Round Two: Clinton and Trump Slugged it Out in the Second Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had a rather, well, interesting night.EXPAND
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had a rather, well, interesting night.
Screengrab from PBS Newshour

Going into the second presidential debate on Sunday, it wasn't a crazy thought to wonder how the hell Republican candidate Donald Trump was going to make it onto the stage.

After all, Trump has been living through his own political crucible ever since a video was released on Friday showing Trump making comments about women that have since caused many Republicans to yank their support for the orange-hued candidate.

But when Trump stepped out at Washington University in St. Louis on Sunday evening he was quieter and less blustery than in the first debate. And as the contest dragged on, Trump pounced on any chance he could to turn a question around and aim it at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. 

The result was a debate that underscored how these two complicated candidates both have weaknesses. 

CNN's Anderson Cooper and Martha Radditz, from ABC News, were tasked with the chore of keeping the two candidates — mostly Trump but Clinton increasingly as the debate wore on — on track and of getting the pair to actually, you know, answer the questions.

Cooper and Raddatz did as good a job as they could have, short of turning off the microphones when the candidates (Trump, we're looking at you) ran over their allotted two-minute response time.

Heading into the debate, Trump was seriously weakened by the Friday release of a video showing Trump and Billy Bush, of NBC's Access Hollywood, engaging in what Trump has called "locker room banter". Right out of the gate, the first debate question zeroed in on this. 

Referring to the video from 2005, Cooper was direct about the comments Trump had made.

"You described kissing women without consent, grabbing the genitals. That is sexual assault. You brag that you have sexually assaulted women," Cooper said. "Do you understand that?"

"No, I didn't say that at all," Trump replied, somehow seeming to miss the fact that this was exactly what he said on that tape. He went on to not actually answer Cooper's question, instead insisting that Cooper hadn't understood the video, maintaining it was locker room talk and finally pivoting to, well, ISIS, of all things. 

(We'll never know how exactly  he got from bragging about launching himself at women, lips first, with one tiny hand groping to get hold of them by the nether regions, to ISIS. There's simply no explaining that one.)

Cooper didn't let Trump get away with it, managing a rare feat of talking over Trump to throw in his questions as to whether Trump has ever kissed or groped women without their consent. Trump dodged and weaved to avoid ever directly confirming or denying anything, but his refusal to ever deal with the question directly spoke volumes. 

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And Clinton, seeing an opening, didn't miss her chance to underscore what that video said about the broader issues with Trump. "But it's not only women and it's not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president. Because he has also targeted immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims and so many others. So this is who Donald Trump is and the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are."

As the debate unfolded though, Clinton's own vulnerabilities were brought under the microscope, both in the questions and of course via Trump. First, Trump tried — both before and during the debate — to veer from questions about his views on women to talking about Bill Clinton's women and Hillary Clinton herself going after the women who claimed relationships with her husband.

That was when Clinton's smile disappeared and her face wore a steely expression. If looks could kill, there'd just be a scorched spot on the floor where Trump had been standing right then.   

And of course Clinton then got questioned about the emails. Raddatz pointed out that Clinton has balked at calling her way of handling her email "extremely careless" as FBI Director James Comey had done. Raddatz zeroed in on this, asking if she could really call it simply "a mistake". 

"I've said it before but I'll repeat it because I want everyone to hear it. That was a mistake, I take responsibility for using a personal email account. Obviously, if I were to do it over again, I would not. I'm not making any excuses. It was a mistake, and I am very sorry about that,"Clinton responded, not actually answering Raddatz's question or revealing anything but that she made a "mistake".

At about this point, both candidates were firmly in the ring and ready to hit each other with everything they had. Somehow, a 90-minute debate started to feel like a movie with a Titanic-level running time.

Despite paying lip service to the idea of lifting the election discourse out of the gutter to talk about (gasp) actual ideas and policies, the debate was a nasty mud-slinging contest, and it looks like the last month before the election will also be taking place firmly down in the muck.

But on the upside, at least this debate featured attempts to talk about energy, healthcare and other actual issues. And sometimes, the candidates actually answered the questions. By that yardstick, this debate went a little better than the last one. Who knows, maybe the third and final presidential debate will actually focus on the issues. 

Or, you know, maybe it will feature more of the same. If that's the case, fingers crossed that the next set of moderators gets the power to just turn the microphones off when they want to ask an actual question. We'll likely still have to hear and think more about Benghazi, racist comments, emails and that whole Access Hollywood video mess, but at least it'll let the moderators attempt to get these two to talk about how they'll respectively run the country.

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