PHILADELPHIA (CNN) — CNN commentators and guest analysts offer their take on Sunday night’s second presidential candidate debate.
The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.
Errol Louis: Trump’s shocking threat
Donald Trump, with his campaign on the ropes, came out swinging. He made a few solid points, especially on reforming the tax code, but otherwise seemed irritated and irritable, in a continuation of the meltdown that began after a leaked video on Friday showed him making lewd comments about women.
Trump struggled with the town hall-style format, frequently looming over Clinton as she answered questions, interrupting her frequently and bickering with moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper over whether he got enough time to respond to questions.
At other points his assertions were downright shocking, such as his blunt threat to, as president, have a special investigator look into Hillary Clinton’s emails and potentially jail her. He also admitted not having paid federal income tax for decades, implying that other wealthy Americans do the same and blaming Clinton for not reforming the tax code during her years in the Senate.
Another startling moment was Trump’s admission he and his running mate, Mike Pence, haven’t discussed key Syria policies and actually disagree on the key issue of whether to launch military strikes at the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a direct contradiction of what Pence said at the recent vice presidential candidates’ debate.
Trump did well enough to keep his campaign alive and give hope to his supporters — but his debate performance did little to counter Clinton’s main angle of attack: that he’s simply not qualified or prepared to serve as president.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Sally Kohn: A depressing spectacle
I’m depressed that Donald Trump could be caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and try to laugh it all off in a debate as “locker room talk.” But what were the debate moderators supposed to do Sunday night? Spend more than a few minutes conveying America’s utter disgust at this latest example of Trump’s pattern of misogyny? Nah, a few minutes is enough I guess. So on to policy, right?
No, because almost as depressing was Trump’s repeated unwillingness to actually answer the questions that were posed to him. How would Trump ensure that pre-existing conditions are still covered by health insurance without some sort of universal coverage mandate? We don’t know, he didn’t answer.
What would Trump do about the refugee crisis in Syria? We don’t know, he didn’t answer — twice. Question after question, Trump said nothing. I mean, words came out of his mouth but they barely formed sentences and they definitely didn’t form thoughts. He basically vomited fragments of nothingness all over Hillary Clinton and America. And like Clinton, we all just had to sit there — frustrated and annoyed.
What’s especially depressing is that our media, let alone our democracy, seems ill-equipped to handle anything like Trump. Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper tried, but fact checking Trump doesn’t work because Trump doesn’t care about facts. In fact, he denies he’s lying as he’s lying and then, for extra audacity, accuses everyone else of being liars. I keep waiting for the ghost of George Orwell to show up on the debate stage and bite Trump on the ankles.
Donald Trump is a perverse man who is perverting not only our democracy but the very concept of truth. He tried to win the debate just like one wins a limbo contest — by lowering the bar. That should depress all of us.
Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. She supports Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
Tara Setmayer: Trump’s strategy — Attack, attack, attack
Donald Trump’s behavior during the first 20 minutes of the debate was cringe worthy. To no one’s surprise there was no sign of the “humility” or “contrition” many, including his own supporters, called for in response to the devastating video released on Friday showing
Trump bragging about groping women in the most vile terms. Instead, he chose to pivot and go directly on the attack against Hillary
Clinton every chance he got.
At times, Trump brought the level of discourse embarrassingly low with all sense of presidential decorum thrown out the window. Gone were the pleasantries and respect with Trump referring to Mrs. Clinton as a pronoun (she, her) throughout the evening. Clearly this was done on purpose to diminish Clinton. She handled it like a seasoned professional, making her look like the adult in the room. Trump once again demonstrated why he’s temperamentally unfit for the presidency.
However, once the conversation turned to more substantive topics, Trump was able to focus more on Clinton’s failed record, forcing her to play defense for much of the night, particularly on her emails, Obamacare and energy policy.
Trump did falter badly on Syria. He seemingly sided with Putin over his own running mate, emphatically saying he disagreed with Mike Pence on the policy and hadn’t even spoken to him about the crisis in Syria.
Heading into this debate, Trump’s campaign was possibly mortally wounded. He performed well enough to stop the bleeding, for now. But did he do anything to close the gap with key swing state constituencies he needs to win? Doubtful. Fortunately for Trump, Hillary Clinton is such a flawed candidate, she was unable to land the knockout blow. This one was a draw.
Tim Stanley: Will Trump’s good night make a difference?
Donald Trump had a good night. It started poorly because it had to start poorly; discussion of his “locker room” banter was bound to be personally embarrassing. He sounded like he was giving a legal deposition. When Clinton and the moderators demanded greater clarity, he lost his temper and called Bill Clinton an abuser of women. I suspect he didn’t intend to do that. The man has skin as thin as gossamer.
But after that the debate turned to Clinton, and Trump’s constant attacks were effective. The problem is that while Trump is an eccentric candidate, Clinton is a poor one. She struggled to explain why she was running, overused cliches and gave lawyerly answers that sounded like she was squirming. She even let Trump tell a good gag at her expense about Abraham Lincoln.
But how do we judge victory in this unpredictable climate? For Trump it will be warm words from senior Republicans and an end to GOP withdrawals from his campaign. That does not spell victory in November.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.”
S.E. Cupp: A night of missed opportunities
After the past 48 hours, it’s difficult to determine on what basis either candidate would win Sunday night’s debate. Donald Trump was emerging out of the fallout from a blistering, embarrassing, potentially fatal recording of him suggesting he’s used his celebrity to sexually assault women. In the hours before the debate, he gathered four women who claim they’d been victims of either Hillary Clinton’s husband or her to exploit their pain for his own personal gain. Clinton, on the other hand, suffered a significant, if overshadowed, leak about her previously private speeches.
But it’s safe to say, Clinton came in with the advantage, and Trump came in with an almost impossible recovery mission. He did little to recover, but it’s also hard to see where she used that advantage effectively.
He was undisciplined and puerile, whining about the moderators treating him unfairly, which is never a winning strategy. He missed obvious openings to attack Clinton, for example, on the revelations she’s advocated for open borders in those private speeches. He lurked behind her uncomfortably while she spoke, a visual he was either unaware of or maybe actually totally aware of.
But while Clinton was cool and collected, and seemed far more comfortable than he did, she had a clear strategy to wait for Trump to hang himself, instead of going for the jugular on the easy issue. She had an opportunity tonight to end his campaign for good, either by baiting him into a trap or just throwing a knockout. I’m not sure she did either.
Undecided and independent voters will have to decide if they respect her for taking the high ground, or judge her for failing to more aggressively call him out.
S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News.
Peniel Joseph: It’s officially the ‘Hunger Games’
With the revelation of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump’s bragging about sexual assault during a 2005 taping of an entertainment television show, the 2016 presidential election has officially turned into a “Hunger Games” styled nightmare for the American people.
Trump’s repulsive comments about women cast a shadow over Sunday night’s second presidential debate in St. Louis. Over the weekend, scores of high-profile members of the Republican establishment finally reached their breaking point, openly calling for Trump to drop out of the race.
Moderator Anderson Cooper bluntly asked Trump whether he realized his comments about kissing and groping women without permission amounted to a confession of sexual assault.
Trump characterized his comments as “locker room talk” and claimed to have “great respect for women.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton identified Trump as unfit to lead, by virtue of the latest controversy and the litany of racist, sexist and xenophobic comments the billionaire real estate developer has made throughout the campaign.
Trump, who invited to the debate three women who claimed to be victims of sexual harassment and assault by former President Bill Clinton, responded with a surreal defense of his own words by attacking former President Bill Clinton as a sexual predator enabled by Hillary Clinton.
The most bizarre presidential debate in history featured Trump, a candidate rejected by many of his own party’s leaders, threatening to appoint a special prosecutor to reopen the FBI investigation into her emails. Clinton countered that she was grateful a man like Trump was not president. “Because you’d be in jail,” Trump shot back, in a line that served as red meat to his core base of supporters.
Faced with insurrection in the ranks of the Republican Party on a historic scale, Trump fought back through his most unvarnished display of anger, petulance and disingenuous concern for the plight of African-Americans and Latinos, two groups he’s routinely offended during his campaign.
Clinton found her rhetorical footing answering questions about rising Islamophobia that Trump’s calls for bans on Muslims have greatly contributed to. Clinton offered a nuanced vision of American society that included Muslim Americans and differentiated between religious extremists who advocate terror and ordinary Americans who happen to practice the Islamic faith.
Ultimately, this second debate, which featured no opening handshake between two candidates who apparently despise one another, illustrated more than just the polarizing nature of contemporary American politics.
Trump’s fitness for the presidency has now been openly questioned by some of the leading figures in his own party, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (who asked him to withdraw) and Arizona Sen. John McCain (who rescinded his endorsement).
Verbal fisticuffs between Trump and Clinton over emails, tax returns, and sexual assault have turned a presidential contest into a brutal spectator sport filled with vulgar exchanges that made the spectacle unfit to be watched by children. A largely substance free example of the worst kind of political theater — one largely devoid of serious policy discussion — this debate exemplified how modern day American politics has reached a historic low.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.”
Nayyera Haq: Trump failed to bury the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape
It was impossible to tune into this debate without thinking about the leaked tape of Trump’s comments about women. So it’s a good thing the moderators brought it up at the get-go, giving Trump a chance to reiterate his apology, let Clinton get a jab in, and move his campaign forward.
Trump failed. He failed to take the opportunity to bury the story and instead doubled-down on the “locker room talk” explanation. Trump failed to show his understanding of modern social norms, instead sticking to a sensibility stuck in the culture of the ’70s Playboy mansion. And he failed to assuage his Republican colleagues, who are abandoning his campaign in droves, that he can speak to women voters.
Even scarier, Trump openly admitted to not understanding laws designed to protect women; in response to a direct question from moderators, Trump “wouldn’t say that” grabbing women’s genitalia is considered sexual assault.
On Friday night, President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. By contrast Trump spent the next 72 hours defending “locker room talk” and rape culture. Expect the narrative and evidence of Trump being harmful to women to dominate this coming week.
Nayyera Haq is a former White House senior director and State Department spokesperson under the Obama administration, Nayyera is a regular commentator on politics and current affairs. She supports Hillary Clinton.
Julian Zelizer: Clinton missed a knockout punch
Donald Trump attempted to move away from the “Access Hollywood” controversy by returning to the themes that animated his primary campaign.
He returned to threats from ISIS, illegal immigration, liberal Supreme Court justices and Hillary Clinton’s scandals — from email-gate to paid speeches to her husband’s sexual past.
At moments he lashed out against Clinton in Trumpian fashion, going so far as to call her the “devil” and saying that if he was president she would be in jail. He painted her as a liar and professional politician who says one thing and then does something else.
If the goal was to stop, at least temporarily, the incessant discussion of his comments on the bus with Billy Bush and the calls for him to step down, Trump was successful. He probably re-energized some of his base and turned attention back to Clinton’s controversies.
There were several moments when Clinton found herself on the defense and stumbled in her responses.
The problem is that the debate can’t remake the basic character of this candidacy or the problems that he has created. The “Access Hollywood” tapes were the tip of a very big iceberg. He apologized for the comments, yet without much gusto. On top of that, there are very likely more Trump controversies on the way.
The long list of prominent Republicans who have announced they now will not vote for Trump is well known. The deep record of polarizing and controversial positions and statements won’t go away. Within this debate itself, there were many occasions when Trump reminded undecided voters about why so many Republicans are not on his side. When he threatened to put his opponent in jail on live television he crossed another boundary in campaign history. He even seems to disagree about policy with his vice presidential running mate.
The reason the tape had such an impact was because of who Trump has been and the kind of campaign that he has run since entering the race.
It is hard to see how this debate enables Trump to broaden his electoral base, which is essential if he wants to win.
While Trump was able to use this debate to shift attention away from the recording, he didn’t score a “win” in terms of the overall quality of the debate (his answers were filled with misstatements, vague references and scattershot statements on unrelated issues) and he didn’t erase the problems that he has created for his party. However, Clinton didn’t accomplish the kind of “knockout” punch that her supporters were hoping for.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”
Frida Ghitis: Trump showed he doesn’t get it
The top question on everyone’s mind was how Trump would handle the issue of the tape in which he speaks in deeply offensive ways about women. On that topic, he showed he absolutely does not get it. “This was locker room talk,” he said several times (then awkwardly pivoted to talk about ISIS.) And even though he added, “I’m not proud of it. I apologize…,” the repeated mantra that it was “locker room talk” showed he believes it’s only natural, really OK for men to refer to women in those terms, and perhaps even to sexually assault women in the way he described in that tape.
That may satisfy his core supporters. In fact, his entire performance may have played well with his most devoted followers, but it’s hard to imagine that many independents watched this debate and decided to vote for Trump. His base feels good now, but he didn’t persuade many undecideds, and certainly didn’t peel away any Clinton supporters.
He came across as a rude, overbearing and nasty man. “She has tremendous hate in her heart,” he said, looming over Hillary Clinton and pacing while she spoke. When he spoke, she sat listening, almost never interrupting him, even when he lied; a painful sacrifice Clinton has decided she must make in order not to be seen as “pushy,” or “unlikable,” or some other “unfeminine” trait.
In one jaw-dropping moment, Trump threatened to put Hillary Clinton in prison if he becomes president, marking a new low for American democracy in an election season filled with new lows.
Some of his attacks on Clinton landed forcefully, such as on her emails and speeches. Clinton could have defended herself more forcefully and attacked more frequently. But the overwhelming tone of the debate was one of Trump making harsh personal attacks against his rival, pleasing Hillary-haters and turning off voters trying to make up their minds.
On foreign policy, it was also one shocking statement after another. He said he disagreed with his running mate Mike Pence and his roundly praised statements on Syria. Pence said he would consider attacking Russia and the Syrian regime if they don’t stop the slaughter in Aleppo. Trump said no, and offered a policy that surely brought cheers in Damascus and Syria. Then he made bizarre statements, such as “Russia is new in terms of nuclear, we are old and tired.”
Trump repeated old lies, such as the claim that he opposed the war in Iraq. When Clinton said that claim had been debunked (as it has) he cut in, leaning into the microphone and uttering “Has not been debunked,” sounding like Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump.
On the whole, Trump put on a performance that undoubtedly made his diehard fans feel reassured, but one that confirmed that he does not understand what is wrong with his attitude toward women, toward Muslims and toward Russia, and reminding us that he has a jumbled, dangerous foreign policy, and continues to undercut America’s fundamental democratic traditions.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis.
Haroon Moghul: The real message of the night
We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, Donald Trump now says. But he also says we should’ve “taken their oil.” Guarding immobile, sometimes flammable infrastructure, while plundering and pillaging a sovereign nation is colonialism. Had more Republicans actually paid attention to “take their oil,” at least they wouldn’t have been surprised by “grab them by the p—y.”
Because Islamophobia is misogyny is racism. My God, my race, my wealth, my gender, or what have you, permits me to do unto you as I’d never accept being done unto me. Take their oil. Settle their land. Grope their bodies.
In response to a question about Islamophobia, Trump told an allegedly undecided Muslim voter— a term that makes about as much sense as “clean coal” — that we have to keep in mind the problem of terrorism.
If the moderators had been bolder, they’d have asked Donald Trump if the violence by radical white supremacists permits us to infringe on the rights of white Americans generally.
We should not, as Melania Trump pleaded, simply forgive her husband’s indiscretions, and move on to “the important issues.” The average Trump voter is not motivated by economic anxiety. Stop finding politically correct terms for blatant racists. They’d rather we undo decades of social progress than yield an inch on exploitative structures that keep them powerful.
As we were reminded this Friday, that privilege isn’t ever benign. It came about through violence, and maintains itself through violence: over bodies, over land, over culture. I’d hoped Trump would be out of the race by this weekend, but it seems even sexual predation isn’t enough to wake our country up. Don’t ask if Clinton won or lost. Ask what happened to us.
Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy. His next book, “How to be a Muslim,” will be out in 2017.
Raul Reyes: Trump’s sub-par performance
Here is a note to all candidates at presidential debates: If you find yourself engaged in combative behavior with the moderators, you have lost the debate. At the combination town hall/presidential debate that Politico described as “the most consequential forum in history,” Donald Trump repeatedly clashed with the moderators and made himself look awfully small over the course of 90 minutes. Overall, Hillary Clinton’s steady presence triumphed over Trump’s typically uneven performance.
From the start, Trump seemed exhausted and “low energy” as he faced off with Clinton. The first question of the night, about whether each candidate was modeling appropriate behavior for young people, was one that was certainly expected. But Trump blew it. He missed his chance to show genuine contrition for his recently revealed behavior. Instead his explanation for his lewd remarks about the “Access Hollywood” host and a soap opera actress was that it was “locker room talk.” This was a weak rationalization that will not improve his standing with women — or anyone who has ever been in a locker room in their life.
Trump’s body language was especially revealing tonight. He fidgeted. He paced the stage. At times he lurked behind Clinton, giving off a creepy stalker vibe. And, just like the last debate, he seemed stricken with a case of the sniffles. These were all distractions on top of his rambling answers. Consider that he answered a question from a Muslim woman about Islamophobia by apparently encouraging racial profiling of Muslim Americans. Or that he may have conceded that he did not pay federal income taxes for years.
Worse, once again Trump could not resist interrupting Clinton, or making coarse comments — like his statement that if he were president, he would have a special prosecutor investigate her and that she would be jailed. Does he not understand that using the judicial branch to go after your political opponents is against the law? His statement that Clinton has “tremendous hate in her heart” showed a stunning lack of self-awareness from the man who has disparaged Latinos, immigrants, a Gold Star family, a former Miss Universe, and people with disabilities — among others.
For her part, Clinton provided clear answers on her positions on everything from the Affordable Care Act to Syria. She was prepared for the inevitable questions about WikiLeaks and her deleted emails. Her best answer of the evening was likely when she enumerated the qualifications she would look for in a Supreme Court justice.
This was the rare evening where Trump faced a high bar in terms of what he had to accomplish. Not only did he not manage effective damage control of his latest scandal, it seems unlikely that he won over any undecided or independent voters tonight. However, he likely may have alienated some with his boorish, petulant behavior on full display.
Toward the end of this town hall debate that featured relatively few questions from the audience, Trump described the American nuclear program as “we’re old, we’re tired, we’re exhausted.” He could have been describing his sub-par performance.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him @RaulAReyes.
Roxanne Jones: A pitch to his base
If I were watching a Vegas lounge act, I may have gotten a few chuckles at some of Donald Trump’s quick comebacks during the debate. Too bad, this is a campaign for the highest office in the land, and not a comedy night. It’s not one-liners most voters are looking for but substance, strategy and clear vision to move America forward. We deserve so much more from the man who wants to be President.
After coming out of the box sounding more like a playground punk, Trump picked it up a bit when he took Hillary Clinton to task for deleting thousands of emails while she was Secretary of State. She apologized (again), took responsibility (again) and said if she had it to do over again, she would not have used her private server. Clinton was wrong. She was investigated and cleared of any illegal acts. You either believe her, or not. Move on.
Unemployment rates in the U.S. stand at 5.0%, that’s 7.9 million out of work Americans. For blacks and Hispanics, the picture is bleaker (Black 8.3%, Hispanics 6.4%). And notice that Trump did not deny sending jobs to China by buying low-grade Chinese metal to build his buildings. Not exactly a winning jobs strategy for Americans.
Voters are worried about sending their children to college, about Social Security, clean air, terrorism. Will the next President send our sons and daughters to war? Trump doesn’t seem to be too worried about the Middle East. He shockingly admitted that he “hadn’t talked to Pence” about Aleppo, and when pressed by moderator Martha Raddatz, he couldn’t come up with one detailed answer about how he would handle the war in Syria. One of the major issues of our time and he has no plan. That’s beyond troubling.
But then again, I suspect, talking about foreign policy, a solid jobs plan, college costs are not topics that come up during “locker room banter,” where apparently Trump does his best talking, bragging about groping women and encouraging sex assault. So while Trump may have looked more poised than what we saw in his bombastic behavior during the first debate, he did little to appeal to voters outside of his diehard followers, for whom he can do no wrong. And he’ll need more than them to win.
I’ve been in my share of locker rooms covering sports over the past 20 years and while lewd talk is real, I’ve yet to hear an athlete use the crude, childlike words Trump used describing how he approaches women: “Grab them by the p—y. … You can do anything.”
Clinton was in a tough position, after Trump’s “groping” video was released. She did well to avoid wading too deep into Trump’s gutter.
The win goes to Clinton for staying on course. (And Martha Raddatz, the best moderator thus far.)
Tim Naftali: Bewildering debate didn’t move the needle
This debate was bewildering. The town hall forum at its best brings the issues down to the level of the individual citizen. This one did not and for that reason will not move many voters in either direction.
Trump decided to bring his stump style to the national debate stage and Hillary Clinton responded more combatively than in the first debate.
There was little chance of a policy debate, but with the exception of a few moments on health care and on the selection of a Supreme Court justice, most of the night descended into charges and countercharges.
Trump looked better but his arguments on foreign policy, especially, though forceful, still did not meet the reality test. Clinton was clear but not as crisp this time. A draw.
Tim Naftali, a CNN presidential historian and clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York University, is writing a new biography of President John F. Kennedy.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Just words, folks? They matter
“It’s just words, folks,” was Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s refrain during this debate. And yet words served him well in his strategies of denial, obfuscation, and direct attack.
Trump tried to talk his way out of his most recent offenses toward women, claiming his words were “just locker room talk” while in the same sentence bizarrely calling in ISIS as an aid and a distraction: those crotch grabs? Not anything important, like ISIS chopping peoples’ heads off. Did I mention I will defeat ISIS? If you had trouble following his logic here or at other moments of the evening, you were not alone.
Clinton had a strong enough performance, but some of her fire was missing. Perhaps she wanted to give Trump the space to damage himself, but his repeated gambit of turning policy answers into personal attacks on her warranted a more energetic response.
The winner of this debate? The gentleman at the end who asked the candidates if there’s anything they respect about one another. He reminded us that words do matter. They can incite violence; they prepare action. Yet they can also build bridges, something we’ll need an awful lot of after this election.
The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2016 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.