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In what could be seen as a threat to one of the pillars of American democracy, Trump said “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense,” when asked by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News whether he would respect the voters’ decision when they go to the polls on November 8.
It follows a string of allegations by the Republican presidential nominee in recent days that the vote is being “rigged” against him. His comments also contradicted pledges by his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as well as his daughter, Ivanka.
Clinton responded: “Let’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means: He is denigrating, he is talking down our democracy and I for one am appalled that someone who is the nominee for one of our two major parties would take that position.”
It was the biggest moment in a debate that centred more on policy than the candidates’ previous two meetings, taking in topics such as taxation, Obamacare and the Supreme Court.
But what started out as a fairly subdued head-to-head became significantly more heated as the night went on.
Trump, falling further behind Clinton in the latest polls, needed to turn in a strong performance if he was to breathe new life into his ailing campaign and attacked the former secretary of state on a number of issues.
At one point he called her family’s Clinton Foundation “a criminal enterprise”, accusing Clinton of accepting money from donors in return for political favours.
Clinton said she would be happy to compare the Clinton Foundation to Trump’s charitable Trump Foundation, which among its activities was to buy “a six-foot statue of Donald”.
Repeatedly calling Clinton a “nasty woman”, Trump also went on the offensive on immigration, accusing her of wanting an “open borders” policy, a characterisation she vigorously disputed. Trump, who has called for building a wall the length of the US-Mexico border, said that under a Clinton presidency, “People are going to pour into our country.”
In return the Democrat panned Trump as “unfit” to be commander-in-chief, while taking him to task for failing to condemn Vladimir Putin and Russia for recent cyber attacks.
“He’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence officials that are sworn to protect us,” Clinton said.
US intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have said the Russian leadership was responsible for recent cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the leaking of stolen emails.
Trump rejected the idea that he was close to Putin, but suggested he would have a better relationship with Russia’s leader than Clinton.
“He said nice things about me,” Trump said. “He has no respect for her, he has no respect for our president and I’ll tell you what, we’re in very serious trouble.” Clinton responded: “Well that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
Trump: ‘No one has more respect for women’
Trump’s campaign has been dogged in recent weeks by a leaked 2005 video recording in which he can be heard boasting about groping women and subsequent accusations by several women of sexual assault.
Trump has denied the accusations and did so again on Wednesday night, saying the women coming forward “either want fame or her campaign did it”.
Clinton said Trump “thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth”.
The candidates clashed repeatedly over their drastically different visions for the nation’s future.
Trump backed Supreme Court justices who would overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling, while Clinton vowed to appoint justices that would uphold the decision legalising abortion, saying: “We have come too far to have that turned back now.”
On trade, Trump said Clinton had misrepresented her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, noting that she had originally called it the “gold standard” of trade agreements. Clinton shot back that once the deal was finished, it didn’t meet her standards. “I’ll be against it when I’m president,” she said.