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Donald Trump's Disastrous Debate

The Republican nominee needed to turn around his campaign. Instead, he threatened to jail his opponent.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Throughout his presidential race, Donald Trump has been the NASCAR candidate: The press and voters seem riveted by his campaign because there’s no telling when there might be a dramatic crash.

For anyone tuning in for that reason, Sunday night’s second presidential debate was just the ticket: a fiery, multi-car pileup. Trump meandered around the stage restlessly, delivered long strings of misleading statements, feuded with the moderators, and promised to prosecute a political rival if he won the race. He openly slapped down his running mate, Mike Pence, over Syria policy, saying, “He and I haven't spoken and I disagree.” In perhaps the most surreal moment of a surreal evening, moderator Anderson Cooper had to tell a major-party nominee for president, “You bragged that you had sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

The Republican candidate, in the middle of the worst stretch of an often-turbulent campaign, was peevish and erratic, frequently interrupting his opponent. He seemed even more ill at ease than he had during the first debate. Once again, he inhaled noisily over the microphone. And once again, he delivered a string of inaccurate statements. With Republicans abandoning Trump in droves just 29 days before the election, Trump seemed content to drive all of them off—perhaps even his own running mate.

And that doesn’t even get to Trump’s bizarre pre-debate press conference with three women who accused former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton’s husband, of sexual misconduct, as well as a fourth woman whose rapist Hillary Clinton represented in court. The four women also attended the debate and sat with the Trump family.

In a highly unusual breach of protocol—if not a great shock—Trump and Clinton did not shake hands at the start of the debate, and the mood only got more acrimonious from there. The first question to the candidates, from a teacher, was about whether the candidates were setting an example they would want American schoolchildren to emulate. Clinton, starting off, answered the question with an anodyne statement of positivity. She did not bring up the recently released video of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. Trump, answering second, offered a quick litany of ills he said were plaguing the nation.

Only then did the video come up. Trump offered no apology for his remarks, continuing to insist they were little more than “locker room” conversation. Cooper had to ask Trump five times whether or not he had actually sexually assaulted women before Trump denied it.

Clinton pounced. “With prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them, politics, policies, principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve. Donald Trump is different,” she said. “What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women, what, and he has said that the video doesn't represent who he is. But I think it's clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is because we've seen this throughout the campaign.” She also brought up remarks Trump had made about Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and others.

Trump, for his part, tried to deflect attention away from himself and toward Clinton’s husband. “If you look at Bill Clinton, mine are words and his were actions,” Trump said. “There's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women.” Hillary Clinton mostly declined to take the bait, quoting Michelle Obama’s maxim that “When they go low, you go high.” She demanded that Trump apologize to Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Judge Gonazlo Curiel, disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, and President Obama, for “the racist lie” that he was not born in the United States. Trump insisted that the slur had originated with Clinton’s 2008 campaign, a claim that has been debunked, and is also largely beside the point.

That exchange set the tone for the rest of the night. The two rivals took opposite approaches. Clinton dredged up Trump’s prior comments in strategic strikes. Trump, meanwhile, paced the stage, irritated, interrupting her. Clinton made an effort to address the audience, both at home and at Washington University in St. Louis, while Trump spent much of the night addressing Clinton directly. His approach was one of quantity, throwing as many attacks against Clinton as possible. During a discussion of tax policy, Trump demanded to know why she had not closed the carried-interest loophole while serving as a senator from New York. A grinning Clinton delivered a zinger straight out of Schoolhouse Rock: “You know, under our Constitution, the president has something called veto power.”

A few minutes into the debate, discussing Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state, Trump promised, “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” adding that if he were in charge, “you would be in jail.” While the campaign has seen numerous incidents of Trump aides suggesting the sort of political retribution more common in banana republics, the specter of one candidate promising the prosecution of the other was unprecedented.

Several questions later, Trump took the opportunity to prove Clinton’s point about Muslims. When a Muslim woman stood up and asked the candidates what they would do about Islamophobia, Trump promptly turned the question around, blaming American Muslims for not informing law enforcement about potential terrorist activity in their midst. In other words, asked about Islamophobia, Trump blamed Muslims. Of refugees, he added, “This is going to be the great Trojan horse of all time.” But Trump said he no longer supports a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country, replacing it with a nebulous idea of “extreme vetting.” Trump has not explained how his new vetting would differ from the existing process of screening refugees.

The debate was not long on policy, as questions about the Affordable Care Act and the war in Syria demonstrated. Clinton said that while the country might have been better off with non-employer-backed health insurance, she preferred to fix flaws in the law that President Obama signed, and she recited its most popular provisions. She did not specify what her fixes might be. Then Trump came up. His answer was a meandering mess. Asked how he would guarantee coverage for people with preexisting conditions, he promised to allow the sale of insurance across state lines and block-grant Medicaid to states. Both proposals are popular among conservatives, but he was unable to say what they had to do with guaranteeing coverage to people with preexisting conditions.

Syria wasn’t much better. Clinton’s main answer to a question about how she’d act proceed than President Obama was to institute a no-fly zone. If her answer was vague, Trump’s answer was nonsense. He assailed Clinton and Obama, but couldn’t say what he’d do differently. Moderator Martha Raddatz repeatedly pushed Trump to answer what his own strategy would be. “I want to remind you what your running mate said,” she said. “He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” That’s when Trump answered that he had not discussed the matter with Pence and did not agree.

Trump once again refused to release his tax returns until an audit is completed, and he insisted he had paid taxes. But he also appeared to confirm that he had used a $916 million loss in the 1990s to avoid paying personal income taxes. "Of course I did," Trump said. He added, of another way real-estate investors can reduce their tax bill, “I love depreciation.”

Trump’s dizzying performance overshadowed several perilous moments for Clinton. The email issue continues to be a weakness, and she apologized once again on Sunday for using it. (Trump, apparently forgetting that this was a town-hall debate, sniped at Cooper, asking why he didn’t bring it up.) She also had to answer questions about what appear to be excerpts from paid speeches she made to banks, released by WikiLeaks in apparently hacked emails. Clinton has refused to release the speeches. In one excerpt, she said that “you need both a public and a private position.” During the debate, Clinton claimed that she was referring to the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the 16th president, and in particular the way he used different messaging in different ways to convince Congress to pass the 13th Amendment. Trump, meanwhile, mused nonsensically, “Maybe there is no hacking,” and said, “I know nothing about Russia.”

It was a microcosm of the campaign: Clinton is a weak candidate, with a train car’s worth of luggage trailing behind her. But Trump is weaker still, and at every turn, he seems to overshadow her problems with much deeper problems of his own—much louder gaffes, much more serious political errors. That has been a rather depressing spectacle for the nation. In the last question of the evening, a citizen asked earnestly if either could say what they respected about the other. It wasn’t pretty. Clinton deflected, a little. “I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don't agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that,” she said.

Trump wasn’t sure whether to be grateful. “I consider her statement about my children a very nice compliment. I don't know if it was meant to be a compliment,” he said. Then he offered his own backhanded compliment. “I will say this about Hillary: She doesn't quit. She doesn't give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is,” Trump said. “She is a fighter. I disagree with much of what she is fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases, but she does fight hard and she doesn't quit and she doesn't give up and I consider that to be a very good trait.”

And with that, it was, blessedly, over.

What does this fiery crash of a debate mean for the final month of the campaign? Trump is in deep trouble. His polling was already falling before the Friday release of the 11-year-old lewd video, and since then, dozens of leading Republicans have withdrawn their endorsements and called on him to leave the race. During the debate on Sunday, he was erratic, failed to land many blows, and humiliated his running mate on the Syria question. As for Clinton, her performance may not go down in the history books as one of the most sparkling debates, but it didn’t need to. She managed to remain above the fray, seeming calm, presidential, and poised as her rival roamed the stage and interrupted. Trump’s pugilistic performance may serve as a rallying point for his key supporters, but the Republican’s task right now is to staunch the bleeding and start winning over new voters, since he doesn’t currently have enough to win. There’s practically no prospect he made progress on that goal Sunday night.

David A. Graham


This live blog has concluded

Notes From the Spin Room

The Trump surrogates’ line is that Trump was “presidential” and Clinton was “rattled.” They contend that once the debate moved past petty personal issues, Trump won on substance. Clinton surrogates disagree, of course. They are seeking to keep the focus on the first part of the debate and the tape issue, emphasizing Trump’s lack of contrition.

Eric Holder Weighs In

The former Obama administration attorney general had some post-debate thoughts:

The Debate Was a Letdown for These First-Time Voters

BLACKSBURG, V.A. — Most of the students here at the Virginia Tech debate watch party seem disillusioned with the debate and the election. In our post-debate chat, all of the students—all of whom are voting for the very first time this year—expressed a letdown, regardless of the debate's winner.

"I'm disappointed that this is what I spent my entire life waiting for," says Hailey Delaney, a freshman. "I was waiting to vote. I'm saddened and deeply scared for the outcome of our country. And the fact that I did wait and looked forward to turn 18 and vote, and these are the people that will represent our country, that disappoints me."

Erika Birnbaum, a sophomore, took the debate for its spectacle. "I watched it for the entertainment value, and it was entertaining," she says. "But it should be for the information value, and we didn't get a lot of information. When you look at it as a whole, there was no progress. I learned nothing more about these candidates from tonight."

Most students were disappointed by the deflection of tough personal questions, especially those centered around Trump's comments about women.

"Neither of them really seemed to answer the questions honestly, especially the challenging ones," says Erin Fosnocht. "Where if they had answered them, it would have said a lot. The tough questions, the tough issues, the ones that take maybe admitting that they're wrong or that they did things wrongs, because that's part of being the president."

A Series of Predictions 

The memes that will come out of this debate: “locker-room talk," Trump’s moody pacing and his (still incessant) sniffing.

The policy revelations: Trump doesn’t agree with Pence on Syria, and he’d try to jail Clinton if elected.

The political talking points: Trump will slam moderators, Clinton might quote his “she’s a fighter” compliment, as well as everything he said tonight.

And at the end of the day, the Trump tape still exists. This debate won't clear the news cycle of that for Trump.

In Democracies, Winners Don't Jail the Losers

Rick Wilking / Reuters

Sometimes, it takes a few minutes for an attack line casually tossed off in a debate to sink in.

Tonight, Donald Trump launched into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information as secretary of state. “If I win,” he threatened, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” And he left no ambiguity as to the intended result. “People have been, their lives have been destroyed for doing one fifth of what you have done. And it's a disgrace.”

There are many sincere critics who wanted to see a more vigorous investigation into Clinton’s emails, and who were disappointed by the outcome of the FBI’s investigation. Congress hasn’t dropped the issue, and there are multiple lawsuits in the courts, forcing periodic divulgences of additional emails. Win or lose, the issue will continue to haunt Clinton.

None of that should undermine the appalling spectacle of a presidential candidate threatening to have his opponent investigated by a special prosecutor should he win. It amounts to an assault not just on Clinton, but on the rule of law itself. And even amid all the other invective on Sunday night, it stood out as a uniquely dangerous moment.

Trump's Most Humanizing Moment

I feel like I have mental whiplash after hearing the candidates offer up compliments during the closing question given all the insults that came before.

If Trump needed to connect with voters after a tumultuous 48-hours of high-profile Republican defections from his campaign in the wake of the release of a 2005 recording of Trump's predatory sexual comments, he delivers his most humanizing and sympathetic performance of the debate in answering that question.

While Clinton seemed to offer a back-handed compliment by saying that she respects Trump's children, implying that there is nothing good to say about the candidate himself, Trump seemed more generous by paying her the compliment that she never gives up.

Trump Was 'Clearly More Prepared' at Second Debate

Julio Cortez / AP

I'll say this about Trump's performance: He was clearly more prepared than he was in the first debate. He was conversant in the specifics both of the Clinton scandals that he brought up toward the beginning and in—some—of the policy debates the two had in the rest of the debate. Clinton was prepared, too. But at times she seemed to cling too tightly to her strategy of deflecting Trump's attacks and let barrages go by without response.

Yet as others have noted, Trump's attacks played to his base, but it's unclear that he did anything to assuage concerns about his temperament and fitness for office. And ultimately, given that he is losing, that's what he needed to do. I'd call it a draw, which is an improvement for Trump, but a net win for Clinton.

An Authoritarian Turn

The discussion will naturally turn now to who won and who lost. But all I can think about is when Donald Trump stood up on a stage in front of millions of Americans and said he would use the office of the presidency to investigate and jail Hillary Clinton, his political opponent. That's the language of an authoritarian with no regard for political norms or practical constraints on the executive branch's power.

Nothing else in the debate mattered for me after that.

What Trump Admires About Clinton

Patrick Semansky / AP

Trump's response is far more interesting, because he cited one of the core attributes that Clinton and her campaign like to highlight about her: her resilience. "She doesn't give up. I respect that," he said. That response might help both candidates. It validates Clinton a bit, and it makes Trump look nice and a bit more authentic.

This may be the nicest thing Donald Trump has ever said about Clinton, and perhaps eclipses her tepid endorsement of his parenting skills.

Trump: "I consider her statement about my children a very nice compliment. I don't know if it was meant to be a compliment, but I consider that a compliment. I will say this about Hillary, she doesn't quit, and she doesn't give up. She's a fighter."

Saul Loeb / AP

As Clinton says she respects Trump's children, remember that her daughter Chelsea is very close friends with Trump's daughter Ivanka. This was low-hanging fruit for Clinton, and it's a common response over the years when warring candidates are asked to name something they like or respect about their opponent. They almost always say their family.

What Clinton Admires About Trump

Rick T. Wilking / AP

An audience member asks Trump and Clinton to name one thing they respect about one another. Clinton: “I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.”

Trump's Mean Green

"I’m putting in more than $100 million invested, pretty much self-funding,” Trump said. We’ll see. Trump has donated around $45 million to his own campaign during the primary, but he hasn’t donated nearly as much since. Meanwhile, he’s taken more than $120 million in donations from individuals.

Trump denied that he asked anyone to view Alicia Machado's sex tape, but here's the tweet in which he did precisely that:

No Response From Clinton on 'Hate' Attack From Trump

Is Clinton being a little too passive? It seems like a deliberate strategy, but Trump accused her of having "hate in her heart," and she made no attempt to respond. She might believe that given Trump's position in the race, viewers will see his harsh attacks as ridiculous on their face, but it's remarkable to see someone so viciously criticized and let it go by.

As to my colleague Matt's point, the biggest problems of inequality and geographic disparities for Americans and people of color generally now occur in the suburbs. The country has experienced a reversal of its post-white-flight spatial arrangement where most impoverished minority neighborhoods were located in the inner-cities. Now, the biggest issues of concentrated poverty are being pushed outwards. Perhaps Trump's lack of viable policies to address racial and socio-economic inequality is related to a reliance on facts from decades ago.

Clinton's Beef Is With Trump, Not His Backers

Rick Wilking / Reuters

Anderson asks Clinton to defend her use of the word "deplorables," when referring to Trump's supporters, and Clinton says her argument is with Trump, not his supporters. She says she is "proud" of her race against Bernie Sanders because it never strayed into the ugliness of Trump's campaign.

"Believe me, she has tremendous hate in her heart," Trump says of Clinton. She has kept a pretty good poker face on during the debate, but her jawed dropped and she nearly gasped when he said it.

“This country cannot take another four years of Barack Obama,” Trump says.

It’s a single line that encapsulates his inability to pivot from the lines that helped power his upset win in the primary toward addressing a general-election audience. Gallup puts the president’s approval rating right now at 53 to 44 percent. When your attack line compares your rival to a president of whom most voters approve? That’s a problem.

I think one of my colleagues mentioned this during the last debate, but it's still striking how whenever Trump is asked about race, he only talks about poverty and crime in the "inner cities," as if African Americans live nowhere else in America.

On Clinton's No-Fly-Zone Strategy in Syria

Clinton's strategy to use no-fly zones in Syria (a plan also favored by Mike Pence) would replicate a successful effort by the administration of President George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf War in 1991. The U.S. and its allies prevented Saddam Hussein from bombing Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiites in the south. The effort lasted until 2003—when Saddam was ousted—and is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for the fact Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few success stories in the contemporary Middle East.

"What do you have to lose?" Trump asks, in his appeal to minorities who face national stop-and-frisk, loss of health-insurance benefits, or mass deportation under a Trump presidency.

An Update on Aleppo

What's happening in Aleppo: Russian and Syrian planes are carrying out airstrikes on eastern Aleppo, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. Civilians have been killed, hospitals bombed, and humanitarian convoys targeted. The U.S. says the actions amount to war crimes, and has suspended diplomatic cooperation with Russia on the Syrian civil war.

Trump suggests it is foolish for America to telegraph it's intention to bomb an enemy in advance. "Why can't they do the attack, make it a sneak attack, and after the attack is made inform the American public that we've knocked out the leaders, we've had a tremendous success. Why do they have to say we're going to be attacking Mosul within the next four to six weeks which is what they're saying. How stupid is our country." Raddatz adds: "It might be to help get civilians out."

I think Jefferson didn't really coordinate much with Burr.

Trump Seems to Adopt a Cruz Debate Strategy

Martha Raddatz does a good job of forcing Trump to answer the question she asked about the humanitarian crisis in Syria after he gave a monologue that didn't address the core issue. But this is also allowing him to speak and level charges without rebuttal from Clinton for a sustained period of time. This was a strategy that Ted Cruz and his advisers copped to in the primaries: If you don't answer the question the first time, they'll ask it again, and then you'll get to speak for twice as long and get your message out.

What's Happening Between Trump and Mike Pence?

The Republican ticket on the trail in Canfield, Ohio, last month
Evan Vucci

"Is there a precedent for that?" asks Lonnie Hamilton III, a freshman here at Virginia Tech, in reference to Trump's public disagreement with his running mate and admission that that have not spoken.

Trump: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. Iran is killing ISIS."

Martha Raddatz brings up the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Aleppo, Syria. A question goes to Clinton: "Isn't it a lot like the Holocaust where the U.S. waited too long before we helped?" Clinton responds by saying the situation is "catastrophic." The U.S. has been trying to do something, or at least had been, until ceasefire talks with Russia recently collapsed.

Schrödinger's Candidate

Over the course of the debate, Trump has blamed Clinton for everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to the rise of ISIS to the state of the American economy to leaving the carried-interest deduction intact.

Now he's saying otherwise.

"She's been talk about health care, why didn't she do anything about it?" he said. "She doesn't do anything about anything other than talk. With her, it's all talk, no action." Thus, according to Trump, Clinton has simultaneously done everything and done nothing. Schrödinger would be proud.

A Debate That Showcases Trump's Dramatic Limitations

Patrick Semansky / AP

Donald Trump is a strikingly effective candidate when he’s talking about things with which he actually possesses some basic familiarity. At the last debate, he successfully jousted with Clinton over trade. Tonight, he’s talked fluently about tax policy and immigration. Many people—and most experts—would disagree with his conclusions, but he makes his points forcefully, emphatically, and confidently.

The problem he faces is that so much of the debate is about topics, ranging from Obamacare to Syria, about which he appears to know almost nothing at all.

Sometimes, this manifests itself in strange ways. As Russell points out below, his accusation that Clinton failed to alter federal policy as a senator is a charge that one CEO might level against another, but it verges on incoherence when leveled at a legislator.

At his rallies, Trump sticks to his favored issues, reads the crowd, and proves an effective orator. At the debates, with the crowd largely silenced, offering few clues as to which attacks are landing, and with moderators pressing him for answers on unfamiliar topics? He’s not nearly so effective.

Trump's Play on Americans' Short Memories

Clinton as a New York senator in 2006
Charles Dharapak / AP file photo

Trump is arguing that Clinton failed to change all the policies she claims to abhor in the decades she's been in public life and elected office. But as Clinton points out, she was "a senator with a Republican president." She never served in the Senate when Democrats had control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, as Obama did for the first two years of his tenure. Trump is trying to play on the short memory of American voters by claiming that Clinton could have made changes she plainly did not have the political power to make.

Trump appears to be angrily pacing around the room now.

"Of course I did," Trump says, apparently admitting that he used a $900 million loss in the 1990s to avoid paying personal federal income taxes.

"Everything you just heard from Donald is not true, I'm sorry I have to keep saying this," Clinton says.

Unless I'm mistaken, Trump just brought up his own tax returns—the subject of much speculation and controversy—without any prompting by moderators or Clinton.

Donald Trump just said he knows nothing about Russia, and doesn't know Putin. But then he said Hillary Clinton doesn't know if the Russians are hacking us. And then said he doesn't even know if there really is any hacking...

"As soon as my routine audit is finished, I'll release my [tax] returns," Trump says. "I'll be very proud to."

Immigration Gets Its Moment

Saul Loeb / AP

"I’m going to force them right back [into their countries],” Trump says. "She's letting people in, letting drugs pour through our southern border at a record clip and it shouldn't be allowed to happen." Trump also went on to reiterate his endorsement by the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, a union representing federal immigration officers. Immigration was largely absent in the first presidential debate. Tonight, Trump is sticking to his talking points and resurfacing warnings about immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, as he did at the start of his campaign.

Clinton's lead in this race is evident in her strategy. Trump is attacking her at every turn and on every issue, yet she seems to feel no urgency to rebut even a few of them. Her standard line is to say what Trump is saying is not true and to steer viewers to her website for fact-checking, but the risk there is that Trump has been able to land many charges that go without response. Trump, meanwhile, has been desperate to respond to every Clinton critique.

A Calm Hillary Clinton

Rick T. Wilking / AP

It's remarkable how calm Clinton has been during the first 45 minutes of this debate. She has smiled, laughed, and sat relatively still while Trump seems to get more and more worked up, pacing behind her during questions, raising his voice, interrupting often, and snapping at the moderators. Clinton did seem noticeably irritated one time: when Trump said Captain Khan would "still be alive" if he had been president in 2003.

Blaming Lincoln

A Lincoln sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Richard Drew / AP

Opening the questions up to online voting yields results, producing a question on Wikileaks and Clinton’s private speeches. The excerpt in question reads:

If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So you need both a public and a private position. You just have to sort of figure out how to — getting back to that word, ‘balance’ - how to balance the public and the private efforts that are necessary to be successful, politically, and that’s not just a comment about today.

Clinton explains this was about the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln and the great emancipator’s carefully calibrated efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Earlier this year, Jonathan Rauch mounted an aggressive defense in The Atlantic of the art of back room deals, and the dangers of excess public scrutiny.

But it’s one thing to make that argument in a magazine, something else again for a presidential candidate to offer it up on stage. It’s an admission of an unpopular truth, and a reminder to many voters of what they disdain about American politics in general, and about Clinton in particular. And, Lincoln or not, the defense falls short.

"She lied, now she's blaming the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln," Trump says of Clinton in one of the more surreal moments of the debate.

So if I were a Trump supporter watching at home, I might agree with the Republican candidate that the moderators are handling Trump more roughly than Clinton. He’s been interrupted and hurried along more often. That said, Clinton has been far more respectful of the debate’s ground rules and has largely abstained from talking her opponent.

Syrian Refugees Are Strictly Vetted

Trump repeats his frequent claim that Syrian refugees are not vetted. "People are coming into our country, like we have no idea who they are, where they're from, what their feelings about our country is and she wants 550 percent more," he said. "This is going to be the great Trojan horse of all time." In fact, as my colleague Russell Berman pointed out, Syrian refugees undergo some of the strictest background checks for resettlement of any foreign entrant into the United States.

A Note at the Halfway Mark

We're about halfway finished with this debate. And so far—aside from Trump's accusations about Bill Clinton, and some mention of his taped comments about women—the dialogue hasn't been as wild and crass and controversial as anticipated. But there’s plenty of time left. And if this debate follows the model of the first contest, Trump could get more loose with his words as the debate winds down.

Trump once again says tens of thousands of Syrians are coming into the U.S. In the 2016 fiscal year, the U.S. accepted slightly more than 10,000 Syrians fleeing their civil war. Clinton's plan would accept 65,000 Syrian refugees. Trump called for what he called "extreme vetting" of people from some Muslim countries. Clinton says the U.S.—a country founded on religious liberty—cannot do that.

How Clinton Talks About American Muslims

"What Donald Trump says about Muslims is used to recruit fighters," Clinton says, adding "because they want to create a war between us." There's no doubt that Clinton talks about American Muslims in a far more responsible way than Trump. However, some Muslim advocates believe that Clinton has at times talked about American Muslims as though they are important largely due to their potential to avert security threats, rather than because their lives matter as citizens and human beings.

A New Phase for Trump?

Donald Trump knows he won't be president. He's now in full carnival-barking, network-launching, party-nuking mode—a scowling, pouting menace who threatened during a nationally televised debate to throw Hillary Clinton in jail and called her husband the most sexually abusive man in political history.

That’s ripe.

If it's worth saying once, it's worth saying again: Donald Trump supported the Iraq War.

Trump: "If I was president then, Captain Khan would have been alive today."

A College Freshman on 'Closet Bigots'

Here at Virginia Tech, Kelsey McGregor, a freshman says: "It's terrifying that a main presidential candidate in 2016 is allowing white nationalism to continue to be dredged up. I'm afraid that people who are like closet bigots are gonna use his Islamophobia as an excuse to start being violent."

Recent research suggests that Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric, which of course is "just words," may have contributed to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack.

Trump seems to be saying that allowing health insurance to operate across state lines will increase competition enough to keep pre-existing condition bans in current plans, but the only problem with his logic is that in states that do allow it, insurers simply haven't signed up. The barriers to cross-state insurance sales aren't even actually federal regulatory issues, and it seems Trump's favored solution is mostly a fantasy.

Trump gets a question about Islamophobia, and his answer is to imply that Muslims are disloyal Americans who are failing to report information about terrorists in their midst. So, in short, Trump has answered a problem by fomenting more of it.

A Fact-Check on Canadian Health Care

Trump, in his reply on the Affordable Care Act, claimed that Clinton's plan would turn the U.S. system into one like Canada's, and, he added, that many Canadians come to the U.S. for medical treatment. According to the Fraser Institute, a libertarian Canadian think tank, only about 52,000 Canadians traveled overseas for treatment. Not all of them came to the U.S.

For curious readers, The Atlantic published a lengthy article in 2009 that offered an alternative approach to health-care reform.

Clinton sums up her Obamacare answer this way: "Let’s fix what's broken about it, but let's not throw it all away and give it back to the insurance companies,"

The Looming Menace of Donald Trump

John Locher / AP

There’s a menacing, hulking presence looming over Hillary Clinton as she speaks tonight … and his name is Donald Trump. No, really.

Perhaps it’s the camera angle, or maybe it looks like this in the debate hall, too. But the much-taller Trump looms over Clinton’s shoulder as she speaks, and it’s a terrible visual. It’s unclear whether this is the result of deliberate positioning by Clinton, a decision made by Trump, or something neither candidate realizes is happening. But it’s often the case that millions of viewers form impressions of candidates based on visual appearances, and it’s hard to believe this isn’t working to Clinton’s advantage, and Trump’s detriment.

On health care, after a detailed answer by Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump seems like he has no plan at all. This is the sort of question where a Jeb Bush or John Kasich could’ve delivered some concrete alternative more specific than “we will have the best!"

Trump accused Clinton of having “acid washed emails.” He’s might have been referring to the digital version of a procedure to produce jeans with that lived-in feel, because Google yields no ready alternative answer for what that actually might mean (beyond a slew of Trump tweets mentioning the supposed method).

'No Longer Unthinkable' for Democrats to Critique Obamacare

Saul Loeb / AP

For what it's worth, Hillary Clinton's agreement with the question is perhaps her strongest open critique of Obamacare on the trail, as she has generally portrayed herself as a tinkerer with President Obama's biggest policy. Last week, Bill Clinton played similar notes by calling the Affordable Care Act "the craziest thing in the world." The policy's prospects have been under fire with the news of premium increases for some enrollees and the withdrawal of Aetna from the exchange markets, and now it seems that it's no longer unthinkable for Democrats to issue open critiques of its failings.

Interestingly, neither candidate wanted to go first on a tough question about the high costs of Obamacare. Clinton begins and says that while Trump wants to "repeal it," she wants "to fix it." It's a nuanced response that is far from the criticism her husband leveled at the law, but she did not praise the law in the same way President Obama would.

Throwing It Back to Another Clinton Debate

Watching Clinton and Trump, I’m reminded of another town-hall debate—the 1992 debate between Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush, and H. Ross Perot. Clinton was natural, at ease, and radiated calm. The president was stiff, with strange, somewhat hostile body language. It was a milestone in Clinton’s career.

Donald Trump says he's a gentleman. Some in the audience burst into laughter.

Clinton: Republicans Are 'Leaving You,' Mr. Trump

Jim Young / Reuters

In an off-the-cuff remark directed toward an agitated Trump, Clinton alleges that Trump's campaign is "exploding" and Republicans are "leaving you." She's not really wrong: We've been keeping track of the fallout from Trump's tape scandal.

"Why aren't you bringing up the emails," Trump says, going after the debate moderators in an attack that the right-wing internet is sure to love since it hints at a conspiracy theory.

This debate is taking place in a town-hall format. The intent is to facilitate a conversation between the candidates and voters. So far, that hasn't really been happening. It's all Trump and Clinton trading biting attacks.

The moderators have lost control over the debate, at least for the moment. If Martha Raddatz, perhaps the most masterful active moderator in the media, can’t keep the candidates on track, there’s no hope.

For a guy supposedly running an “outsider” campaign, Donald Trump frames a lot of his attacks in very insider ways. What undecided voter knows who Sydney Blumenthal is?

Donald Trump, a birther for 5 years, declares that Hillary Clinton owes President Obama an apology for birtherism. That takes chutzpah!

Trump promises to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton if he wins, and Clinton responds by laughing at him.

Trump name drops Bernie Sanders. "You won, but not fair and square,” Trump says, citing the DNC’s leaked emails earlier this year.

Who the Candidates Are Actually Talking to

So far, Hillary Clinton is speaking to the audience—both in the hall and on TV. Trump is primarily addressing Clinton directly.

Trump 'Never Apologizes for Anything to Anyone'

Hillary Clinton ticks off a long litany of things for which, she says, Trump has never apologized:

He never apologizes for anything to anyone. He never apologized to Mr. and Mrs. Kahn, the Gold Star Family whose son died in the line of dutyney iraq, and Donald insulted and attacked them for weeks over their religion. He never apologized to the distinguished federal judge who was born in Indiana, but donald said he couldn't be trusted to be a judge because his parents were, quote, Mexican. He never apologized to the reporter that he mimicked and mocked on national television and our children were watching, and he never apologized for the racist lie that President Obama was not born in the United States. He owes the president an apology, he owes our country an apology, and he needs to take responsibility for his actions and his words.

As I wrote months ago, there’s actually a method to his madness:

There’s research to back that approach—evidence shows that apologies hurt more than they help and that many find overconfidence and a willingness to discard rules attractive. Trump appears willing to put that to the test, gambling that he can win by projecting certainty and confidence, that voters would rather have a self-assured leader than one willing to acknowledge missteps.

But there are, apparently, limits. What worked for Trump in the primaries has frequently hurt him in the general election. And his refusal to apologize tonight, even as Clinton reopens these wounds, may hurt him once more.

Hillary Keeps Sidestepping Accusations About Bill

So far Hillary Clinton is choosing not to engage directly on the issue of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against her husband, and his charge that she attacked the women accusing him. But Trump is not letting up.

Trump contrasts his "words" on the tape to President Clinton's alleged actions. After describing what he says are how the Clintons responded to those actions, he says Hillary Clinton should be "ashamed of herself." Clinton responds by quoting Michelle Obama, the first lady, to applause. "When they go low," Clinton says, citing the first lady. "We go high."

This audience has no regard for rules banning applause—we’ve now heard applause for answers from both candidates.

Trump's Bill Clinton Talking Point

First mention of Bill Clinton. "But that was something that happened, if you look at Bill Clinton, mine are words and his were action,” he said. "There's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women."

Eighteen minutes in, we are exactly where Rudy Giuliani said Trump would not go.

Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz
Julio Cortez / AP

Trump’s first testy exchange with a moderator comes just 15 minutes in, as Trump gets annoyed with Martha Raddatz for corralling him and trying to keep him on track.

Groans throughout the room here from students here at Virginia Tech at Trump's insistence that: "It's just words."

"They're just words, folks. They're just words," Trump says in response to Clinton's litany of critiques of all the various people and groups he has insulted during the campaign.

Hillary Clinton appears to be directing her message tonight to future generations and painting Trump as a threat to the future. “America already is great. But we are great because we are good,” she says.

Clinton: Trump Tape 'Represents Exactly Who He Is'

Saul Loeb / AP

"What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women, and he has said that the video doesn't represent who he is, but I think it's clear to anyone who heard it, that it represents exactly who he is," Clinton says. "We've seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women, rate women on their appearance ... we've seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter." Clinton is not wrong. Trump has a well-established track record of sexist comments and insults toward women.

It’s back—Trump is sniffing again. Or rather, he appears to be inhaling loudly over the microphone, just as he did in the last debate. He can’t blame the sound equipment this time; it seems more likely he’s nervous.

If Hillary wins this race, it's going to be interesting to see if she can manage magnanimity after all that has unfolded like the "locker room talk."

You hear these things––they’re said.” That is the most amazing passive construction of the 2016 Election Cycle.

How many times did Cooper have to ask Trump to specifically deny sexual assaults?

Trump: 'I Have Not' Done What's Described in the Hot-Mic Tape

“No I have not," Trump says when Anderson Cooper presses him on whether he has "ever done those things" he described on the recording.

"We're going to bring back law and order," Trump said, citing the recent deaths of police officers, including the assertion that "this is happening on a weekly basis." "Law and order" has historically been used to signal to white voters that politicians perceive inner cities as the source of violence, drugs, and other ills that worry them.

Trump Says He's 'Not Proud' of Access Hollywood Tape

John Locher / AP

“This was locker-room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family. I apologized to the American people,” Trump says when asked about the 2005 audio recording of him making lewd comments about women. He then pivots to ISIS.

Anderson Cooper delves into the 2005 recording of Trump bragging about groping women. "You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women," Cooper said that, "do you understand that?"

While Clinton took that first question and stuck to the 40,000 -foot level with unspecific promises to work with all Americans, Trump manages to get into some specific issues, citing a lack of support for Obamacare, the Iran deal, trade deals, and a perceived breakdown in law and order.

It occurs to me, as Hillary Clinton gives her first answer, that she has every reason to approach this debate very conservatively. It seems, at least at the moment, that this is her election to lose.

The town-hall style brings a new rhythm to the debate. The interactions with voters are particularly important for Hillary. Viewers and voters in the audience will be looking for a genuine connection. Hillary knows that. In her first response to a voter, she tried to draw a connection and will likely continue to so. Trump, for his part, appears to be taking a subdued approach, different from his rallies.

The first question couldn’t have been a bigger gift to Clinton: a teacher asks whether the candidates are setting a good example to children with their rhetoric, particularly in the first debate. Clinton doesn’t even need to bring up Trump’s lewd video—the question did the work for her. Instead, she sticks positive, with a call for unity and positivity.

Vendors at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland were selling a T-shirt that said “Trump vs. Everybody 2016.” I didn’t think it would actually become his campaign slogan.

Clinton Tries to Set an 'Optimistic' Tone

John Locher / AP

Clinton immediately attempts to set an optimistic, uplifting tone. No doubt it's a strategy that's meant to contrast what she can only expect may be ugly attacks from Trump. She gets asked by an undecided voter if she thinks the presidential debates are modeling appropriate behavior for kids watching at home. Clinton responds by saying that "I have a very positive and optimistic view of what we can do together ... I think if we work together, if we overcome the divisiveness that sometimes sets Americans against one another."

There was chatter ahead of the debate regarding whether or not Trump and Clinton, whose adversarial relationship has soured significantly, would shake hands. But there we have it: No hand shake to be seen, only "hellos."

The Questions Voters Want Answered

For the first time in a general-election debate, the moderators have agreed to consider questions that were voted on by the public.

As I wrote last month, a bipartisan group called the Open Debates Coalition has experimented with the format in a primary debate for the Senate in Florida, and activists on the right and left urged their supporters to “vote up” questions on issued they wanted the candidates to discuss.

So which questions were the most popular?

Voters want to hear Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump talk about guns. The most popular question, with more than 160,000 votes, was, “How will you ensure the Second Amendment is protected?” Coming in second was, “Would you support requiring background checks for all gun sales?” Other popular topics included Social Security, climate change, and campaign finance reform.

While the moderators have agreed to consider the 30 questions that received the most votes, they are not required to ask any of them.

Erin Fosnocht, a freshman, says "I don't think it's likely, but if Trump is able to admit that what he did was wrong, or be something similar to logical in tonight's debate, it'll do a lot for those who don't agree with Hillary, but have reservations."

Trump to Supporters: 'It's Us Against the World'

In the heat of a presidential campaign, it can feel to a candidate and his staff as if it’s them against the world. But they don’t usually make that the basis of their pitch to voters.

This is the ad currently displayed at, the news site whose executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is now running the Trump campaign. All day, the site has been pushing stories about the four women who appeared with Trump at the pre-debate press conference stage-managed by Bannon, underscoring the unusual links between a media organization and a partisan campaign. But this ad—this framing—is remarkable.

When the election is over, both those who voted for the loser and the winner will have to work alongside their fellow citizens. Rhetoric like this makes that far harder, and has lasting consequences.

Right about now, the spouses of a lot of governors and senators have got to be telling their ambitious partners, “Hell no, you’re never running for president. Never, never, never. I’ll leave you if you so much as form an exploratory committee.”

Newkirk (center) with Virginia Tech students
Rachel Gabriele / Virginia Tech

I'm here on Virginia Tech campus watching with students. Lauren Schwartz, a junior, says that “Donald Trump has to come out of a hole tonight, and if he can't successfully answer the questions about the recent events, he's going to have a very tumultuous rest of the campaign. It's about how much he loses this debate, more than if he can win.”

Such is the level of tension in the debate tonight that CNN’s commentators weren’t sure Bill Clinton and Melania Trump would actually shake hands following their introduction by the emcee. (They did.)

But Think of the Children

Jim Young / Reuters

If the first presidential debate’s historically high ratings are any guide, millions of Americans will tune into tonight’s proceedings. But for many, debate-watching won’t be a family affair.

Many parents are deliberately keeping their children away from the TV tonight, for fear that the discourse will be far too harsh and far too inappropriate for little ears to hear. It goes without saying that they probably didn’t have these fears before Friday’s Access Hollywood tape was revealed. Donald Trump is often an unpredictable speaker, but his performance in the first contest wasn’t R-rated.

Not only are Trump’s hot-mic comments about women destined to be discussed, but his debate preparations—which Clare has described—suggest he’s prepared to rehash decades-old Clintonworld controversies.

A search of “kids” and “debate” on Twitter yields hundreds of tweets from parents worrying about what to do with their kids: some asking for advice about whether their children should watch, some describing hurrying their kids to bed before the 9 p.m. kickoff, and some expressing sadness that what should be an educational event could devolve into scandal and name-calling.

Hillary the Victim?

Clinton arriving in St. Louis, Missouri, for the debate
Andrew Harnik / AP

Hillary Clinton is not a popular politician at the moment, but there’s been a clear theme throughout her career in public life: She has benefitted when Republicans overreach in attacking her, and the public views her as a victim.

That is the great risk for Donald Trump in the gambit he pulled earlier tonight and may continue during the debate, by criticizing her for how she handled the many times her husband cheated on her. Will Trump successfully drag Clinton down into the mud with him, or will he cause viewers to feel sympathy for a woman who was publicly scorned again and again? When Republicans impeached Bill Clinton in 1999, Hillary used the groundswell of public support for her position as a humiliated first lady to win a Senate seat in New York and launch her own political career. After then-Senator Barack Obama told Clinton she was “likable enough” during a debate before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, Clinton seized on the moment to win a surprise victory that revived her flagging campaign. And when congressional Republicans forced Clinton to testify for 11 hours at a congressional hearing on Benghazi in 2015, she was the one who came out of the episode on top.

This history is why Republicans have warned Trump not to try to blame Clinton for her husband’s infidelities, and that’s why his tactics tonight might be his most perilous move yet.

A Shining City Down in a Gutter

The debate organizers take to the stage to offer a moving paean to the wonders of American democracy, touting the 35 nations with which the Commission on Presidential Debates has partnered, and the future leaders being inspired by sitting in the audience. It’s a standard bit of pre-debate boosterism, but on this particular night, it’s positively jarring. American democracy is indeed resilient, and will survive this campaign—but it’s hard to believe that tonight’s debate is going to inspire others around the globe to emulate our example.

Donald Trump Appears With Women Accusing Bill Clinton of Sexual Assault

Mike Segar / Reuters

Trump isn’t waiting until the debate to level attacks against Hillary Clinton by dredging up Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct.

In a Facebook livestream, Trump appeared before a group of reporters seated at a table alongside Bill and Hillary Clinton accusers Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Kathy Shelton, and Paula Jones. “Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me, and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison,” Broaddrick said.

Vox provides more context on the various allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Clinton, arguing that among the three main accusers, Broaddrick, Willey, and Jones, “by far the most credible—based on the publicly available evidence—is Broaddrick.” Through his lawyer, Clinton has denied Broaddrick’s rape accusation, which first surfaced in the 1990s, and has never faced charges in connection with the allegations.

It remains to be seen how far Trump will press the claims of these women at tonight’s debate, and how much he will attempt to make Hillary Clinton answer for them. Whatever happens, Trump can’t escape questions about his own sexual conduct. “So Mr. Trump, does your star power allow you to touch women without their consent?,” a reporter asked, referring to the bombshell 2005 audio recording where Trump brags about groping women at the start of the event. Trump ignored the question.

The Clinton campaign dismissed the event as a “stunt.” “We’re not surprised to see Donald Trump continue his destructive race to the bottom,” the campaign’s communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in a statement. “Hillary Clinton understands that the opportunity in this town hall is to talk to voters on stage and in the audience about the issues that matter to them, and this stunt doesn’t change that.”

Student Perspectives on Tonight's Debate

This is a historical presidential election. Not only is it so for the more remarkable elements—Hillary Clinton as the first woman nominee of a major party and perhaps the first president of her gender—but also for its more ignoble elements. Republican nominee Donald Trump has run a singular campaign of scandal, insult, and bigotry, and come into tonight’s presidential debate on the heels of a vulgar conversation in which he seemingly admitted to sexual assault. That’s left even his own running mate struggling to continue to support him. The backdrop for the debate tonight is uncertainty: Who can predict exactly what will happen in the few weeks before the election, or even beyond?

That question is especially important for the youngest voters. What’s it like to be a first-time voter in a time of Hillary and Trump; of Russian hackers, intra-party intrigues, failed political revolutions, and ascendant third parties? That’s what I’m hoping to find out tonight, as I’ll be watching the presidential debate with students at Virginia Tech. My updates to the live blog this evening will feature some of their perspectives, insights, and questions.

Will Donald Trump Completely Sabotage His Campaign At the Debate?

John Locher / AP

Facing a withering scandal, abandonment by allies, and flagging poll numbers, Donald Trump is increasingly isolated from his own party. If he turns in a feckless debate performance tonight, it could get even worse.

At 9 p.m. ET, the Republican nominee is slated to face off against Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. The race has reached a decisive turning point after the release of a 2005 recording in which Trump brags about groping women in terms that sound like sexual assault. High-ranking Republican elected officials have rushed to withdraw support for Trump and called for him to step down in the wake of the release. At the debate, Trump faces more pressure than ever to try to undo the damage his own words have caused—but if history is any guide, he may act like his own worst enemy instead.

Trump’s caught-on-tape remarks are shocking, even in a campaign where outlandish and offensive comments have become the norm. The recording, published by The Washington Post, threatens to confirm many of the worst criticisms Trump has faced during the presidential campaign: that he is a crass misogynist who uses his power and privilege  to take advantage of people around him. Nothing Trump has said so far has managed to sink him, and at least one poll shows Republican voters standing by their nominee in the wake of the scandal. But the controversy has promoted more intense backlash from Republican Party leaders than any of Trump’s other missteps and scandals so far. If Trump fans the flames at tonight’s debate, it could sabotage his presidential campaign completely.

Trump won’t be able to make voters forget about his remarks, no matter how he performs at the debate, but he may be able to persuade them that they do not reflect who he is, or that the comments and the behavior they describe are not disqualifying.

How he will do that is an open question. Trump avoids apologizing at all costs, but offered a rare apology in response to the 2005 recording. “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” Trump said in a Facebook video. Even so, the GOP nominee hardly seemed penitent, and indicated that he may defend himself at the debate by attacking Hillary Clinton over Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretion and alleged sexual misconduct.

“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people,” Trump said in the video. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.” On Sunday, Trump tweeted a link to a Breitbart story with video showing Juanita Broaddrick, a woman who has previously accused Bill Clinton of rape breaking down in tears. Bill Clinton has denied the allegations since they first surfaced in the 1990s.

It’s not surprising that Trump would lash out against the Clintons, but if he does so at the debate, it could backfire. As my colleague David Graham has pointed out, Trump has a tendency to self-sabotage in a crisis. The GOP nominee often confirms the worst criticism he faces rather than refuting it by doubling down on offending remarks. That pattern could be on display at tonight’s debate.

If Trump attempts to defend himself against his 2005 remarks by asking Clinton to answer for her husband’s treatment of women, the Democratic nominee may come off looking sympathetic while Trump appears petty, vindictive and misogynistic for attempting to frame the alleged sins of her husband as her own.

The debate will be run like a town hall—a format that could prove perilous for Trump. CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the event moderators, will ask half the questions, while the other half will come from undecided voters in the audience. Both candidates will face pressure to appear sympathetic to voter concerns, but Trump doesn’t have much practice with the town-hall format, and there are already indications he may not perform well.

Trump prefers massive rallies to retail politicking, and has more practice facing cheers on the trail than tough questions from voters. The Republican nominee participated in a town-hall-style event on Thursday in New Hampshire. Yet even in the face of softball questions—like “what’s one of your earliest memories as a child?”—Trump managed to go negative. “Trump slams broad array of people while speaking to a friendly town-hall audience,”  a Washington Post headline read. Trump’s tendency to aggressively, and ineffectively, counter-attack could prove costly if he directs anger and frustration at the audience of voters tonight.

Trump has more to prove than Clinton, but both candidates will be asked to respond to uncomfortable queries. Trump appears virtually certain to face contentious questions over his latest controversial remarks—CNNMoney reported on Sunday that the first questions are expected to center on Trump’s comments from the 2005 recording and subsequent fallout.

Clinton, meanwhile, could face queries about her use of a private email system and the recent release by WikiLeaks of hacked emails that appear to show excerpts of Wall Street speeches that Clinton has so far refused to make public. She will also face an opponent who could be even more unpredictable than usual: If Trump believes he has little left to lose, his debate performance will likely be erratic and his insults all the more scathing.

Still, Clinton is likely to be more prepared. At the first presidential debate, Clinton got the best of Trump when she brought up his past remarks about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, saying that he had once called her “Miss Piggy.” Trump fell for the trap, losing his cool on the debate stage, and doubling down on his comments after the event ended. Even his own campaign advisers reportedly believed he needed to do better after his performance in the first debate. According to a story in The New York Times published prior to the firestorm over the 2005 recording, Trump advisers “plan to more rigorously prepare [Trump] for his next face-off with Hillary Clinton.”

Trump’s unpolished, unconventional style is what many of his fans love about him. But it’s one thing for Trump to speak brashly at campaign  rallies where loyal supporters hang on his every word. It’s another for him to do it in front of a television audience of general-election voters, some of whom are undecided and deeply skeptical of both candidates. Even if the recording that has surfaced has not yet damaged Trump’s standing significantly with the Republican base, the controversy could further hamstring his efforts to earn votes in swing states he needs to win if he turns in a hostile, and unrepentant, debate performance.

The relative importance of presidential debates shouldn’t be overstated, but tonight’s debate comes at pivotal moment in a competitive race. Even if the debate only moves public opinion slightly, it could still have an outsized impact. Clinton’s standing in the polls improved after the first debate, but she currently leads by only 4.6 percentage points in an average of national polls.

There’s not much room for error for either candidate. And if pundits and pollsters declare Trump a debate loser twice in a row, the Republican nominee could be headed for a downward spiral with little time to recover before Election Day.