US presidential debate: Sexual assault claims on Trump, Clinton's e-mails among issues expected to come up

Protesters gather during demonstrations on the campus of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, before the last 2016 US presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on Oct 19, 2016.
Protesters gather during demonstrations on the campus of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, before the last 2016 US presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on Oct 19, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Billionaire Donald Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton will deliver their closing arguments on Wednesday (Oct 19) night in Las Vegas during the third and final 2016 presidential debate, a high-stakes moment just weeks before Election Day that is expected to be watched by tens of millions of voters.

Chris Wallace of Fox News will moderate the forum, which is taking place at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The 90-minute debate is scheduled to begin at 9pm Eastern time (9am Singapore time) and will be broadcast on most major networks and streamed on numerous websites, including washingtonpost.com.

ISSUES

Six topics will be the focus of the night, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates: immigration, the Supreme Court, the economy, national debt and entitlements, turmoil abroad and fitness for the presidency. But several dominant news stories will almost certainly take up much of the evening.

The Republican and Democratic presidential nominees will take the stage with distinct challenges. For Mr Trump, the debate presents an opportunity to stabilise his damaged campaign and refute claims that he is unfit for office. Mrs Clinton, on the other hand, will need to fight accusations that she is untrustworthy while also attempting to outline a positive vision of governance.

SEXUAL ASSAULT CLAIMS

Since the second presidential debate 10 days ago in St. Louis, a growing list of women have come forward to accuse Mr Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Those revelations came after the release of a damaging 2005 "Access Hollywood" video in which Mr Trump bragged about kissing and groping women against their will because of his celebrity status.

 

Many of the women said that they were compelled to speak out after hearing Trump during the St. Louis debate deny that he had ever forced himself on women. He has denied the accusations.

The election has taken a strikingly personal and troubling turn in recent weeks, as Mr Trump has escalated his attacks on Mrs Clinton and her family while responding to scrutiny over his own treatment of women. Mr Trump has assailed former president Bill Clinton's past marital indiscretions and has accused him of sexually assaulting women.

Those efforts appear likely to spill over onto the debate stage: On Wednesday afternoon, the Trump campaign confirmed that Ms Leslie Millwee, who recently accused Mr Clinton of sexually assaulting her in 1980, will be at the debate as a guest of the Republican nominee.

Ms Millwee went public with her allegations earlieron Wednesday via Breitbart, the conservative website that was run until recently by Trump campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon. Her accusations were widely circulated within the hard right's online community.

E-MAIL QUESTIONS

Mrs Clinton will probably face questions about a trove of hacked e-mails belonging to her campaign chairman John Podesta that were released by WikiLeaks. She will probably also face renewed questions about the FBI's decision not to criminally charge her for using a private e-mail server during her tenure at the State Department.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, campaigned in Colorado on Wednesday before heading to Las Vegas for the final debate.

"Hillary Clinton's plan? More of the same. Not just the same; more of the same," he said in Durango, Colorado.

PREPARATIONS

The Trump campaign has been tight-lipped about how the real estate developer has been getting ready for the third debate. But he was notably resistant to mock debates while preparing for the first two debates, and Mr Trump has regularly mocked Mrs Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail for debate prep.

Mr Trump skipped his walk-through of the debate venue Wednesday morning, according to a campaign aide. When asked why he did so, and whether an aide acted as a stand-in, the aide responded that "his debate team is taking care of it".

Mrs Clinton arrived at her hotel in Las Vegas around 3pm on Tuesday. Aides said they expected that she would stay out of public view until she appeared on stage on Wednesday. Much of the intervening time would be spent in her hotel on debate preparations, they said. An entourage of aides and consultants made the flight with her Tuesday from an airport near her home in Westchester County, New York.

The former secretary of state has been deep in preparations since Saturday, huddling with her top aides at a hotel near her home in Chappaqua, New York, before flying to Las Vegas to continue studying. Although Mrs Clinton has emerged as the clear electoral college favorite in recent polls of battleground states, she remains tainted in the eyes of many voters by persistent questions about her trustworthiness.

Inside the Clinton campaign, aides say they believe that this debate is a critical opportunity for the former secretary of state to make a "closing argument" to voters about her vision for the country. Her objective on Wednesday, they say, is less focused on baiting or driving down Mr Trump's standing with voters, which the campaign says it believes is near or at its basement levels.

TRUMP CONTROVERSIES

Mr Trump has been badly damaged by a string of controversies this month. The lewd remarks in the "Access Hollywood" video shook his support among Republican leadership, and the recent string of sexual assault allegations have intensified scrutiny of his character and temperament.

Mr Trump has denied all the accusations and has at times mocked the physical appearance of many of his accusers. But the controversies have all but eclipsed Mr Trump's anti-establishment message and his promises to clean up Washington if elected.

Recent polls show that he is now running behind Mrs Clinton in nearly every battleground state, and has lost support among independent voters in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado, all key states.

On Monday, Mr Trump's wife Melania defended him during several national television interviews. She played down his lewd comments as "boys' talk" and made note of the timing of the assault allegations, suggesting that they are part of a coordinated effort to hurt her husband's election chances.

CLAIMS OF RIGGING

Amid diminished chances to win the White House, Mr Trump has complained that the election is rigged in Mrs Clinton's favor and has insisted that voter fraud is widespread, which is not supported by evidence. Republican and Democratic leaders alike have condemned such rhetoric.

President Barack Obama lashed out at Mr Trump on Tuesday, accusing the GOP nominee of "whining before the game is even over" and warning that such rhetoric could pose a threat to American democracy and undermine voters' faith in the nation's institutions.

"I have never seen in my lifetime or in modern political history any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place," Mr Obama said.

Mr Obama made the remarks at the White House during a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The Clinton campaign has also forcefully condemned Mr Trump's rhetoric on the "rigged" election, and has accused Mr Trump of trying to distract from the string of sexual assault allegations that have rocked his campaign.

"He's trying to distract from the bad story line of his verbal and physical assaults on women," campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters traveling on Mrs Clinton's plane to Las Vegas on Tuesday.

"Because he's losing and he wants to blame somebody else," Ms Palmieri said, "and that's what losers do."

Mr Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway broke with Mr Trump on Wednesday and said she does not believe there is pervasive voter fraud.

"No, I do not believe that," she said during an interview with MSNBC. "So, absent overwhelming evidence that there is, it would not be for me to say that there is."

DEBATE GUESTS

The Trump campaign has invited two other surprising guests to Wednesday's debate: Mr Malik Obama, the president's estranged half-brother, and Ms Pat Smith, whose son died in Benghazi, Libya, during the 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound. Ms Smith, who blames Mrs Clinton for her son's death, also spoke at the Republican National Convention in July.

The Republican nominee's campaign met with shock and outrage last week in St. Louis for inviting several women to the debate who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties. The campaign, which had organized a news conference with the women before the debate, had also sought to seat the women in the family box.

The Commission on Presidential Debates ultimately intervened and prevented the arrangement, which would have had the former president shaking hands with his accusers on national television. The Clintons have long denied the allegations.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, announced that Republican business executive Meg Whitman and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, a longtime Trump antagonist, would be seated in the debate audience as its guests. The decision signals that Mrs Clinton is likely to also make the economy and Mr Trump's stewardship of his own businesses a factor in tonight's debate.