Clinton didn’t arrive at the final debate to protect a polling lead or to seek a soaring message to close out the campaign. She went to make a case against Trump — a case she backed up with facts, including Trump’s own words, and a litany of alleged actions.
At one point, she listed some of the various individuals Trump has insulted — including, of course, the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” Clinton said. “It’s really up to all of us to demonstrate who we are and who our country is.”
Trump issued a blanket denial about those women, saying, “I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who’s sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything.”
Yet Trump rarely managed to piece together a forceful argument against Clinton amid scattershot on the stage.
In one striking moment, Trump refused to say he would definitely respect the outcome of the election.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said.
“That’s horrifying,” Clinton responded. (Trump subsequently seemed to affirm that he thought the Emmy Awards were also rigged. “Should have gotten it,” he said of his TV program’s missing out on the prize three years in a row.)
Trump was at his strongest when he sought to turn Clinton’s strengths against her. Aside from various criminalities, he accused her of lying, of favoring open borders, of flip-flopping, of wanting to raise taxes — all charges that play strongly with his base.
“The one thing you have over me is experience. But it’s bad experience,” he said. “The problem is you talk but you don’t get anything done.”
But Trump spent more time on defense than offense. As at the first debate, he showed a propensity to take Clinton’s bait.
“Finally, will Donald Trump admit and condemn that Russia is doing this?” Clinton said of apparent Russian attempts to influence the U.S. election by hacking. “Those are the questions we need answered.”
Trump responded, “That was a great pivot off of the fact that she wants open borders. How did we get to Putin?”
But then he stayed on Putin. He said, “Of course I would condemn” actions by “Russia or anybody else,” but he played it slightly carefully by saying Putin is “not my best friend.”
“[Putin would] rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton said.
“No, you’re the puppet,” Trump responded.
The final debate devolved into that kind of name-calling often. “Such a nasty woman,” Trump said toward the debate’s end.
Trump sought to use the content of those hacked emails against Clinton.
Clinton reminded Trump that Sanders is supporting her now. Sanders, she said, believes “you are the most dangerous person to run for president in the modern history of America. I think he is right.”
The race has changed substantially in the three weeks since the first debate, at which Trump started strong and faded. Trump needed to change the campaign conversation at the final debate, but Clinton kept control of the race.