Historians assessing the 2016 presidential election will cite Donald Trump’s repeated self-inflicted wounds: attacking a Mexican-American federal judge, the Muslim-American Gold Star parents of a fallen war hero and a former Miss Universe.
But they’ll likely conclude he administered the coup de grace to himself by refusing in Wednesday night’s third televised debate with Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas to pledge he would accept the results of the election.
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“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said, reiterating his charges the election is rigged and the media have “poisoned the mind of the voters.” Amid an audible gasp in the audience, stunned moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News repeated the question. “I will tell you at the time,” Trump repeated. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
Ironically, until then, despite some flailing and his usual array of misstatements, a more composed Trump gave a stronger argument for his case that the country’s problems require dramatic changes only he can provide.
But that one answer almost certainly overrode everything else in the 90-minute debate, leaving Trump with dire political prospects just 19 days before Election Day. More seriously, it raised the prospect the defeated candidate and millions of his supporters would refuse to accept the legitimacy of the result, complicating the winner’s efforts to unite the country and form a functioning government.
His comments appeared to stun some of his own supporters. “He should have said he would accept the results of this election,” conservative commentator and sometime Trump adviser Laura Ingraham quickly tweeted.
Afterwards, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, sought to bail out her candidate, saying, “Donald Trump will accept the results of the election because Donald Trump will win the election.” On Thursday morning, she modified that, saying Trump wanted to ensure there was “no widespread voter fraud or malfeasance” and noting former Vice President Al Gore withdrew his initial concession before the 36-day Florida recount in 2000.
But Gore never said he wouldn’t respect the result, and when the Supreme Court ruled for rival George W. Bush, he immediately conceded and pledged unity.
Robert Costa of The Washington Post told MSNBC that Conway told him campaign officials are working with the Republican National Committee to monitor the balloting and lay the basis for possible challenges.
Still, with national poll and state surveys showing Clinton’s lead expanding since their first debate, the main remaining question (barring something totally unexpected) may be the extent of Trump’s defeat and whether it costs Republicans their control of the Senate and very possibly the House.
CNN’s post-debate survey again showed Clinton the winner though more narrowly than before. Wallace, who kept a tight rein, succeeded in drawing the candidates out on some issues that were barely discussed in earlier debates. One was the Supreme Court, which produced a predictable philosophical split. Another was entitlement reform, where Clinton urged bolstering the Social Security fund and Trump said “record” economic growth would solve the problem.
Many Trump answers again seemed aimed at energizing his conservative base, rather than expanding it. He conceded appointing abortion rights foes to the Supreme Court meant overturning the 1973 decision legalizing abortions “will happen,” leaving the issue to the states.
That would hardly seem helpful in appealing to undecided female voters, and Trump may have exacerbated his problem late in the debate. After trying all night to get under his skin with cutting remarks, Clinton finally scored in discussing Social Security.
“My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it,” she said.
“Such a nasty woman,” Trump exclaimed.
Trump again refused to concede Russia’s role in hacking her campaign chairman’s email and again praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. “If we get along well, that would be good,” Trump said, prompting her to say, “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
“No puppet. No puppet,” he responded. “You’re the puppet.”
But Trump’s refusal to pledge he’ll respect the result, a response she called “horrifying,” overshadowed it all.
“Every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is, is rigged against him,” Clinton said, noting he once complained the Emmys were rigged “when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row.”
“I should have gotten it,” Trump said.
And though he left open the prospect of contesting this election, current trends may mitigate that by leaving little doubt of the outcome.
Contact Mr. Leubsdorf at email@example.com.