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Your Final Debate Briefing Book: The Politics

Donald Trump

The Trump Tape

On Oct. 8, The Washington Post published a 2005 tape of Donald Trump boasting crudely about his sexual exploits. Trump’s comments were captured by a live mic as he prepared to tape a segment with Billy Bush on “Access Hollywood.” “ When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said. “Grab them by the pussy.” Scores of Republican officials denounced their nominee after the video came out, with some calling for him to leave the ticket. Trump released a video statement, saying, “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” and called the revelation “a distraction from the issues we are facing today.” But he took a less contrite path in the second presidential debate.

What Clinton might say:

She’ll probably continue to hammer home her message of Trump as serial misogynist, as she did in the second debate: “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 that the video doesn’t represent who he is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.”

What Trump might say:

He’ll probably do a Bill Clinton pivot if and when his record of sexism and sexist language and behavior comes up. In the second debate, for example, Trump said, “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse — mine are words, and his was action.”

Further reading:

Will The Trump Tape Have A Bigger Effect On The Race Than Past Controversies?

What Trump’s Brag About Sexual Assault Reveals About This Election And Our Culture


Sexual Assault Allegations

In the second debate, Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he had ever sexually assaulted women, with Trump responding, “No, I have not.” But in the days that followed, a number of women came forward alleging he had harassed and assaulted them. At the time of this writing, more than 18 women have come forward with accusations. (NPR and New York Magazine are both keeping track of the allegations.)

What Clinton might say:

Clinton hasn’t yet spoken about the allegations, but her campaign released a statement: “This disturbing story sadly fits everything we know about the way Donald Trump has treated women. These reports suggest that he lied on the debate stage and that the disgusting behavior he bragged about in the tape are more than just words.” Expect her to take a similar tack in the debate.

What Trump might say:

Trump has moved into attack dog mode. He denied the women’s accusations, calling them “one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country.” Trump has said the allegations were “orchestrated by the Clintons” and that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is in cahoots with the Clinton campaign to drum up the allegations. So, there could be a full-on conspiracy theory defense from Trump come debate time.

Further reading:

Trump flip-flops on whether women’s sexual allegations should be believed

Trump Isn’t Teflon

Sociology Can Explain Why So Many of Trump’s Alleged Sexual-Assault Victims Are Coming Forward at Once


Trump University

In 2005, Donald Trump launched a for-profit educational course company that promised to teach students the secrets of real estate success. He called it Trump University, despite the fact that the school had no official charter and thus was not a university in the eyes of the law. In 2011, the New York state attorney general began investigating the business for engaging in illegal practices. Trump University is no longer in operation, but there are two class-action lawsuits pending against it alleging racketeering, false advertising and elder financial abuse.

The Spin-Off Controversies:

  1. Judge Curiel: In the early summer, Trump questioned whether U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing one of the lawsuits against Trump University, was biased because, as Trump said, he “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” Curiel is an American citizen born in Indiana. Trump repeated the charges in subsequent interviews and House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, denounced his words as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.
  2. Pam Bondi: The Florida attorney general has been under the microscope for her acceptance of a $25,000 Trump donation to her re-election fund in 2013, just four days after Bondi’s office announced it was considering joining a New York state probe into Trump University. After receiving the check, her office decided not to pursue the case. The check, cut by the Trump Foundation, was in violation of IRS regulations.

This has not been brought up in the first two debates. However, if it is brought up at this debate…

What Clinton might say:

She’ll probably throw around the words “fraud,” “class-action lawsuit” and “elder abuse” quite a bit; Trump University and its subsidiary controversies is rich territory for Clinton to build her case that Trump is ethically unfit for office.

What Trump might say:

He’s said in the past that he thinks the media and judges are slanted against him in this case, but he’s also likely to bring up student surveys that praised Trump University. Factcheck.org found that those surveys were “not anonymous and were filled out during or immediately after sessions when participants were still expecting to receive future benefits from the program.”

Further reading:

Former Trump University Workers Call The School A ‘Lie’ And A ‘Scheme’ In Testimony

‘Trump Did Not Get A Pass,’ Defiant Bondi Says Of Fraud Case


Trump’s charitable giving

Trump’s claims that he has given millions of his own money to charity have attracted the attention of fact checkers in recent months. Reporting by The Washington Post found that Trump’s last donation to his own charitable foundation was in 2008 and that he has spent some of the funds given by outside donors to his family foundation on purchases such as a $20,000 portrait of Trump himself. Most recently, it was found that Trump used$258,000 of charitable funds to settle lawsuits that his businesses faced.

This has not been brought up in the first two debates. However, if it is brought up at this debate…

What Clinton might say:

She might point out that Trump recently had to pay a fine to the IRS because the donation that he made to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s campaign was from his charitable foundation and was improperly reported.

What Trump might say:

He’ll probably bring up the fact that he gave $1 million to a veterans group in May, though that gift came four months after it had been promised and only after media outlets hounded him about where the money had gone.

Further reading:

How Donald Trump Retooled His Charity To Spend Other People’s Money

Trump Used $258,000 From His Charity To Settle Legal Problems


Housing discrimination

In 1973, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Trump Management Inc. for violating the Fair Housing Act; the suit alleged that the company discriminated against applicants of color who wanted to live in the real estate company’s properties. Trump eventually signed a consent agreement that did not include an admission of guilt and fought the allegations quite publicly at the time.

This has not been brought up in the first two debates. However, if it is brought up at this debate…

What Clinton might say:

That the housing discrimination allegations fall into a long history that Trump has of racial bias — she might bring up the comments about Curiel, Trump’s comments about illegal immigrants being rapists, etc.

What Trump might say:

That he was never found to have discriminated against minorities. It has always been his line.

Further reading:

Inside The Government’s Racial Bias Case Against Donald Trump’s Company, And How He Fought It

‘No Vacancies’ For Blacks: How Donald Trump Got His Start, And Was First Accused of Bias


A Muslim ban

After the terror attacks in San Bernardino, California, in late 2015, Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the U.S. for a time. He drew rebukes from all around, including from within the Republican Party, though polls showed that a majority of Republican voters favored the proposal. This summer, Trump said that he wanted to ban people from countries “compromised by terrorism” but would not clarify if, for instance, this included those from France and Belgium, where there have been attacks.

What Clinton might say:

She’ll probably use a line similar to the one she trotted out in the second debate: “It’s also very shortsighted and even dangerous to be engaging in the kind of demagogic rhetoric that Donald has about Muslims. We need American muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines.”

What Trump might say:

Of late, Trump has implied that his proposal to temporarily ban Muslim immigration had changed: “The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into an extreme vetting from certain areas of the world.” His December statement calling for the ban, however, remains up on his website.

Further reading:

Donald Trump: Ban All Muslim Travel To U.S.

Republicans Embrace Trump’s Ban on Muslims While Most Others Reject it


Trump and Putin

Trump has been complimentary of the Russian leader for many months, saying of Putin as early as last October, “In terms of leadership, he’s getting an ‘A,’ and our president is not doing so well.” The Trump family has a number of business interests in Russia; in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” The last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, called Russia “our No. 1 enemy.”

What Clinton might say:

She is almost certain to bring up or allude to the likely Russian-backed hacks of the Democratic National Committee and state election systems. “They [Russia] are doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump,” she said in the second debate, “Maybe because he has praised Putin and maybe because he says he agrees with a lot of what Putin wants to do, maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow. I don’t know the reasons.”

What Trump might say:

Trump, the self-proclaimed law-and-order candidate, has tried to appeal to voters with an image of decisive leadership, something he says Russia exhibits. In the first debate, for instance, he brought up Russia’s military spending, saying, “They have a much newer capability than we do,” an unprecedented bit of flattery from an American candidate for a historic geopolitical rival.

Further reading:

Inside Trump’s Financial Ties To Russia And His Unusual Flattery Of Vladimir Putin

Spy Agency Consensus Grows That Russia Hacked D.N.C.

Donald Trump’s Campaign Stands By Embrace of Putin


Tax returns

Modern American presidential candidates release their tax returns. It is not a practice required by law, but it has become a crucial exercise in transparency over the years. On Oct. 1, The New York Times published a portion of Trump’s tax returns from 1995. The documents showed that Trump declared a $916 million loss that year, and analysis from tax experts hired by the Times suggested that Trump could have avoided paying income tax for up to 18 years.

What Clinton might say:

Clinton has tied Trump’s possible legal avoidance of paying tax for nearly two decades to the wider issue of fairness in the tax code: “People like Donald who pay zero in taxes, zero for our vets, zero for our military, zero for health and education. That is wrong. And we’re going to make sure that nobody, no corporation and no individual can get away without paying his fair share to support our country.”

What Trump might say:

Trump has sought to turn this issue around on Clinton, accusing her of protecting tax loopholes like the one he used because she’s in thrall to her Wall Street donors. In the second debate, after moderator Anderson Cooper asked whether Trump used a $916 million loss to avoid paying federal taxes, Trump said, “Of course I do. Of course I do. And so do all of her donors or most of her donors. I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs.”

Further reading:

Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found

The Tax-Returns Story May Eat Up Precious Time For Trump


Hillary Clinton

Email

When Clinton was secretary of state, she set up a private email server run out of her own home. The extent of Clinton’s use of her private email was discovered during the process of information gathering for the Benghazi hearings. This July, after a yearlong investigation, the FBI recommended that criminal charges against Clinton not be pursued, but Director James Comey said that she had been “extremely careless” and noted that similar actions by a government employee could have resulted in disciplinary action.

What Trump might say:

This is a rich area of attack; a recent poll found that half of Americans are “very concerned” about her use of the private email server. Trump has hit Clinton hard on her emails, saying in the second debate, “We’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what, people have been, their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done.”

What Clinton might say:

Clinton seems to have finally pinned down an answer to questions about her private server usage. “That was a mistake,” she said in the second debate. “I take responsibility for using a personal email account. Obviously, if I were to do it over again, I would not. I’m not making any excuses. It was a mistake, and I’m very sorry about that.”

Further reading:

What We Know About Hillary Clinton’s Private Emails Server

Statement By FBI Director James B. Comey On The Investigation Of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Use Of A Personal E-Mail System


The Clinton Foundation

In late August, the AP published a report that found that “more than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation.” The implication of the report was a “pay to play” ethos in Clinton’s State Department. The AP’s initial characterization of their own report drew criticism, however, as it implied that over half of all individuals who met with Clinton donated to the foundation, not simply private individuals, as the full story makes clear; the AP deleted a tweet two weeks later after complaints about the framing.

This has not been brought up in the first two debates. However, if it is brought up at this debate…

What Trump might say:

Trump might well bring up the millions of dollars that foreign governments gave to the Clinton Foundation during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, which has drawn criticism from the likes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who expressed his disdain for the situation without mincing words: “Do I have a problem when a sitting secretary of state and a foundation run by her husband collects many, many dollars from foreign governments — governments which are dictatorships? Yeah, I do have a problem with that.”

What Clinton might say:

She will likely note that the foundation has promised to stop accepting money from foreign or corporate donors in the event of her victory, and that Bill Clinton would step down from the organization’s board.

Further reading:

Fact-checking Donations To The Clinton Foundation

Bill Clinton Forcefully Defends His Foundation At The Final Clinton Global Initiative Meeting


Wall Street speeches

During her time as a private citizen, Clinton earned $675,000 for giving three speeches at Goldman Sachs, and was under pressure from Sanders during the primary to release the transcripts of those appearances; he intimated that Clinton was in the pocket of the big banks, a damning indictment in this year of the outsider. Clinton has not released the transcripts, though Wikileaks leaked some emails that reveal passages of the speeches. One such leaked note shows that the Clinton camp fretted over one passage they deemed might be characterized as “holding Wall Street accountable only for political reasons.”

What Clinton might say:

In the second debate, Clinton gave a meandering answer that referenced the movie, “Lincoln,” and our 16th president’s negotiating skills, something she brought up presumably to talk about the need for give and take to get things done. She and her team might need to come up with a snappier answer for this next debate.

What Trump might say:

Trump has taken the debate stance on this issue that closely mirrors Bernie Sanders’ during the primaries, touting Clinton’s ties to big banks. Expect more of the same.

Further reading:

What Clinton Said In Her Paid Speeches

Clintons Have Made More Than $25 Million For Speaking Since January 2014


Clinton’s decades in the public eye

Clinton has been living under one kind of spotlight or another since her husband became governor of Arkansas in 1978, and she has weathered a number of troubled periods that Trump might choose to bring up. In particular, he might choose to bring up the Whitewater real estate scandal, NAFTA and her failed bid to pass health care reform during the 1990s. Since the release of Trump’s Access Hollywood video, he has tried more and more to turn the focus of the campaign to allegations of sexual assault against Bill Clinton.

What Trump might say:

At his most on-message, Trump has tried to run as a change-agent to Clinton’s status-quo, emphasizing her many years in politics. In the first debate, for example, he said, You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now? For 30 years, you’ve been doing it, and now you’re just starting to think of solutions.” At his most off-the-leash, he’s called Hillary Clinton an enabler of her husband’s behavior.

What Clinton has said:

Clinton has been ready to defend her political career and she’ll continue to do so, touting her work with children first and foremost: “Eight million kids every year have health insurance because when I was first lady I worked with Democrats and Republicans to create the children’s health insurance program,” she said in the second debate.

Further reading:

From Whitewater To Benghazi: A Clinton-Scandal Primer

How Hillary Clinton Helped Create What She Later Called The ‘Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy’

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Christianna Silva is FiveThirtyEight’s fall 2016 politics intern.

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