PETE WILLIAMS: Donald Trump says he’ll accept the election results on one condition. Hillary Clinton holds a clear lead in most battleground polls, but the nagging email issue won’t go away.
I’m Pete Williams, in for Gwen Ifill tonight on Washington Week.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election if I win. (Cheers.)
MR. WILLIAMS: A defiant Donald Trump doubles down on charges of a rigged election during the final debate with Hillary Clinton. The candidates sparred over taxes, gun rights, abortion and the vacancy on the high court.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) We need a Supreme Court that will stand up on behalf of women’s rights, on behalf of the rights of the LGBT community, that will stand up and say no to Citizens United.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) The justices that I’m going to appoint will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent. They will be protecting the Second Amendment.
MR. WILLIAMS: And between the sharp exchanges over policy, plenty of personal attacks.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) When it comes to the wall that Donald talks about building, he went to Mexico, he had a meeting with the Mexican president, didn’t even raise it, he choked.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) The one thing you have over me is experience, but it’s bad experience.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Such a nasty woman.
MR. WILLIAMS: Meantime, the Clinton campaign grapples with the release of more hacked emails by WikiLeaks. We gauge the mood of America and undecided voters in the sprint toward Election Day, with Jeanne Cummings, political editor for The Wall Street Journal, Philip Rucker, national political correspondent for The Washington Post, and Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.
Once again, live from Washington, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. Early voting is now underway in nearly half the states, including five considered battlegrounds. That means everything the candidates say and do between now and Election Day is even more important, especially for undecided and independent voters.
This week, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump went from a bitter clash on the debate stage to poking fun at each other at a high-society dinner in New York. It’s 70-year-old ritual, the candidates for president trading jokes in late October to raise money for charity at the Al Smith dinner, named for the first Catholic presidential candidate of a major party. But this year, the comments had an especially rough edge.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate commission. (Audience jeers.)
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Donald really is as healthy as a horse, you know the one Vladimir Putin rides around on. (Laughter.)
MR. WILLIAMS: It’s hard to conceive of one of them congratulating the other when it’s all over. During the debate, Donald Trump said he might not accept the outcome of the election. But the next day, Trump said that he simply meant he was preserving his right to go to court if there are signs of irregularities in how the votes were counted.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Of course, I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result. (Cheers, applause.) Right? And always, I will follow and abide by all of the rules and traditions of all of the many candidates who have come before me, always.
MR. WILLIAMS: President Obama called Trump’s threats not to accept the election results dangerous.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) When you try to sow the seeds of doubt in people’s minds about the legitimacy of our elections, that undermines our democracy because our democracy depends on people knowing that their vote matters.
MR. WILLIAMS: Those comments, Jeanne, sparked bipartisan outrage, but how dangerous were they to Donald Trump?
JEANNE CUMMINGS: Well, there were several, I’d say, three, there were three risks that he took in doing that. First of all, that night we had a group of voters who were undecided voters, who said in our poll the debates will mean a lot to us. We called them immediately after that debate and for three or four of them that was a deal-breaker. It moved them from undecided away from Trump, so he risked there.
His fellow Republicans piled on again, creating more confusion and separation and division within his own party. And some of them have real interests here. For instance, what if Senator Pat Toomey running in Pennsylvania wins his reelection, but Donald Trump decides to challenge the results because he doesn’t win the presidential? So is it a rigged campaign for Donald Trump, but not for Pat Toomey? The same kind of situation, conflict could arise in New Hampshire or in Arizona or North Carolina, so that is one of the reasons that a lot of Republicans were, like, stop, slow down, do not say this anymore.
MR. WILLIAMS: I hadn’t thought about that. So it’s not possible to say that the results were just rigged in the presidential election without questioning the whole rest of the ballot.
MS. CUMMINGS: Right. That’s right, you throw the night out and everyone ‒
JEFF ZELENY: And Marco Rubio in Florida said the same thing.
MS. CUMMINGS: Absolutely.
MR. ZELENY: And that’s another example there.
MS. CUMMINGS: And so it’s a major risk to them.
MR. WILLIAMS: You had a piece in the paper today about the sort of shockwaves this had throughout the Republican Party. What is their worry about, beyond Trump, about the rest of the party?
PHILIP RUCKER: Well, first of all, Trump’s comments seemed to delegitimize the American system of democracy and that’s a real concern for a lot of Republican leaders. But politically speaking, we’re now two weeks from the election and there’s yet another fresh issue that’s dividing this Republican Party over its nominee. Just in the spin room after that debate, Reince Priebus was trying to explain Donald Trump’s position and saying, you know, I don’t really think he means what he said, and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, was trying to do the same. And it’s just another distraction for him when he’s not talking about the issues that a lot of Republicans think can help him gain ground.
MR. WILLIAMS: We didn’t hear, Jeff, from Mitch McConnell, from Paul Ryan. We heard from some other senatorial candidates, a couple of governors. Why not? Why didn’t they say anything?
MR. ZELENY: Because they simply do not want to get caught up in more comments on Donald Trump. They know, A, it can alienate some of their conservative voters and they simply don’t want to weigh in. The MO basically for Mitch McConnell over the last several months is to speak only when he is pressed on camera about Donald Trump. Otherwise, he tries to stay out of it.
His theory all along has been that Senate races are big enough to withstand the presidential situation, this undercurrent. Now some people close to him, I was talking to a couple of them earlier today, are very worried about these Republican Senate races in the states you mentioned, Jeanne, because Democrats are four seats away from a tie and five seats away from a victory controlling the U.S. Senate.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, let me ask you about that right away. What are the prospects that the Republicans could lose control of the Senate, that the Democrats could either tie or take control?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, there are good prospects for the Democrats suddenly, for several reasons. Some races have tightened up where they didn’t expect them; Missouri, Arizona are a couple of them that they never expected to go compete in these areas against Senator Blunt and Senator McCain, longstanding Republican incumbents. They’re tied.
And the Democrats have a lot of extra money. Hillary Clinton in particular has a whole lot of extra money, and Donald Trump doesn’t have extra money, so her campaign and her super PAC are now discussing, and in fact doing, sinking money into Missouri where she’s not competitive, but only to help the senator and in Arizona which she would like to make competitive. So they have the resources, they have numbers that are looking much better for them, they have a Republican nominee who continues to worsen or stumble and make it much more difficult for the senators themselves to avoid conversation about him or taking a stand on him. And we saw in New Hampshire with Kelly Ayotte, the latest poll has her down 8. This is after she turned away from the Trump campaign.
MR. WILLIAMS: And she was one of the first ones after the comments at the debate to say that you don’t say that ‒
MS. CUMMINGS: That’s how dangerous it is to do that.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is there any concern that this talk about the election is rigged would in any way suppress the Republican turnout, that Republican voters would say, well, if it’s rigged, why bother?
MR. ZELENY: I think it could, without question. You know, the whole conversation of the election, I think, could sort of depress turnout. People are so sick of all of it. Now, Trump’s own supporters are motivated, yes, and some Republicans are motivated to vote against the Democrat, of course. But I think without question, if people are saying it is rigged, they simply may not turn out, which also worries the Republican Senate candidates Jeanne was just talking about, because Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania needs those voters, Kelly Ayotte needs those voters.
But I think more interestingly is how we are trying to see Republicans separating themselves. A new super PAC is coming out with a new ad strategy, you know, basically bluntly saying Donald Trump is going to lose, you need me to block Hillary Clinton’s agenda here. I think we are going to see that more and more and more in the next two weeks or so. We’ll see if there’s enough time. But that may work in a Florida where Marco Rubio is still holding on, or other states like that, so it’s not a done deal that Republicans lose control, but they will lose seats.
MR. RUCKER: But what we’re also seeing is Hillary Clinton’s campaign and President Obama trying to tie these down-ballot candidates directly to Donald Trump. And the president was down in Miami on Thursday, yesterday, really attacking Marco Rubio, eviscerating Marco Rubio, saying, you know, you called him a con artist, you’ve called him dangerous, and here you are saying you’re going to vote for him, and that’s the height of cynicism.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let me turn the turnout question upside down. How much might this encourage Hillary Clinton supporters? She’s saying we need you to come out and show that this election isn’t close so no one can say it’s rigged. Is that going to work?
MS. CUMMINGS: It’s an argument that they’re making. But their operation is so much more sophisticated that they know exactly who they have to get out and they’re calling that person, whereas, you know, Trump’s is kind of a ragtag group. There might be some states that are really good and there are likely to be many that aren’t. But ‒
MR. WILLIAMS: But won’t the RNC help him with that?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, they’re doing their best. That is their assignment. But getting back to the message of it’s rigged, there have been political analysis of that kind of rhetoric and the people that it most alienates are the people who are Donald Trump voters. They’re not regular voters, they’re intermittent voters, they’re lower-educated voters, and if they’re told repeatedly, you know, the system’s rigged, it’s not going to matter, then they don’t think their vote counts. They are the ones most likely to stay home, not the higher-educated ones, so what he risks is turning off really some of the margins of his own base.
MR. WILLIAMS: OK, so let’s talk about after the votes are cast and if there are questions, irregularities, recounts, does the Trump campaign have a SWAT team of lawyers ready to be dispatched to any trouble spots to file their papers?
MR. RUCKER: Well, we know the Clinton campaign does. They’re recruiting hundreds of lawyers and training them to monitor at these polling places and look for any irregularities and any problems that might emerge from the Trump forces. I assume the Trump campaign is getting some lawyers together. But interestingly, the Republican National Committee is not. That’s just their standard practice, they don’t do that. So it’s really incumbent on the Trump campaign, and as Jeanne was saying it’s a ragtag group, it’s not the fully staffed, professional campaign that we’ve come to expect in presidential races.
MR. ZELENY: I’m told, though, in so many areas there definitely are Republican lawyers who are gathering to do these Senate races again. The overlap between the battlegrounds in the presidential states and these competitive Senate races are almost one for one, so Republicans will have lawyers in Pennsylvania watching things there and other things. And Donald Trump has been saying he wants average citizens to be out there. So I think on Election Day itself will be a social media, real-time, polling place social experiment that, you know, we hope does not turn ugly. But some of this rhetoric about who’s voting certainly is the most ugly and vile that I’ve seen.
MR. WILLIAMS: So this is a question about not irregularities, but voter intimidation, I think, is perhaps what you’re talking about, is the Clinton people saying we have to be out there and make sure nobody’s trying to keep people away.
MR. RUCKER: That’s right. And there are rules that govern this. I mean, Donald Trump is on the campaign trail saying to his supporters, you know, come out, monitor the polls, look in certain areas, but that’s against the law in a lot of places. All of these elections are governed by state and municipal ordinances and you can’t, in some cases, stand close to a polling place, you can’t go inside as a lay person and try to intimidate voters.
MS. CUMMINGS: You can’t tape, you can’t film.
MR. ZELENY: Well, and you’ve seen Republican secretaries of state really come out across the board pushing back at their nominee. That’s what’s the most extraordinary thing, you know, saying that, no, elections aren’t rigged, we’re actually running these elections. So, you know ‒
MS. CUMMINGS: He’s attacking the integrity of their own work.
MR. ZELENY: Exactly.
MS. CUMMINGS: Yeah.
MR. WILLIAMS: And these are Republican secretaries of state who have been caught in lawsuits in the past, being accused of, for example, insisting on voter I.D., suppressing the vote, who are now saying, wait a minute, our elections aren’t rigged, and they’re pushing back at him.
MR. ZELENY: Exactly, Ohio ‒
MS. CUMMINGS: That’s right. And you have local Republicans, you know, the guys and women who gather all these volunteers to actually run the precincts on the day of the election, you know, there are lots of Republicans in that position at a very local level who work really, really hard. And it is their work that he is criticizing.
MR. WILLIAMS: Donald Trump has recently suggested that there should be term limits for members of Congress. What is that all about, and is that a shot at the Republican leaders in the Congress?
MR. ZELENY: I think it is a shot at that. And it’s also just a shot at the government overall, it’s a shot at Washington. He is trying to run as this change agent, someone who’s outside the system, so the most popular, easiest boiler-plate way to say it is term limits for all. But, of course, I think Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Orrin Hatch, you name them, there are a lot of Republicans who do not support that idea at all. It’s popular somewhat in the public area, but you don’t hear it talked about as much as you used to.
MR. WILLIAMS: And, of course, it would take a constitutional amendment.
MR. ZELENY: It would.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right? It can’t be something that Congress could do, limit your own terms.
MR. ZELENY: Right. Indeed.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, this week Russia proposed to send a team here to monitor the polling places just as the U.S. does in countries where there’s a history of government interference in elections. This was another tweak at the U.S. American intelligence agencies have blamed Russia’s leaders for the cyberattacks on campaign-related emails, and that subject came up in the final debate.
(Begin video segment.)
MR. TRUMP: She has no idea ‒
MRS. CLINTON: Fine. You take a stand because if ‒
MR. TRUMP: ‒ whether it’s Russia, China or anybody else.
MRS. CLINTON: I am not quoting myself ‒
MR. TRUMP: She has no idea.
MRS. CLINTON: ‒ I am quoting 17 ‒
MR. TRUMP: Hillary, you have no idea.
MRS. CLINTON: ‒ 17 ‒ do you doubt? Seventeen military ‒
MR. TRUMP: Our country has no idea.
MRS. CLINTON: ‒ and civilian agencies. Well, he’d rather believe ‒
MR. TRUMP: Yeah, I doubt it, I doubt it.
MRS. CLINTON: ‒ Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us.
MR. TRUMP: Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
MRS. CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States ‒
MR. TRUMP: No puppet, no puppet.
MRS. CLINTON: ‒ and it’s pretty clear ‒
MR. TRUMP: You’re the puppet.
(End video segment.)
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.) It’s so much more civilized here in this room. Jeff, were you surprised –
MR. ZELENY: You’re the puppet, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah, well, all right. So you are. Were you surprised there wasn’t more during the debate about the Clinton emails?
MR. ZELENY: I certainly was. I mean, there was so much more new information available between the first debate and the third debate, which doesn’t happen all that often in presidential campaigns. Usually by debate three there’s not really any new information to chew over.
MR. WILLIAMS: To attack the other guy with, huh?
MR. ZELENY: Right. But I think that, one, Chris Wallace, who I thought did a very admirable job, very good job, had his hands full on a lot of other topics he had to ask. But I think the thing I was surprised by, that Donald Trump did not seize upon this opportunity to prosecute some of these questions about his opponent, about when she said in those paid Goldman Sachs speeches that, you know, you can have a position in private and a public position, that she is not at where the populist movement of her party is, on and on and on. Some of the calculating things that all candidates do, or most do, but this was sort of laid bare in these emails. I was surprised that didn’t seize on that. But that shows you preparation versus not preparation. She injected sort of her research file into ever other sentence she could, every breath. He did not.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, I have – I was really surprised he didn’t bring up that particular email because her answer in the second debate, when he did bring it up, was so bad.
MR. ZELENY: The Abe Lincoln defense.
MS. CUMMINGS: It was the worst answer. Yes, it was, I’m Abraham Lincoln, really. And even – you know, Trump is a great counterpuncher. And he smelled that one and then hit her right back, that she was certainly no Abe Lincoln.
MR. WILLIAMS: He did mention John Podesta, which I’m sure the average debate-watcher had no idea who he was talking about. But some of these Podesta emails have been embarrassing. Do you think in any way they’ve damaged Hillary Clinton?
MR. RUCKER: I mean, to some extent – the polling doesn’t suggest that there’s any real shift in the trajectory of the race, but she’d rather these emails not come out. She maybe would rather they come out earlier in the summer, although interestingly not during the primaries. They might have had more damage to her candidacy in the primary when she was running against Bernie Sanders, because they exposed inconsistencies in her positions. They exposed sort of the politicizing issues like trade and the paid speeches that would have been a vulnerability.
MR. WILLIAMS: And he – had Podesta called Bernie Sanders a doofus at that point, as he said in the emails?
MR. RUCKER: It could have hurt her then. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to end up hurting her in a general election here. It seems like the election is about bigger issues than what these emails –
MS. CUMMINGS: And the irony is, it’s because Bernie Sanders won’t condemn her, again.
MR. ZELENY: He is being the definition of a good soldier.
MS. CUMMINGS: Absolutely.
MR. RUCKER: He really is.
MR. WILLIAMS: To what extent is the Clinton campaign worried about the other shoe that hasn’t dropped yet on these emails? What could be to come?
MR. ZELENY: I think they are. I think they are. I mean, in conversations I have with them, they, you know, obviously know everything that’s in John Podesta’s emails. They have gone through all of them. You know, they’re not sharing what they saw. So we don’t know if there’ll be anything more explosive between now and November 8th. But a lot of Democrats are concerned that this is going to continue through the transition, if she wins, and perhaps into her presidency, if she wins. This could be something that, you know, is embarrassing. It could be even more than that. So they are concerned. And this is just one slice of the hacked emails. At the DNC and the other committees, they’re also concerned about another shoe to fall, because there’s not been a huge smoking gun. And maybe there won’t be. But you know, this is a big unknown over the final weeks of the campaign, which you don’t like.
MR. WILLIAMS: We saw the interjecting Trump again at this debate. And one of his interruptions during the debate has taken on a life of its own. It came while Hillary Clinton was talking about her economic plan.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s – assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security trust –
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Such a nasty woman.
MR. WILLIAMS: That phrase quickly became an internet sensation, picked up as a kind of badge of honor by women, who put Clinton’s face over Janet Jackson in her music video for the song, Nasty. So, Jeanne, has this had any effect on potential voters?
MS. CUMMINGS: It’s had a really important viral effect. You know, Hillary Clinton has been running this traditional old-fashioned kind of campaign and has not been able to link up with Millennials. She doesn’t talk their language. They build the machinery for them, but it isn’t fun. So this was, though, amazing. The women – I think from Hollywood across the country, women got online and adopted the “nasty woman” title.
MR. WILLIAMS: As a badge of honor.
MS. CUMMINGS: As a badge of honor. And there are now reports – when we came upon it the Millennial women suddenly woke up and, like, this is cool. This is not boring anymore. And they also appreciated in the debate her strong defense of women on abortion rights and sexual harassment. So she, you know, through accident and through some policy, I think she has awakened the female Millennials in a way that she would maybe not been able to do if he hasn’t used that –
MR. WILLIAMS: But they weren’t that excited about being the first woman president?
MS. CUMMINGS: No, that wasn’t jazzing them up in the way that, like, President Obama’s historic status was doing for the black community eight years ago. It just wasn’t the same.
MR. WILLIAMS: I want to ask you, Phil, about something else. The Clinton campaign is capitalizing on some polls that show that her support in the battleground states is expanding, sending some of the star surrogates – Bernie Sanders that we talked about earlier, Michelle Obama. Is it really that close in those states? Does she really have a shot at some of those red states?
MR. RUCKER: In Arizona, certainly. The public polling that we’re seeing shows Hillary Clinton either tied, and in some cases a little bit ahead in Arizona. That would be a remarkable turn. This is a red state. It’s been reliably Republican for a generation, if not more. And the Latino vote is really important there. That’s one of the reasons Trump has struggled so much. And Hillary Clinton is sending surrogates there, but she’s also spending a lot of money on television ads, on digital ads, putting boots on the ground in staffers and volunteers to try to mobilize voters. And it might pay off. And it might in fact help lift up Ann Kirkpatrick who’s running behind in the Senate race there against John McCain. Unclear if she’ll be able to actually win, but it could make that race closer.
MR. WILLIAMS: In 10 seconds, Georgia and Texas too?
MR. RUCKER: Georgia as well, certainly. Texas seems like a little bit more of a stretch, but some of the polls are showing that to be pretty close too.
MR. WILLIAMS: Phil, thank you. Thank you all.
The conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you about the independent presidential candidate who is surging in the polls in one state where he might defeat Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Plus, Trump has been warning his supporters of the potential of widespread voter fraud in the election, but the experts say your odds of getting struck by lightning twice are more than the odds of voter fraud. See more at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Pete Williams. Good night.