ST. LOUIS (AP) — In a debate flooded with tension, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of attacking women involved in her husband’s marital affairs and declared she would “be in jail” if he were president. Staring icily at her Republican rival, Clinton said Trump’s own aggressively vulgar comments about women had revealed “exactly who he is.”
Trump acknowledged that he had paid no federal income taxes for many years but tried to turn that against Clinton, too. If she didn’t like tax provisions he took advantage of, he said, why didn’t she change them when she was in the Senate.
Sunday night’s debate was the culmination of a stunning stretch in the race for the White House, which began with the release of a new video in which Trump is heard bragging about how his fame allowed him to “do anything” to women. Many Republicans rushed to revoke their support, with some calling for him to drop out of the race.
Answering for his words for the first time, Trump denied that he had ever kissed and grabbed women without their consent. He said repeatedly that his words in 2005 were merely “locker room talk” and paled in comparison to what he called Bill Clinton’s abuse of women.
“She should be ashamed of herself,” Trump declared. Ahead of the debate, the businessman met with three women who accused the former president of sexual harassment and even rape, then invited them to sit in the debate hall.
Bill Clinton never faced any criminal charges in relation to the allegations, and a lawsuit over an alleged rape was dismissed. He did settle a lawsuit with one of the women who claimed harassment.
On the debate stage, Clinton did not respond directly to Trump’s accusations about her husband or her own role, but was blistering in her condemnation of his predatory comments about women in the tape released Friday.
“I think it’s clear to anyone who heard him that it represents exactly who he is,” she said, adding that she did not believe Trump had the “fitness to serve” as commander in chief.
The second debate was a town hall format, with several undecided voters sitting on stage with the candidates. The voters, all from the St. Louis area, were selected by Gallup.
The tension between Trump and Clinton was palpable from the start of their 90-minute debate, the second time they have faced off in the presidential campaign. They did not shake hands as they met at center stage.
Trump, who is several inches taller than Clinton, stood close behind her as she answered questions from the voters. At other times, he paced the stage and repeatedly interrupted her.
The businessman opened the debate with a flood of insults aimed at Clinton, including insinuating she was the “devil.” He struggled to articulate detailed policy proposals, repeatedly dancing around questions about how he would replace President Barack Obama’s health care law, a measure he has vowed to replace.
Asked by a Muslim woman about being singled out, Trump said Islamophobia was a “shame.” But he stressed that Muslims must report suspicious behavior and argued that the country was dealing with “radical Islamic terrorists.”
Pushed on whether he still supported a complete ban on Muslims coming into the country, Trump said his plan instead was called “extreme vetting.”
Trump’s campaign was already struggling before the new video was released, due in part to his uneven performance in the first presidential debate. Many Republicans saw Sunday’s showdown as his last best chance to salvage his campaign.
It was unclear whether Trump’s performance did anything to expand his support beyond his core backers. He did repeatedly cast Clinton as a career politician who had accomplished little during her years in Washington and would be incapable of bringing change to Washington.
“With her, it’s all talk and no action,” Trump said.
The political firestorm that preceded the debate was sparked by a video obtained and released Friday by The Washington Post and NBC News. In the video, Trump, who was married to his current wife at the time, is heard describing attempts to have sex with a married woman. He also brags to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” about women letting him kiss them and grab their genitals because he is famous.
NBC said Sunday that it had indefinitely suspended Bush, now a “Today” show personality, for his role in the crude conversation with Trump.
Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has declared he could neither condone nor defend the remarks in the video revealed on Friday.
Other Republicans have taken the extraordinary step of revoking support for their party’s nominee. Among them: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte — both are running for re-election — and the party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Trump used the revelations as an opening to make good on his repeated promises to throw Bill Clinton’s sexual history into the center of his campaign against his wife. Less than two hours before the debate, he brazenly met publicly with several women who have accused Bill Clinton of unwanted sexual advances and even rape.
Trump refused to answer questions from reporters about his own aggressive sexual remarks about women during the meeting in a hotel conference room with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey. Kathy Shelton, a fourth woman who appeared with Trump, was a 12-year-old Arkansas sexual assault victim whose alleged assailant was defended by Hillary Clinton.
Some of the women seated alongside him, however, were graphic in their accusations against the Clintons.
“Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me,” Broaddrick said. “I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
Broaddrick, a former Arkansas nursing home administrator, first claimed 17 years ago that Bill Clinton raped her during a meeting in Little Rock in 1978. Her lawsuit against him was dismissed in 2001 and criminal charges were never filed. Clinton has denied the allegations.
Pace reported from Washington. AP writers Steve Peoples, Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire, Laurie Kellman and Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.
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