ST. LOUIS – Shortly before Donald Trump took the stage here in St. Louis, he finished a Facebook Live video press conference with Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick—a more dramatic response to the tape on which he boasted of groping women than anyone could have imagined.
Of course, it’s been hard to imagine much of this reality-show campaign, but its most sensational, trash-talking elements—from Hillary Clinton’s possible role in her husband’s sexual misconduct to Trump talking about pursuing a married woman on “Access Hollywood”--collided on the Washington University stage.
Anderson Cooper began with three questions about the 2005 tape, including grabbing women’s “genitals…that is sexual assault. Do you understand that?”
In perhaps the strangest segue I’ve ever seen, Trump apologized for what he called “locker-room talk” and pivoted to ISIS beheadings. And the debate went downhill from there.
Clinton responded by calling Trump unfit for office, saying he has a history of demeaning women and broadened her indictment to his attitude toward blacks, Latinos, Muslims and the disabled.
Then came the promised Trump counterattack, saying he had just uttered words but that Bill Clinton was the most abusive politician toward women in the nation’s history, and that Hillary attacked some of the women.
They kept trading blows, ignoring admonitions from Cooper and Martha Raddatz. Clinton accused Trump of never apologizing, invoking the Khan family and the Mexican-American judge in the Trump University case. Trump vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to reopen the email investigation that the FBI recently closed.
She defended herself over deleting 33,000 emails she calls personal, saying it would be a mistake to have her opponent in charge of law enforcement. “Because you’d be in jail,” Trump muttered.
Then audience members began asking about other issues.
Trump got stronger later in the debate. Clinton’s most defensive moment came deep into the night, when Raddatz asked her about the Wikileaks dump on her Wall Street speeches. But the submitted question wasn’t tightly framed, just about a gap between her public and private positions.
Hillary started out talking about Abe Lincoln (leading to a bit of Trump mockery), switched to Russian hackers potentially trying to influence the election and wound up pointing to Trump’s tax returns. He defended his billion-dollar writeoff and said such liberals tycoons as Warren Buffett and George Soros took such deductions.
The moderators generally seemed more aggressive with Trump than with Clinton, especially when Raddatz briefly debated him on Syrian policy.
The opening of the debate was the most intensely personal half hour that America has ever seen in a televised presidential debate.
There was plenty of red meat for Trump supporters. He essentially called Clinton a liar and a crook and threatened to sick the feds on her if he wins the White House. At times his attacks on his opponent seemed over the top, and perhaps, in reference to Bill’s cheating, low road. But he was, to be sure, aggressive.
Clinton took a more dismissive approach, reciting a litany of those Trump has attacked in a more-in-sorrow tone. His attacks didn’t seem to rattle her. But she seemed to lose her rhythm, especially when the focus turned to her record.
At a certain point they were like two prizefighters, and they both ended up bruised.
The St. Louis debate may have wound up close to a draw. And given the hell that Trump has been through in the past 48 hours, and despite his pregame stunt with Clinton’s accusers, that is a virtual victory for him.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.