Critic's Notebook: A Flailing Trump Tries to Drag Clinton Down With Him in Second Presidential Debate

Chip Somodevilla, Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

Trump made only a glancing apology for his past comments about abusing women, saying it was just "locker room talk," in a bruising debate that saw the GOP candidate getting particularly nasty.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton didn't shake hands at the beginning of their second presidential debate. That told you all you needed to know about what was going to transpire over the next 90 minutes.

Yes, this was another gloves-off encounter between the two candidates, who by now clearly despise each other. And if viewers were expecting to see Trump offer an apology for his repugnant comments about women that resulted in scores of high-ranking Republicans jumping ship, they were sorely disappointed.

Yes, Trump did say he was sorry. But he quickly dismissed his past verbiage as mere "locker room talk," and pivoted to talking about ISIS "drowning people in steel cages."

"It's one of those things," he blithely said of his bragging about sexually abusing women. "Nobody has more respect for women than I do."

To his credit, Trump did manage to get through the evening without actually groping any women, although if Hillary had been a few decades younger, all bets would have been off. He lived up to his promise to attack Bill Clinton, saying, "Mine were words, his were actions." And in one of the crassest tactics ever displayed by a presidential candidate, he brought along Clinton's past accusers, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, to the debate.

This was a last-ditch stand for Trump, as his campaign seemed to be imploding. Republican big-wigs have gotten so despairing about the election that they're already strategizing about how they're going to impeach Hillary.

Apparently not learning from his mistakes in their last match, Trump resumed his obnoxious, abrasive approach. He constantly interrupted Hillary, who as the evening wore on so often smiled and laughed at his antics that she seemed to be morphing into Kate McKinnon's Saturday Night Live impression of her. Moderators Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper pushed hard against Trump, who repeatedly whined and moaned about their supposed unfairness. But short of using a whip and a chair, there was little they could do.  

The questions posed in the town hall-style debate came from social media and undecided voters in attendance. Hillary was calm, cool and collected, but also just as aggressive as Trump, with the two candidates trading body blows like they were running for heavyweight champion, not commander in chief.

This was the first presidential debate in history in which one candidate openly threatened the other. "If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation!" Trump hissed to his opponent.

As a flabbergasted Hillary attempted to respond, Trump quickly interrupted. "Because you'd be in jail!" he shouted, as the crowd, not experienced with cockfights, went wild.

Another first was a presidential candidate directly contradicting his own running mate, as Trump did when he said that he disagreed with Mike Pence's aggressive stance toward Syria. Someone should really get these two men in a room so they can hash things out. At this point, they might as well be debating each other.

Sniffling loudly during his answers, Trump doesn't seem to have cleared up his nasal passage issues since the previous debate. Forget psychotherapy — he needs a respiratory therapist. It's called Afrin, Donald, look into it.

Attacking Hillary on the issue of her deleted e-mails, Trump shouted, "You should be ashamed of yourself!" At another point, he declared, "She has tremendous hate in her heart."

One of the more amusing moments came when the two candidates fought over who would respond to a question about Obamacare. Not about which one of them would answer, mind you, but rather who wouldn't. After some give and take, Trump deferred, eliciting guffaws when he said, with mock graciousness, "No, I'm a gentleman, Hillary. Go ahead."

Channeling her husband, Hillary got up close and personal with her questioners, frequently moving toward them and addressing them by name. Trump acted as if they weren't in the room, but then again, in his "alternative reality," as Hillary described it, they probably weren't.

Asked about the WikiLeaks release of transcripts of some of her Wall Street speeches, including her statement that "you need both a private and public position" on certain issues, Hillary became defensive. In one of those moments that make some people dislike her, she actually made the claim that she had been referring to Abraham Lincoln's efforts to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, even plugging the Steven Spielberg biopic in the process. She quickly changed the topic to Russian hackers and Trump's refusal to release his tax returns.

Trump sneered at her attempt to inject "Honest Abe" into the proceedings, telling her, "That's the difference between Abraham Lincoln and you." He went on to brag about his finances.

"I have a great balance sheet," he boasted. "The U.S. government knows my sheet very well."

(Insert your own jokes here, folks.)

As if scripted by Hallmark, the debate ended on a sole positive note, when a voter asked both candidates to name one thing each could respect about the other. That the entire audience seemed to find the question hilarious said volumes about the campaign.

"I respect his children," Hillary responded, pointing to Trump's progeny seated nearby.

Trump, in his usual fashion, first made his answer about himself.

"I consider that a compliment," he said, before grudgingly adding about Hillary, "She doesn't quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that."

The evening ended with the candidates finally shaking hands, although it was obvious both couldn't get to the hand sanitizer quickly enough.   

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