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Fireworks In St. Louis: Trump, Clinton Trade Barbs In Heated Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met for their second debate Sunday evening at Washington University in St. Louis.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met for their second debate Sunday evening at Washington University in St. Louis.

After the wildest 48 hours yet in the presidential campaign, the second debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton began in the same fashion. The two even declined the traditional handshake at the outset, setting the tenor for the evening.

And throughout the next 90 minutes, the two interrupted each other, called the other a liar and lobbed plenty of personal digs.

The leaked 2005 video that showed the Republican presidential nominee making vulgar comments about women was the cornerstone of the first clash between the two. As Trump explained away his remarks as "locker room banter," he threw out former President Bill Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct to repel the criticism; before the debate, he held a surprise appearance with Juanita Broaddrick, who alleges Bill Clinton raped her nearly 40 years ago, and Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of sexual harassment — and seated them in the audience.

Moderators Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN tried to control the conversation, but one-third of the debate centered on those controversies. The NPR politics team also live fact-checked the debate. Here are some of the highlights of the night:

Trump's Leaked Audio: 'It's Locker Room Talk'

On his vulgar comments on the video — which caused more than 30 Republican officials to withdraw their endorsements and call on him to drop out — Trump flat-out denied that the way he described grabbing female genitalia or kissing women unprompted constituted sexual assault and said he had never done that.

"It's locker room talk, and it's one of those things," Trump said, trying to turn the subject to ISIS. Trump said he was "embarrassed" by the comments and that he has "great respect for women," but it didn't seem like the robust apology many worried Republicans were hoping for.

Clinton said the tape speaks for itself and that Trump has offended many people beyond just women, pointing out his past controversial comments about Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims and prisoners of war. "He has said that the video doesn't represent who he is. But I think it's pretty clear to anybody who heard it that it represents exactly who he is," Clinton said.

Cooper repeatedly pressed Trump on whether or not he had, in fact, done the things he described in the tape. His response: "Women have respect for me, and I will tell you no, I have not, and I will tell you that I'm going to make our country safe."

Trump Goes There On Bill Clinton

Seventeen minutes in, Trump went exactly where he had long threatened to — Bill Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct. "There has never been anyone in the history of politics who has been as abusive to women," Trump charged. "If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse — mine are words, his was action. His was far worse — what he's done to women. ... Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously."

Clinton's response was to quote first lady Michelle Obama — "When they go low, we go high" — and turn the topic back to the leaked audio, pointing out that while Trump may have apologized for those comments, he hadn't for many of his other controversial comments, including about the Khan family and a judge with Mexican heritage, and for perpetrating the conspiracy theory that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. Trump again falsely alleged that Clinton was the one who had started that rumor.

Trump Says Clinton Would 'Be In Jail' If He Is President

The GOP nominee's response on his lack of apologies was to turn the conversation to Clinton's controversial private email server and missing emails; after an investigation, the FBI recommended no charges.

"[People's] lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you've done. And it's a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself," Trump said.

"If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception," Trump also said, and later retorted that she would "be in jail" if he were president — echoing a popular chant at his rallies. He also referred to Clinton as "the devil" at one point, when he said he was surprised that her former primary rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was now backing her.

'Of Course' I Used Tax Loophole, Trump Says

Another recent bombshell was a New York Times story that Trump may have avoided paying federal income taxes for 18 years because of a nearly $1 billion loss in 1995. That's something Trump — who still hasn't released his personal tax returns — confirmed in the debate.

"I absolutely used it," Trump said of the loophole. "And so did Warren Buffett, and so did George Soros and so did many people who Hillary is getting money from."

"I understand the tax code better than anyone, and it's complex," Trump argued, saying Clinton wouldn't fix the tax code because she hadn't been able to in her eight years in the Senate.

Clinton charged back that Trump would only implement a system that benefits the wealthiest Americans, like himself. "Donald always takes care of Donald and people like Donald," Clinton said.

Trump Splits With Pence On Syria And Russia

In a surprising moment, Trump said he disagrees with his running mate on the foreign policy approach to Russia and Syria. Trump said that while he doesn't like Syrian President Bashar Assad, Assad has been effective at fighting ISIS.

"One thing I have to say is I don't like Assad at all," he explained. "But Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy."

At the vice presidential debate on Tuesday, Pence said that if Russia continued to be involved in attacks on Aleppo, the U.S. should be prepared to use force.

"OK. He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree," Trump responded. When asked what would happen if Aleppo did fall, he claimed that "it basically has fallen." The city is divided and has not fallen.

Clinton On Her Speeches: I Looked To Lincoln

Another story that got overshadowed this weekend amid the Trump tape was emails released by WikiLeaks, supposedly belonging to Clinton's campaign chairman, that showed excerpts of her private speeches talking about needing private and public positions on issues.

"I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do and you have to keep working at it," Clinton said of the former president's fight to get the 13th Amendment passed. "And yes, President Lincoln was trying to convince some people, he used some arguments, convincing other people, he used other arguments. That was a great — I thought a great display of presidential leadership."

Trump charged back that her explanation was "ridiculous."

"Now she's blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln. That's one that I haven't — OK, Honest Abe never lied ... that's a big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you."

Clinton's Email Leaks And Russia

Clinton also said the email leaks were coming from the Russian government "to try to influence the election for Donald Trump" — something that the U.S. government officially said on Friday.

Trump — who has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin this election cycle — said "we don't know if it's Russian."

"She doesn't know if it's the Russians doing the hacking," Trump said. "Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia and the reason they blame Russia, because they think they are trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia."

Trump Says Muslim Ban Has 'Morphed'

In response to a question from a Muslim woman in the audience who asked about rising Islamophobia, Trump defended his initial proposal last year to halt Muslim immigration into the country amid concerns of terrorism.

"The Muslim ban is something that, in some form, has morphed into an extreme vetting from certain areas of the world," Trump said. Asked by Raddatz to explain, he hit Clinton for backing an increase in Syrian immigration. "People are coming into our country, like we have no idea who they are, where they're from, what their feelings about our country is, and she wants 550 percent more. This is going to be the great Trojan horse of all time," he added.

Trump On His Tweets: 'I'm Not Unproud'

The GOP nominee also defended his habit of tweeting, something that's gotten him in hot water often during this campaign.

"Tweeting happens to be a modern-day form of communication. I mean, you can like it or not like it. I have, between Facebook and Twitter, I have almost 25 million people," Trump said. "It's a very effective way of communication. So you can put it down, but it is a very effective form of communication. I'm not unproud of it, to be honest with you."

The tweet in question was when he tweeted about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado (whom Clinton pressed him on during the last debate), urging people to check out her alleged sex tape (there was no sex tape). Trump claimed he never tweeted to "check out a sex tape," when in fact he did.

A Brief Detente At The End?

After what was surely the most hostile and combative presidential debate in modern history, the two candidates did have some kind words to share at the end after they were asked by an audience questioner to say one positive thing they respected in the other.

Clinton responded by praising Trump's children, who have often been at his side during the campaign and are among his closest advisers.

"His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald," she said.

Trump, in turn, praised Clinton as a "fighter."

"I will say this about Hillary — she doesn't quit. She doesn't give up," he said. "I respect that. ... I disagree with much of what she's fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn't quit. And she doesn't give up, and I consider that to be a very good trait."

And in a change from the first moments on stage, the two did in fact shake hands at the conclusion of their hour-and-a-half battle.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.

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