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Donald Trump’s Head Fake to Nowhere

How a disastrous third debate for Trump overshadowed Hillary Clinton’s masterful performance

Getty Images
Getty Images

Wednesday night, Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election is going to obscure just how badly he lost the third presidential debate. The structure of debates makes it rare that one candidate wins not just on the substance and persuasiveness of their answers (the important stuff), but also on command of the stage, laugh lines, oppo dumps, and big, memorable moments. Hillary Clinton won by all these measures. Her margin was so big that if the third debate were an election, it couldn’t possibly be stolen.

Trump’s first problem lay in his very approach. According to Nate Silver’s Ouija board, Trump trails by about seven points with three weeks to go. But it was Clinton who attacked like an underdog tonight. Her first body check came in the debate’s second section, about immigration. When recounting Trump’s plan to build a wall on the southern border and his August meeting with the Mexican president, she snarked, “[He] didn’t even raise it. He choked.”

After a few exchanges, Clinton once again moved in: “Donald knows a lot about this. He used undocumented labor to build Trump Tower.” She would later hit Trump for building a hotel, “here in Las Vegas,” with Chinese steel. Later, when he referenced the “beautiful” hotel, she couldn’t resist a Trumpian interruption: “made with Chinese steel …”

Over three debates, you could almost see new programs being loaded onto Clinton’s internal hard drive. She beefed up her worst answers and learned from her mistakes. For instance, in the second debate Clinton let Trump use Bernie Sanders’s words against her before weakly reminding viewers that Sanders was, you know, supporting her. Wednesday night, when Trump invoked Sanders, she was ready with Sanders’s nastiest line from the stump: “You are the most dangerous person to run for president in the modern history of America.” (It seemed less harsh because she was quoting someone else.)

In two debates, Clinton struggled to parry Trump’s line about her 30 years’ worth of experience. This is a bit of nonsense that serves to blame Clinton for everything that happened in America, if not the world, while she was first lady of Arkansas. But the line was catchy. It’s worth printing Clinton’s answer from Wednesday in full:

In other words, a hard-working political lifer is trying to save the country from a sleazy dilettante — exactly the prism through which Clinton wants voters to see the election.

And so it went. The section that moderator Chris Wallace called “Fitness to Be President” proved to be as bad for Trump as everyone feared (or hoped). Confronted with numerous groping claims, Trump’s defense was to blame the alleged victims: “They want either fame or her campaign did it.” (Another highlight was when Trump said the charges had been “largely,” rather than fully, debunked.)

In her response, Clinton reminded the audience about the grossness Trump had unleashed at recent rallies (he suggested his accusers weren’t pretty enough to assault), and then universalized the experience: “I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.” After a few rounds, Trump almost pleaded to move on: “Honestly, I’d love to talk about getting rid of ISIS.” Of course he would’ve.

Another time, Wallace asked Clinton about a speech (“for which you were paid $225,000”) in which she seemed to stump for open borders. Trump, who thinks the media is one of many actors “rigging” the election, was moved to tell Wallace, “Thank you.”

But Clinton pivots expertly. She answered the question and then turned to WikiLeaks, the source of the scoop. “The most important question of this evening,” she said, “is finally will Donald Trump admit and condemn” the Russians and Vladimir Putin for tampering with the election. Once again, Trump was forced to defend himself.

Over the last month, one of the media intrigues is whether Trump would actually prepare for a debate. (Another intrigue was whether he’d skip a debate.) Tonight, CNN’s Dana Bash reported that Trump had practiced for the third debate “in a more traditional way.” Indeed, there were signs that Trump at least consumed some talking points. In the immigration section, Trump said, “President Obama has moved millions of people out. Nobody knows about it, nobody talks about it.”

In regard to Obama’s deportation regime, this is true. His policies have irked a lot of liberals. The one problem is, saying Obama was tough on immigration cuts out the heart of Trump’s open-borders fantasia. Clinton was happy to be accused of being pals with a president who was too tough on immigration.

Had the debate stopped there, Trump might have skated by, and we could gone back to wondering whether he’d lose Utah. But toward the end of the “Fitness to Be President” section, the debate changed. Wallace asked Trump if he’d accept the results of the election.

“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I’m not looking at anything now.”

This after Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, and Kellyanne Conway had all assured voters that Trump would, indeed, accept an L on Election Night.

You could see just how surprised Wallace was from the incredulous formality of his follow-up: “Sir, there is a tradition in this country. … Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”

With the makings of a smirk, Trump said, “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”

The answer might have been a game changer if the game hadn’t ended two weeks ago.

I could list more Clinton victories: calling Trump Putin’s “puppet” or noting that Trump also thought the Primetime Emmys were “rigged.” But at this point, it’s more useful to focus on a quote that Steve Bannon, the Breitbart media honcho and Trump campaign CEO, gave before the debate.

Trump is a “master of the head fake,” Bannon declared. On one level, this is a self-serving line that attempts to give a kind of intellectual consistency to everything from bringing Obama’s half brother to the debate to calling Alicia Machado fat.

But the line is also revealing. So much of Trump’s campaign has been conducted with the idea of keeping America in suspense for great news that’s just around the corner — just as a TV show teases the next segment. My tax returns are on the way — right after I get finished with this pesky audit. I’ll rebut the groping allegations — any day now. We’re gonna start winning again …

For months, the head fakes worked. But we are now 20 days from the election. Trump’s endless head fakes now seem like a basketball player who uses that very maneuver a dozen times, lets the shot clock expire, and then runs off the court and tells Craig Sager that the game was fixed.

After three debates, it’s clear that Trump will produce neither new revelations nor his tax returns. There will be no “new” Trump. No “pivot.” The election will proceed toward the conclusion that everyone thought (or hoped) it would when Trump was nominated. Then, all that’s left is the head fake.