Brushing aside key issues, the second presidential debate took U.S. politics to new lows with Hillary Clinton bashing Donald Trump over his abuse of women and bigotry toward others while Trump vowed to put her in jail, says Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
As senior members of his own Republican Party were deserting him, Donald Trump found his footing in his rematch debate with Hillary Clinton on Sunday night, blasting her for “always” blaming Russia even without evidence and for backing rebels who turn out “worse” than the leaders the U.S. seeks to overthrow. He even disavowed his own running mate for supporting war with Syria.
Just before the debate 16 Republican senators withdrew their support for Trump because of the emergence of a videotape on Friday in which Trump is heard making obscene comments about how he treats women. The lewd remarks were all the U.S. corporate media could talk about and Trump was facing calls from within his party to step down.
Instead, he stepped up, literally. The town-hall-style debate at a Missouri university allowed Trump to move aggressively around the stage as he hurled invectives at his opponent. Clinton, who was on the defensive most of the night, tried to counter-attack on taxes, Russia, Syria and the scandal of the day, Trump’s treatment of women. But she seemed unnerved by Trump, expecting instead a defeated man who had performed so badly in the first debate after taking her bait, and who should now have been on the ropes.
Having nearly the entire political establishment against him — the Democrats, the media and even his own party — seems to invigorate the totally unorthodox Trump. He even felt confident enough to blithely disagree with his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, who – in the vice presidential debate last week – backed U.S. military attacks on the Syrian government and then launched the most virulent criticism of Russia by any candidate in this campaign. Trump said he simply didn’t agree with his running mate, something probably never said before publicly by a modern presidential candidate.
“I don’t like [Bashar al-] Assad at all but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said, referring to the Syrian president and the Islamic State jihadists who have seized portions of Syria and Iraq. “Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy.”
Trump said the priority should be defeating ISIS before talking about what to do regarding the Assad government. “I believe we have to get ISIS,” he said. “We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.”
Going After Russia…Again
Meanwhile, Clinton went on the counterattack early and often against Russia, and by extension Trump. She blamed Russian “aggression” for “destroying” Aleppo, though only east Aleppo is under attack, neighborhoods controlled by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and its allies.
“There is a determined effort by the Russian air force to destroy Aleppo in order to eliminate the last of the Syrian rebels who are really holding out against the Assad regime,” she said, not mentioning that the main group “really holding out” is the same one that brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Through ignorance or disinformation, she said, “There are hundreds of thousands of people probably about 250,000 still left” in Aleppo under Russia’s bombing. That’s the high estimate of the population in east Aleppo occupied by the extremists. There are1.5 million Aleppans living in the rest of the city, loyal to the government, and whose water was shut off for a time by the extremists in the east.
Despite the key role of Al Qaeda in the Aleppo conflict, Clinton again called for arming rebels and setting up a safe zone inside Syria, and a no-fly zone above it, a move that America’s top general, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress two weeks ago would lead to war with Russia. Even Clinton acknowledged in a leaked email that a no-fly zone would “kill a lot of Syrians.” But she’s still for it.
“She talks in favor of the rebels,” Trump shot back. “She doesn’t even know who they are. Every time we take rebels, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else, we’re arming people, and you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people” the U.S. overthrows.
“Look what she did in Libya with Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s out. It’s a mess,” he said. “The fact is almost everything she’s done in foreign policy has been a mistake and it’s been a disaster.”
Clinton again extended her attack on Russia to Trump for supposedly supporting its president, Vladimir Putin. She said U.S. intelligence has concluded, without making the evidence public, that Russia had hacked into U.S. election and Democratic Party computers “to influence our election.”
“And believe me, they’re not doing it to get me elected, they’re doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump,” she charged. “Now, maybe because he has praised Putin, maybe because he says he agrees with a lot of what Putin wants to do, maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow, I don’t know the reasons.”
Or, maybe it’s because Trump has called for dialogue with Moscow while Clinton threatens Russia, even likening Putin to “Hitler.”
Trump denied he had any outstanding loans with Russia or any business interests there.
“She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking,” Trump responded. “But they always blame Russia and the reason is because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know about Russia but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia.”
And neither do the vast majority of the American public because the corporate media never tells them Russia’s side of the story. If it had, the American people might understand that Russia has been playing defense and that America has been on the offensive, such as in Ukraine after a U.S.-backed coup; in Poland and the Baltics after provocative NATO maneuvers; and in Syria after a U.S. and allied-backed campaign of foreign extremists trying to overthrow the secular Syrian government.
But Trump also steered away from a fully honest discussion about today’s dangerous geopolitics by putting on a display of typical rightwing rhetoric. He again trashed the Iran nuclear deal, which has considerably reduced tension in the region and in which Russia played a significant role. He called it “the dumbest deal I’ve ever seen” but that remark was probably the dumbest thing that Trump said all night.
Trump also reaffirmed that he wants to increase military spending, though the U.S. already outspends the next ten countries combined. He embraced easy access to guns, called for massive tax cuts for the rich, advocated more deregulation (despite the role of lax banking regulations in the Wall Street crash of 2008), and would have denounced climate change (the second most urgent problem after possible war with Russia) as a hoax but the question never came up, to the shame of the moderators who chose the questions from voters and asked many of their own.
After starting on the defensive over his recently disclosed 2005 remarks about groping women, Trump went on the offensive over Clinton’s email issue. He blasted away at Clinton for deleting 33,000 emails from her private server and for claiming not to know that many of the emails on her server were classified and vulnerable to hacking (though the FBI says it has no evidence that the server was successfully hacked).
In possibly the most stunning comment of the evening, Trump said that if he becomes president he would arrange a special prosecutor to investigate her use of the private email server although the FBI and the Justice Department have already declined to prosecute the case. At one point, he quipped that she would be “in jail” if he were president. That led the dour Dana Bash and other CNN talking heads to compare him to Hitler and Stalin, who didn’t need prosecutors to send someone away.
Trump and Women
The debate’s sordid tone began with a question about the videotape disclosed on Friday in which Trump makes several obscene remarks about women. He describes women letting him sexually touch them soon after meeting him because he is “a star.” It was a hideously sexist remark about abuse of power.
In the debate, Trump expressed remorse for the comments but claimed he was just engaging in “locker room talk” and didn’t do the lewd practices that he described. That would give Trump at age 59 at the time of the remarks the mentality of an immature 14-year old. Clinton and her supporters instead say he was talking about actual sexual assaults that he committed. You can be sure the Clinton camp is searching for the woman Trump took furniture shopping or any others who might have been groped.
Faced with this onslaught, Trump pulled the ace from his sleeve that he threatened to play in the first debate — and the second debate rapidly descended deep into the mud. Trump said Hillary Clinton had in the 1990s attacked women who had accused her husband Bill Clinton of sexually assaulting them. Trump invited three of these women to the debate and held a press conference with them before it began.
Dismissing the importance of the videotape, Trump said it was more important to talk about defeating ISIS and Clinton’s disastrous and violent record as secretary of state. Clinton ignored his remark about her attacking her husband’s accusers. Instead she said the tape showed the world the real Donald Trump.
“He has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is,” Clinton said. “But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly what he is.”
But Trump went after Clinton’s character too for calling half his supporters “deplorables” and some of them “irredeemable” in a fundraising speech, while claiming during the debate that she wants to be president for all Americans.
You’re No Abe Lincoln
Trump then blasted comments she made to Wall Street bankers and other special interests in speeches over the past four years, transcripts that she has refused to make public. But largely buried by the video hysteria over the past several days were portions of the speeches made public by Wikileaks, also on Friday, in which she cozied up to the well-to-do.
According to one excerpt, Clinton advocated politicians taking one position in public and another one in private, prompting one undecided voter at the debate to ask: “Is it okay for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance?” In response, Clinton said the context of her remark was Abraham Lincoln, as portrayed in the movie “Lincoln,” altering his positions depending on his audience as he negotiated to amend the Constitution to formally outlaw slavery.
“She lied,” Trump responded. “Now she’s blaming the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln. … Honest Abe never lied. … That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you.”
The post-debate discussion on U.S. cable networks did little to redeem the evening. The commentary was pathetic, obsessing over Trump’s videotape and ignoring Clinton’s record on Libya and Syria, including her dangerous threats against Russia. There was also no discussion about Trump’s desire to jack up military spending.
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.