, referring to the Republican leaders and elected officials who withdrew their support. “Watch their poll numbers — and elections — go down!”
In a surprise sprung 90 minutes before he faced his rival on stage, Trump appeared near the debate site alongside the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct over the years. They expressed their support for Trump and condemned the former president and his wife.
“These four very courageous women have asked to be here, and it was our honor to help them,” said Trump, who posted the brief event on Facebook. He and the Clintons’ accusers declined to answer questions before reporters were ushered out of the hotel meeting room.
The debate on the campus of St. Louis’ Washington University bookended a disastrous stretch for Trump, which started with an ill-tempered and erratic performance in the candidates’ first debate Sept. 26.
He all but admitted his failure to pay federal income taxes and was confronted with derogatory and sexist remarks he leveled at a former Miss Universe, whose transgression was adding a few pounds during her reign.
Rather than back off, Trump waged a days-long shaming campaign against the former pageant queen, Alicia Machado, which was quickly overshadowed when The New York Times obtained a copy of part of his 1995 tax return and reported he claimed a loss of $916 million — enough to allow Trump to avoid taxes for up to 18 years.
That controversy, in turn, was overtaken by the release of the video and its raunchy talk. In an extraordinary step, even Pence refused to come to his defense.
Clinton faced her own difficult set of questions.
A trove of internal campaign emails posted Friday by WikiLeaks revealed details of the lucrative speeches the former secretary of State delivered behind closed doors after Clinton left the Obama administration in February 2013.
In the excerpts, Clinton said she dreamed of “open trade and open borders” between the U.S. and its hemispheric neighbors, spoke of the need to maintain “both a public and a private position” on politically difficult issues and suggested her growing wealth — fueled in large part by her speechifying — had left her disconnected from the struggles of middle-class Americans.
Clinton had to account for some of her own past statements that were recently revealed — transcripts of paid speeches she had given in private that were revealed after a hack of the email account of a senior Clinton campaign official.
Asked to explain her statement that public officials may have separate public and private policy views, Clinton explained that the comment was in the context to a discussion of Abraham Lincoln, and the “master class” of how he secured passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
“It was principled and it was strategic,” she said, noting that Lincoln made different arguments to different audiences. “I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want it to do.”
The format of the debate also posed distinct challenges.
Unlike the first face-to-face matchup, in which the candidates stood behind lecterns and fielded questions from a lone moderator, Sunday’s session was styled after a town-hall meeting, with members of the audience asking questions along with the two journalists.
The format forced Trump to confront a Muslim American asking him directly about her fears of rising Islamophobia.
“Whether we like it or not, there is a problem,” the Republican said. “We have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on.”
Clinton responded with seeming agreement on that point, saying that in her discussions with Muslim leaders across the country they have agreed that Muslim Americans need “to be part of our eyes and ears on the front lines.” But to do that, Muslims need to believe they are respected, she added, while condemning the “demagogic” rhetoric from Trump that also threatens our alliances with Muslim-majority countries in the war against the Islamic State.
“It is a mistake, and it plays into the hands of the terrorists,” she said.
Asked directly if he stood by his plan to bar Muslims from immigrating to the U.S., Trump mentioned his previously suggested “extreme vetting.”
There were even distractions when the discussion turned to policy. As Clinton described her plans to fix, rather than repeal, the Affordable Care Act to an audience member, Trump loomed ominously close behind her.
Clinton and Trump were scheduled for their third and final debate on Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. Election day is Nov. 8.