It was the ugliest debate in American history and it began without a handshake.
From the opening moments of the second presidential debate, Donald Trump tried to downplay the tape of him bragging about his past sexually aggressive advances on women — “it’s just words folks, it’s just words” — as he tried to change the topic to Bill Clinton, the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton’s emails and anything else.
“This was locker room talk,” Trump said over and over.
Clinton would not let Trump off the hook, however. “What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women and he has said the video doesn’t represent who he is but it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is," she said.
Trump fired back that it was “just words" and accused Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, of far worse “actions,” pointing to the four women whom he had invited into the audience with allegations against the Clintons.
But Clinton said Trump owed the American people an apology — not just for the tape but his past attacks on President Barack Obama’s birthplace, the family of a fallen soldier and others.
“He owes the president an apology and our country an apology and he needs to take responsibility for his actions and his words,” she said.
There was no apology. Instead, more attacks, as Trump tried to make the debate about Clinton, hitting her for her private email server and saying that, as president, he would appoint a special prosecutor and said “you would go to jail.”
In one of the nastiest early moments, Trump cavalierly referred to Clinton as the "devil."
As Trump amped up his attacks, Clinton appeared to lose her patience, accusing the billionaire of desperately trying to throw out diversions because his campaign is "exploding."
The two candidates arrived in St. Louis after a devastating 48 hours for Trump, whose campaign was sent into a tailspin on Friday by the publishing of a decade-old tape in which Trump described in graphic and sexually aggressive terms making unwanted advances on women, who, he said, allowed him to do so because he is a “star.”
Republican governors, senators and congressmen spent Saturday rescinding their endorsements from Trump, as some called for him to drop out. Even Trump’s own running mate, Mike Pence, canceled his planned appearance on Trump’s behalf.
Many Republican officials had called on Trump to display contrition and apologize succinctly ahead of the showdown. But the showman businessman began lashing out even before he arrived for the debate, writing on Twitter, “So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!”
His former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, attacked Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on CNN as a “weak” and “failed leader.” “Where was he today on the talk shows, saying Donald Trump is our leader?” Lewandowski asked.
Then, less than two hours before Trump and Clinton were scheduled to take the stage, Trump sprung a surprise stunt that hinted at the nasty debate to follow: holding a photo-op with four women who have alleged they were victimized by Bill and Hillary Clinton to various degrees, including Juanita Broaddrick, who declared, “Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there is any comparison.”
All four women were expected to be inside the debate hall, where Trump and Clinton sparred in a town-hall setting answering questions from undecided voters, as well as moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC.
After the first debate, when Trump struggled to make key arguments and faded in the final half, Clinton has surged back into the lead nationally and in key states. Trump’s self-inflicted troubles — including spending days attacking a beauty pageant winner — were weighing him down even before the tape that emerged on Friday.
Top Republican officials said publicly and privately that Sunday’s debate represented Trump’s last, best chance to salvage his campaign, as many prepared for the fallout should he fail, and to save the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.