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The second presidential debate may go down in the history books as one of the most bitter, divisive nights in American politics.
You could cut the tension with a knife in the hours leading up to the sophomore showdown on Sunday evening between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, held at Washington University in St. Louis. While the candidates debated terrorism, foreign affairs, healthcare, and the economy, the focus of the night (and the most tweeted topic on Twitter) was Trump and his treatment of women.
The Washington Post‘s Friday release of a leaked 2005 conversation in which Trump described lewd, sexual acts with women, including groping without consent, was the last straw for the Republican establishment. More than 30 Republican governors and members of Congress denounced Trump in the hours after the Post published its story. Members of the Republican House and Senate called for Trump to drop out, and for his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to take over the ticket.
Trump set the mood for the town hall debate by staging a last-minute Facebook Live press conference with Bill Clinton accusers Paul Jones, Juanita Broaddrick (a 73-year old retired nurse who alleges Clinton raped her nearly 40 years ago), Kathy Sheldon (a woman whose alleged rapist was defended by Hillary Clinton in court), and Kathleen Willey (a White House volunteer who alleges Bill Clinton groped her).
The second debate focused not on policy views but on character flaws. Personal attacks were on the table. Trump painted Clinton as secretive and corrupt, and accused her of using the Clinton name to avoid jail time. Clinton countered that Trump was hate-filled, xenophobic, and incompetent.
Here are our picks for the most notable moments of the second presidential debate.
1) Trump: “Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.”
ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the moderators, pressed Trump about his comments on the leaked tape, in which he described kissing women without their consent and grabbing their genitals. Trump apologized, downplayed it as “locker room talk,” and rushed to move on to ISIS.
“Yes, I’m very embarrassed by [the 2005 tape]. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS,” said Trump.
The moderators wouldn’t be deterred, though. In one of the more alarming moments of the night, Cooper asked Trump point-blank if he actually kissed or groped women without consent. Trump did not initially answer his question directly.
Here is the full exchange below:
COOPER: Just for the record, though, are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?
TRUMP: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.
COOPER: So, for the record, you’re saying you never did that?
TRUMP: I’ve said things that, frankly, you hear these things I said. And I was embarrassed by it. But I have tremendous respect for women.
COOPER: Have you ever done those things?
TRUMP: And women have respect for me. And I will tell you: No, I have not. And I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe. We’re going to have borders in our country, which we don’t have now. People are pouring into our country, and they’re coming in from the Middle East and other places.
We’re going to make America safe again. We’re going to make America great again, but we’re going to make America safe again. And we’re going to make America wealthy again, because if you don’t do that, it just — it sounds harsh to say, but we have to build up the wealth of our nation.
COOPER: Thank you, Mr. Trump.
Even after the exchange above, the moderators didn’t abandon the issue of Trump’s comments in the tape. Trump claimed in both an apology video and during the debate that the campaign had changed him, and he was a better man than he was at 59-years old, when the tape was recorded. Raddatz then posed to Trump a Facebook-submitted question asking Trump to specify when that change occurred.
“When you walked off that bus at age 59, were you a different man, or did that behavior continue until just recently?” asked Raddatz.
Trump then bought up Bill Clinton’s history of alleged sexual misconduct for the first time on the national debate stage, countering that his behavior was better than that of the former president.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse. Mine are words, and his was action,” said Trump.
2) Trump: “Because you’d be in jail.”
“because you’d be in jail” Going into the eternal debate reel
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) October 10, 2016
Trump was quick to seize on Clinton’s use of private emails while secretary of state. He then repeated a promise on stage that he’s made before in campaign rallies: As president, Trump would task his attorney general to hire a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton.
“But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception,” Trump said. “There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.”
When it was Clinton’s time to respond, she directed viewers to her website where Trump’s claims were being fact-checked. Clinton then made a dig at Trump’s temper, calling it “awfully good” that someone with Trump’s temperament was not in charge of the justice system in the U.S.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump countered.
Twitter was quick to react in visceral disgust and amusement. There was a mixture of booing and cheering from the debate audience. Trump’s promise to jail Clinton was the third most tweeted about moment of the night, according to Twitter.
“Oooooooh” from the press room to “Because you’d be in jail.” A rather disgusted one, not the fun, Real Housewives kind.
— Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox) October 10, 2016
24. “Because you’d be in jail.”
Let me say: THIS IS A DISQUALIFYING STATEMENT ON ITS OWN that we have just heard from DJT.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) October 10, 2016
“Because you’d be in jail…”
..that’s just not how democracy works.
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) October 10, 2016
3) Trump on tax loopholes: “Of course I do. Of course I do.”
Trump effectively admitted to using a tax loophole that would have allowed him to avoid paying taxes for 18 years. Cooper asked Trump if he used a $916 million loss, reported last week by the New York Times, from his 1995 tax returns to avoid paying taxes.
“Of course I do. Of course I do,” said Trump, adding the claim that Clinton’s uber-wealthy donors use the same loophole. “And so do all of her donors, or most of her donors. I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs,” said Trump.
In other words, Trump agreed he was a part of the same class he attacked Clinton’s campaign for benefiting from financially.
4) Clinton on her paid Wall Street speeches: “Right, as I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln.”
One of Clinton’s weakest moments was her response to a question by the Open Debate Commission’s online forum. The question involved WikiLeaks release of excerpts from Clinton’s paid speeches, which Clinton has refused to release. Clinton stated in one of these speeches that she had both a “private” and “public” stance on the issues.
Rather than own up to the transactional nature of giving speeches for profit, Clinton gave a bizarre and cryptic answer in which she referenced the 2012 Steven Spielberg film Lincoln.
“As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called Lincoln. It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic,” Clinton said. “And I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do and you have to keep working at it.”
Clinton’s point may have been that by taking a public stance on slavery that differed from its true intention, Lincoln was able to convince Congress to abolish the slave trade. But Clinton missed the purpose of the question, which was to get her to own up to her paid speeches and their covert nature.
Trump questioned Clinton’s Lincoln comparison during the debate, which he reiterated in a subsequent tweet:
5) Trump on running mate Pence’s Syria strategy: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”
The most controversial of Pence’s comments during the vice presidential debates were those that contradicted key areas of Trump’s foreign policy. Namely, Pence stated that the U.S. should deploy troops to Syria, and that the Russia was an aggressive force.
Asked about the issue, Trump admitted he and Pence hadn’t spoken about the matter. When Raddatz asked Trump if he disagreed with his running mate, he avoided the question entirely.
RADDATZ: You disagree with your running mate?
TRUMP: I think you have to knock out ISIS. Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran, who she made strong and Kerry and Obama made into a very powerful nation and a very rich nation, very, very quickly, very, very quickly.
Pence did not seem to acknowledge their differences and congratulated Trump on a good debate performance on Sunday night.
On Monday, Pence insisted that Raddatz “misrepresented” his position.
“I think the way she framed that was to suggest that I had implied we ought to use military power to achieve regime change,” Pence told CNN. “I simply never said that.”
6) Trump on the Muslim ban: “First of all, Captain Khan is an American hero, and if I were president at that time, he would be alive today.”
Raddatz specifically asked Trump about his campaign’s stance on a ban on Muslim immigration, which Pence had alleged on the campaign trail was no longer his position.
Instead of answering Raddatz’s question, Trump changed course in a way that set Twitter ablaze:
“First of all, Captain Khan is an American hero, and if I were president at that time, he would be alive today, because unlike her, who voted for the war without knowing what she was doing, I would not have had our people in Iraq. Iraq was disaster. So he would have been alive today,” said Trump.
Such an incendiary claim from Trump prompted emotional reactions on Twitter. Clinton campaign foreign policy expert Jesse Lehrich tweeted a profanity-laced dig at Trump, which he promptly apologized for.
I want to apologize for the clearly inappropriate nature and language of this personal tweet. Sorry all.
— Jesse Lehrich (@JesseLehrich) October 10, 2016
Trump’s insistence that the late son of Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan—a couple whose criticisms Trump summarily dismissed following Khan’s fiery DNC address—would be alive if Trump was president, was too much for Twitter to handle.
Khan died in 2004 during the Bush administration, years before Clinton became secretary of state. Trump blamed Clinton for her 2002 vote authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. A total of 23 senators—all Democrats—voted against the Iraq War in 2002. Clinton voted yes, and has since then said she was wrong to do so.
The Khan family responded to Trump’s claim on Monday morning: “Our son served this country with honor and distinction, and gave the ultimate sacrifice. The only thing that Donald Trump sacrifices is the truth.”
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.