Donald Trump needed to stop the bleeding – and at the least, the Republican nominee may have done that. He delivered an unsparing debate performance Sunday against Hillary Clinton that may not have won over many undecided voters but assured his base that Trump the fighter hasn’t been knocked out despite the controversy over a 2005 tape of him making lewd comments about women.
Significantly, he won praise Monday morning from running mate Mike Pence. In normal circumstances in a normal election cycle, that praise would be taken for granted – but it followed widespread speculation about the Indiana governor and staunch Christian conservative’s willingness to stay on the ticket in the wake of the vulgar footage controversy.
"The real story this morning is that Donald Trump stepped up and won a debate last night that seemed to be against all odds," Pence told "Fox & Friends" on Monday.
The words of praise come after a host of prominent elected Republicans abandoned the ticket over the weekend because of that 2005 footage. But Trump’s closest supporters and advisers were suggesting in the wake of the debate that those lawmakers overreacted.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News they have “egg on their face” and urged uneasy Republicans to “reconsider.”
House Republicans held a call Monday to discuss Trump’s candidacy, though, and signaled they may still distance themselves. According to sources, House Speaker Paul Ryan told rank-and-file lawmakers they need to do “what's best” for them in their districts – and said he will not defend Trump or campaign with him for the next 30 days.
On Monday afternoon, Trump took a self-declared victory lap at a rally in western Pennsylvania.
"Hillary Clinton is highly over-rated," he told the crowd. "All crooked Hillary could do was talk about small, petty things last night. ... She wants to divide America. I want to bring us together."
During the debate in St. Louis, Trump went after Clinton’s character and honesty in an unprecedented way – accusing her of lying about her email scandal, threatening she’d be “in jail” if he were president and suggesting his own comments pale in comparison to her husband’s alleged abuse of women and her treatment of them.
Clinton, in response, claimed Trump’s vulgar comments revealed his true self, while accusing him of trying to create a “diversion” from his “exploding” campaign with his debate-stage attacks.
Clinton at times seemed to be trying to take what she described as the “high” road, but a nimble Trump – reminiscent of the pugilistic debater from the GOP primaries – attempted to sideline the controversy over the 2005 tape early on and stayed on offense for much of the 90 minutes in St. Louis.
“She should be ashamed of herself,” the Republican nominee charged, a line he used in reference to both Clinton’s email use as secretary of state and her alleged intimidation of the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault.
Trump once again apologized for his comments in the newly released 2005 audio in which he talked freely about grabbing women without their consent. But Trump denied he was talking about sexual assault, said he’s never done the things he discussed in the leaked audio – and downplayed it as “locker-room talk.”
“I’m very embarrassed by it, I hate it – but it’s locker-room talk,” Trump said.
He added, “I have great respect for women.”
Trump pivoted to tout his plans to “knock the hell out of ISIS” and turn the focus on Bill and Hillary Clintons’ actions toward the women who have accused the former president of sexual assault.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse – mine are words. His was action,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
Hillary Clinton challenged Trump’s accusations as “not right” while saying she wanted to “go high” in her response.
As for Trump’s comments in the 2005 footage, she said it “represents exactly who [Trump] is.”
“We have seen this throughout the campaign,” she said, recalling his negative comments toward not just women but Muslims and Latinos and others. “Yes, this is who Donald Trump is.”
Afterward, Clinton’s campaign hammered Trump for his suggestion that he’d have Clinton locked up.
“I would say it’s chilling that Donald Trump thinks that the presidency is like some banana republic dictatorship where you can lock up your political opponents,” campaign manager Robby Mook told CBS’ “This Morning.”
He added, “Donald Trump’s trying to change the dynamic. But I would argue he’s just digging the hole deeper with these attacks.”
Clinton made a similar statement during the candidates’ tense exchange on the emails.
Trump had said that if he wins, he’d request a special prosecutor be appointed to “look into your situation.”
Clinton said Trump’s claims were “absolutely false” and it was good someone like him is not in charge of the law.
Trump shot back: “Because you’d be in jail.”
The two continued to spar on the email issue and when Trump suggested his opponent was eager to get off the question, she countered: “I know you’re into big diversion tonight -- anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it’s exploding, the way Republicans are leaving you.”
The town hall-style debate at Washington University in St. Louis indeed came as Trump essentially was trying to save his campaign, after the release of the 11-year-old tape showing him making vulgar comments about women. Numerous Republican lawmakers have – as Clinton referenced – abandoned the presidential nominee over the remarks, with some calling on him to step aside and perhaps let running mate Pence carry the mantle into November.
Trump has responded to the release of the tape all along with a mix of contrition and counterattack. While he apologized, he quickly tried to turn the issue back around on Bill Clinton by invoking his past sex scandals. Shortly before the start of Sunday’s debate, Trump even held a press conference with several of the former president’s accusers.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Juanita Broaddrick, who claims Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, which the former president has denied. “Mr. Trump may have said some bad words but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don’t think there’s any comparison.”
The 2005 Trump tape was a conversation between Trump and then-“Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush where Trump described his attempt to have sex with a married woman. Trump boasted that a star can “do anything” and added, “grab them by the p----.”