In a striking breach of decorum that upended more than two centuries of American democratic tradition, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump refused to commit Wednesday to accept the outcome of the Nov. 8 general election.
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump said midway through the third and final presidential debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
The moment underscored the potential chaos looming at the end of a long and often ugly election. Lagging Clinton badly with 19 days to go, Trump has repeatedly argued that the race is being rigged by her opponent, special interest groups and the media. To the chagrin of aides and Republican allies alike, his unwillingness to respect the integrity of the electoral process has challenged one of the central pillars of American democracy.
In an election in which substance has taken a back seat, Trump was done in by character. The billionaire showman — who has argued his opponent shouldn’t be allowed to run because of her private email server, that the election would be stolen, and that he’d imprison his rival if elected — delved deeper into the realm of conspiracy at precisely the moment he needed to appear more presidential.
Trump took the stage as a candidate on the ropes, needing to dramatically alter the course of his floundering campaign amid plunging polls and waves of allegations from women who accuse him of unwanted sexual behavior. And while he tried to heed the campaign advisers who urged him to project a more sober temperament for the first 30 minutes, the rambunctious candidate couldn’t hold it together for the duration of the show at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center.
Once again, Trump wilted under Clinton’s needling. In the second half of the debate, he fell back on the interruptions that marred his earlier performances (“Wrong!” he interjected, over and over), denied that he has attacked the physical appearance of his accusers and hurled a personal, gendered invective at the former Secretary of State. “Such a nasty woman,” Trump blurted out with minutes remaining in the debate.
Meanwhile, Clinton was deftly wielding pithy punch lines. “When you are whining before the game isn't even finished,” she told Trump, “it just shows you're not up to doing the job.”
In the spin room after the debate, Trump aides and advisers — who had long cautioned Trump against his rhetoric questioning the conduct of the election — played cleanup. Trump, they told reporters, would absolutely accept the outcome of the race. But their assurances flew in the face of the candidate’s own words on stage. The mixed message evoked the old Groucho Marx quote: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
The exchange about faith in the integrity of the electoral process was also a turning point in the debate for Trump. Until then, he had flashed rare discipline as Clinton baited him, demonstrating a greater command of the issues than he had previously, and effectively making his case as a change candidate.
“The problem is you talk, but you don’t get anything done, Hillary,” Trump said, delivering a line his advisers couldn’t have scripted better.
Like the previous two, the debate did little to alter the course of the race, but revealed more about the two disliked and distrusted nominees. Moderator Chris Wallace brought probing and questions about his treatment of women and her private speeches. While seemingly more poised, Trump’s answers on foreign policy questions continued to betray his unfamiliarity with issues of national security and foreign affairs, as when he stumbled over whether the Syrian city of Aleppo has fallen. Clinton’s reflexive defensiveness at questions about her shifting positions on trade and globalization provided more fodder to her opponents.
Clinton, as she had in all three debates, came armed to the gills with opposition research on her opponent: the portrait of himself Trump bought with funds from his charity, his claims that the Emmys were "rigged" against him, and his use of Chinese steel in his skyscrapers. It was the latest incarnation of her established strategy to provoke her temperamental rival.
Midway through the debate, she struck pay dirt, as Trump couldn’t resist the opportunity to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin from accusations that his government has hacked Democratic accounts in an effort to undermine faith in the U.S. election system. “Our country has no idea [who is behind the hack],” Trump said, despite it being the unanimous view of U.S. intelligence that Russia was behind it.
“Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person,” Trump continued of his rival. “Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton responded in one of her most effective attacks of the night.
But it was the final two minutes of the final debate that encapsulated their opposing strategies for the waning days of this race. Asked to make their closing arguments to the American people, the nominees presented diametrically opposed visions of the race, the country, and the presidency.
“I would like to say to everyone watching tonight that I’m reaching out to all Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — because we need everybody to help make our country what it should be, to grow the economy, to make it fairer, to make it work for everyone,” Clinton said, delivered an uplifting appeal welcoming all Americans to her campaign.
As he has all year, Trump painted a dire picture of the country and his opponent. “All she’s done is talk to the African Americans and to the Latinos, but they get the vote, and then they come back, they say, We’ll see you in four years,” Trump said.
Left unanswered was how either President-elect will seek to bridge the national gap in three weeks if they win. The two candidates couldn’t even overcome their own gap, declining to shake hands before or after the debate.