WASHINGTON — Donald Trump needed a game changer. Instead, he landed a jaw dropper.
When the Republican nominee for president refused to say he would accept the results of the election, he rattled American democracy and openly flirted with the notion of a contested transition of power. He overshadowed an otherwise improved debate performance. And, with an almost-flip, five-word sentence, he created a headache for every Republican running for re-election who will be asked again and again to either defend or reject their nominee.
“I’ll keep you in suspense,” Trump said, when asked at Wednesday night’s third and final debate if he would vow to accept the results.
It was a moment that could have been expected but was stunning nonetheless. Trump has been railing for weeks about a “rigged” system tilted to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton. As he slips further behind Clinton in the polls, Trump has alternately blamed, with no evidence, a corrupt media, fraud at the polls and government officials trying to protect his rival.
The rhetoric has vexed a GOP already riven by his candidacy and fretting about its future. Before the debate, Trump’s vice presidential running mate, his campaign manager and his daughter all had said he would accept the election results. His effort to stir doubts about the outcome drew condemnation from President Barack Obama, who called it “unprecedented.”
But under the bright lights of prime time, Trump showed he will not be clipped by criticism or convention from any corner. As he has throughout the campaign, Trump chose to channel the sort of loose talk and frustration of disaffected Americans, consequences aside.
“She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked — she’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run,” Trump said, of his rival, pointing to no crime.
Clinton called Trump’s comments about accepting election results “horrifying.”
“That is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years,” she said. “We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.”
Trump’s campaign and allies quickly tried to cast his comments as no different than Vice President Al Gore waiting to concede his defeat in the 2000 election until December, after a Supreme Court decision and the recount in Florida. But Trump made no exception for such extraordinary circumstances.
Other Republicans quickly bemoaned the comment: “He should have said he would accept the results of the election. There is no other option unless we’re in a recount again,” tweeted conservative commentator Laura Ingraham.
Barring an unexpected implosion, Clinton walked into the debate on track to win 270 electoral votes — and then some. Trump arrived needing a performance that would stabilize his campaign — if not for his own prospects, then for the good of his party.
In recent weeks, Senate races in Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire and Missouri appear to have tightened. Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania and North Carolina are fighting for their political lives in states where Clinton appears to be pulling ahead.
Republicans hoped he would prove he was serious about trying to win as many votes as possible in the most important places — and not, as some of his rhetoric about the “rigged” election indicates, merely trying to spin his impending loss.
For roughly an hour, Trump showed he was serious. He and Clinton conducted largely substantive and focused policy debate on issues that have received short shrift in previous face-offs, including abortion, gun control and immigration.
The Republican businessman effectively branded Clinton with 30 years of “bad experience” and raised, for the first time in a debate, the hacked emails that have illustrated a gap between her private and public positions, particularly on Wall Street banks and trade.
But Clinton’s preparation and skill at the podium also showed through. She effectively managed to dodge a question about her support for free trade, instead drawing Trump into sharp exchange over Russia’s role in the hack and alleged meddling in the election.
When moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates about allegations of sexual harassment and assault — in Clinton’s case, allegations against her husband — Clinton used the moment to stand up for women, voters Trump has struggled to win, while ignoring the question of Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” she said.
The reemergence of sexual assault and misconduct allegations proved to be turning point in the night. Trump continued to issue flat, broad denials, but from that moment on became increasingly agitated as the conversation moved on to issues like Social Security.
“Such a nasty woman,” he blurted, in a remark that on any other night may have stood out for its caustic tone.
But on Wednesday it was only the second most memorable comment of the night.
Kathleen Hennessey covers politics and the White House for the Associated Press.