ST. LOUIS — A presidential debate whose tone was expected to be shaped by Donald Trump's lewd and demeaning comments a decade ago fulfilled that billing in a testy back-and-forth Sunday night.
Hillary Clinton and Trump established the tenor from the outset, walking onto the stage for their introductions and, seemingly by mutual agreement, passing on the traditional handshake. Throughout the 90-minute exchange, which included questions posed by audience members in the town hall setting, they exchanged insults, defended themselves and even ventured into actual policy positions. After the opening salvos, the specifics of the tape faded into the background.
Here are five quick takeaways from Sunday's debate:
1). The Elephant In the Room Topped the Show
Donald Trump had the worst weekend of his campaign, and perhaps the worst weekend of any presidential campaign ever. A flood of Republican members of Congress broke from the nominee saying that he should drop out or that they wouldn’t vote for him after video surfaced from 2005 of Trump making obscene comments about how he treated women.
Trump upped the tension just minutes prior to the debate by holding a brief press conference with several women who have in the past accused former President Bill Clinton of various forms of sexual assault — signaling his defense strategy.
And the tapes came up right out of the gate. Moderators Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Trump about the video and whether his words constituted sexual assault.
Trump first dismissed some of the video, saying he “didn’t say that all” and said he has “never done those things” and then went on to dismiss it as “locker room talk.”
Finally, he said, “I’m very embarrassed and I hate it,” and claimed "nobody has more respect for women than I do” — a claim he has repeated throughout his candidacy.
Then he turned toward the accusations against Clinton's husband.
“If you look at Bill Clinton. Mine were words and his were action,” Trump said. “There has never been anyone in the history of politics who has been so abusive to women.”
And he attempted to connect the former president’s faults to the current Democratic nominee, saying, “Hillary Clinton has attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
For her part, Clinton invoked First Lady Michelle Obama who has said more than once that when opponents go low, she and her husband go high.
And she said of Trump, "he never apologizes.”
2). Clinton Tries to Connect All the Dots
Clinton also used the leaked video as further proof that Trump will only divide the country and is not fit to be president.
“It’s not only women and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be president,” Clinton said, listing a litany of instances that Trump has denigrated others.
Clinton pointed to Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter, his attacks against a Gold Star family, his smear of a former Miss Universe, his comments about women, and questioning the motives of a federal judge and his labeling of Muslims.
“This is not who we are” as Americans, Clinton said.
Trump responded, “It’s just words folks. It’s just words.” It’s a response that meant that Clinton is all talk and no action, a theme through out the 90-minute debate. But it also could have been a defense for the demeaning things that he’s said to and about others.
3). Trump Takes Email Scandal to Another Level
During the first debate, Trump got in no real effective attacks against Clinton. He learned his lesson.
Trump said he “probably shouldn’t say this,” but that if he were to win the presidency, he’s going to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her.
“There has never been anything like it,” he said, referring to the deletion of 33,000 emails on her private server when she was Secretary of State.
Clinton responded, saying, her email server was a “mistake and I take responsibility.”
“I’m not making any excuses,” she said while adding that there is “no evidence” that her email was hacked. But instead of dropping it after those concise points, she spent more time trying to litigate the subject, which often makes her look like she's not being truthful or unconcerned.
And when Clinton tried to defend an excerpt of a paid speech that was leaked Friday afternoon where she said she speaks differently about Wall Street in public than in private by saying she was telling a story about former President Abraham Lincoln, Trump interjected in an effective way that made her justification seem absurd.
"She got caught in a total lie. And she lied," Trump said. "Now she’s blaming the lie on the late great Abraham lincoln."
4). Trump Admits to Not Paying Federal Taxes
Trump admitted that he took advantage of a loophole that allowed him not to pay federal income taxes.
When asked if he didn't pay federal income taxes, Trump said, “Of course.”
“A lot of my write off was depreciation,” Trump said, referring to a New York Times story indicated that Trump could have not paid taxes for up to 18 years since 1995 because of a $916 million loss.
“I absolutely used it,” Trump said.
5). Trump Breaks with His Own Running Mate on Syria
In last week’s vice presidential debate, Trump’s vice presidential candidate Mike Pence broke with Trump on his Syria policy, taking a hard line on Russia and threatening American force if Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to bomb civilians.
But Sunday night, Trump said he doesn’t have the same position as his running mate.
“He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree,” Trump said, which leads to Trump’s ongoing defense of Russia.
6). Trump Continued to Defend Russia
Clinton said that Russia must be held accountable for atrocities in Syria and that she supports the investigation that Russia, along with Assad, are committing war crimes in Syria by the barrage of bombings in eastern Aleppo.
Trump, meanwhile, defended Russia, insisting that they are bombing ISIS, which the international community does not believe.
“I don’t like Assad at all but Assad is killing ISIS; Russia is killing ISIS,” Trump said.
Both candidates were asked their strategy for the war-torn nation. Clinton said she would continue what the U.S. is currently doing — special forces stationed on the ground, training rebels and counterintelligence missions — but would also enforce a no-fly zone.
Trump didn’t lay out a plan but after a rambling answer about Mosul, Iraq and several other tangents, he said the U.S. should implement a secret mission.
“Why can’t they do something secretly?” Trump asks.