0 minutes. It’s not funny anymore. There is no bottom. You just keep falling. The fear is not about hitting the ground. It’s not even the accelerating speed. The fear is that it never ends. That each new low effortlessly gives way to another. False floors down the rabbit hole. Up is down. The past unremembered. Sex tape. Pussy. The next President of the United States. No one knows how to make it stop.
1 minute. “We want to welcome you,” says CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who will try help. He is sitting next to ABC’s Martha Raddatz. They appear familiar, reassuring. They welcome the candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, who approach each other, but do not shake hands like in the first debate. That’s one of the floors we have fallen through.
2 minutes. This is a town hall-style debate. A couple dozen regular people, cast like extras in a disaster movie. The script calls for them to be helpful, stone-faced, for just a few seconds on screen. The first question is whether the candidates feel they are modeling behavior for the nation’s youth. The only answer is no. But Clinton tries to answer it by sounding optimistic. “Our country really is great because we are good,” she says. We were once. We might be again.
5 minutes. “I agree with everything she said,” Trump says, when his turn comes. Could this be solid ground? Could the drugs be wearing off? Was the final landing really so gentle?
7 minutes. The answer is no. Cooper follows by pointing out that a recently released video tape from 2005 showed Trump boasting about “kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals.” “That is sexual assault,” Cooper says. “You bragged that you sexually assaulted women.”
8 minutes. “I don’t think you understood,” says Trump. Then he apologizes, says he is not proud, and tries to connect his vulgarity to world events: “This was locker room talk. When we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have frankly drowning people in steel cages, wars, and horrible, horrible fights all over — so many bad things happening. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.” Maybe he is suggesting that “grab them by the pussy; you can do anything,” means something different in a world with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Maybe not. There is no way to know. But the floor has vanished. The fall resumes.
9 minutes. Cooper asks three times if Trump ever actually did the things he bragged about, assaulting women with his mouth and hands. Trump finally relents by promising to destroy the Islamic State. “No, I have not. I will tell you that I’m going to make our country safe,” he says.
10 minutes. Clinton gets her chance to pile on. Instead of lingering on the tape, her plan is to list off all the other things that Trump has done to offend all the other groups of people who have been offended. Trump responds to the line of attack by saying, “It’s just words, folks. Just words,” which is what a 70-year-old says instead of “Blah, blah, blah” or “I know you are but what am I.”
12 minutes. Raddatz interrupts Trump to ask another question about the tape. He complains, “So, she’s allowed to do that, but I’m not allowed to respond. Sounds fair.” Trump knows sarcasm. Raddatz barrels through, basically asking how the country can know if he is now an mature adult, since he was 59 when he bragged about grabbing genitals.
13 minutes. This allows Trump to behave in further shocking ways, because nothing holds Trump back. Just a moment ago, he was saying Clinton’s words were meaningless. Now he claims her crime as his defense. All he has done is talk about sexual assault, he suggests. “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” he says. “Mine are words, his was action.” Bill Clinton is not on the stage, and his alleged crimes all occurred before his last reelection in 1996, and he has denied them all. But Trump implicates Hillary Clinton, by saying she attacked her husband’s accusers. Also he says she worked as a defense attorney for a rapist, whose victim he has brought to the audience tonight. The case occurred in 1975, which is 41 years ago. The legal profession is built around the premise that all are entitled to counsel. Keep falling.
15 minutes. Everything speeds up. Nausea sets in. Clinton responds by noting Trump’s attempts to disqualify a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage, his attacks on the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in war, and his championing of the false claim that Barack Obama was foreign-born. Trump responds with a couple of phony conspiracy theories: He suggests Clinton’s campaign started the birther claim and that the Democratic nomination was stolen from Bernie Sanders. Then he says if he wins he will order his Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate Clinton’s use of email, which would basically destroy the idea that the White House seek to keep politics out of criminal prosecutions. “You ought to be ashamed,” he concludes.
19 minutes. “It’s awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Clinton responds. Trump is ready. “Because you’d be in jail,” he says. Remember when major party candidates did not vow to jail each other during campaigns? Take your time. It’s hard.
22 minutes. This is the time where everyone talks about Clinton’s email usage. She repeats her talking points. Trump repeats her equivocations and false statements. Clinton says, “It’s just not true,” even though some of it is. Trump starts interrupting a lot. He is getting hot again. When the moderators try to move on, Trump fixates on another conspiracy, accusing Cooper and Raddatz of working with Clinton by changing the subject off of emails after introducing the subject of emails. “Nice, one on three,” Trump says. More sarcasm. At this point, if the two candidates make it through without physical contact, the country wins.
27 minutes. Just to summarize so far. Just about everything has gone haywire, as expected. No Presidential candidate has ever performed like Trump has in modern history, attacking the moderators, attacking a candidate’s spouse and threatening to jail his rival. The norms are smashed, the nation in shock. But on balance, given the last week Trump has had, he is probably outperforming expectations.
28 minutes. Now it slows down. A question about health care reform gets Clinton laying out her plan. And Trump laying out his. Clinton’s plan includes phrases like “copays, deductibles, prescription drug costs.” Trump’s plan includes phrases like, “We have to repeal it and replace it with something absolutely much less expensive.”
30 minutes. Trump bashes the Canadian single-payer health system. “The Canadians, when they need a big operation, they come into the United States in many cases, because their system is so slow,” he says. “It’s catastrophic in certain ways.” More evidence memory does not matter. In the first debate of this election cycle, in August of 2015, Trump said, “As far as single payer, it works in Canada.”
34 minutes. A Muslim extra asks Trump what he will do to stem the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. He answers by saying, “We have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it.” Also President Obama needs to start using the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
37 minutes. “Violent jihadist terrorist,” responds Clinton. “We are not at war with Islam. And it is a mistake and it plays into the hands of the terrorists to act as though we are.” While Clinton speaks, Trump appears to be doing standing pushups against the back of his stool.
40 minutes. Trump admits that he has given up his plan to ban all Muslims from entering the country until “we can figure out what the hell is going on.” Trump said the idea has “morphed” into his new plan for “extreme vetting.” Raddatz asks, “Why did it morph?” Trump answers, “Why don’t you interrupt her?”
43 minutes. Trump says again he opposed the Iraq war before it began. Clinton says again that there is no record of him doing that. “It’s been debunked,” she says. “Has not been debunked,” he says. It has been debunked. There is no public record of him opposing the war before it began. There is a record of him supporting it.
44 minutes. Trump says “ICE just endorsed me,” in reference to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security. They did not. A union representing some ICE employees endorsed him.
45 minutes. Clinton is asked why she once said, in a speech transcript published by Wikileaks, that it is important to have a public position and a private position on political issues. Clinton answers by saying Abraham Lincoln did this, at least in a Hollywood adaptation by Steven Spielberg. “She lied. Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln,” says Trump. “Honest Abe never lied.” Snap.
48 minutes. Strangely, Trump follows this by saying no one knows for sure it was the Russians who hacked her campaign’s email and gave the documents to Wikileaks, even though that is what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded. Then Trump goes further. “Maybe there is no hacking,” he says, which doesn’t make any sense. But don’t think hard. This is an Infowars campaign. Just a few weeks ago, Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails.
54 minutes. Trump says Clinton will raise your taxes “massively” and he will lower them. He also admits that he took nearly $1 billion in deductions, after losing that much money in the 1990s. “Of course I do,” he says. “So do all her donors.” In Trump’s view, there is no sin he has committed which someone Hillary Clinton knows has not also committed. So it’s basically a wash.
59 minutes. Time to talk Syria. Trump decides this would be a good time to further embarrass his running mate, Mike Pence, who argued last week at his debate that a Trump-Pence administration would confront Russia with military force if it continues to be involved with air strikes to defend Assad. “He and I haven’t spoken,” says Trump. “And I disagree. I disagree.” Trump likes that the governments of Russia and Syria might both unite to fight ISIS. He also calls Aleppo, a city with hundreds of thousands of people, a lost cause. “It basically has fallen,” Trump says.
68 minutes. Clinton repeats her promise never to use ground forces in Syria. “I think that would be a very serious mistake,” she says.
75 minutes. Both candidates try to answer a question about how they would govern as a devoted president to all the people in the United States. Neither is convincing.
77 minutes. “Believe me, she has tremendous hate in her heart,” Trump says about Clinton.
78 minutes. Cooper asks Trump why he told people to check out the sex tape of one of his critics, Alicia Machado, a Latina beauty pageant winner. “No, there wasn’t ‘check out a sex tape,’” Trump says. “It was just take a look at the person that she built up to be this wonderful Girl Scout who was no Girl Scout.” In fact, Trump tweeted the words “check out sex tape,” along with the false and conspiratorial suggestion that Clinton helped Machado become a U.S. citizen.
81 minutes. Trump and Clinton run through a few more issues. How they would pick Supreme Court nominees. How they view energy policy. There are answers. But it’s hard to pay attention after everything else that has happened.
90 minutes. The final question, an old standby. Say something nice about your rival. Clinton says she admires Trump’s children. Trump seems genuinely touched. “I consider her statement about my children to be a very nice compliment,” says Trump. So he returns the favor. “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up,” he says. “I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter.” He has spent months saying she doesn’t have the stamina for the job of President.
93 minutes. They shake hands. It’s over. This is a false bottom. Don’t get comfortable. The free fall resumes tomorrow.