The Slatest

Donald Trump’s Wretched Debate Performance Could Have Been Far Worse. So Pundits Are Scoring It a Win.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump responds to questions during the town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Sunday.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s pre-debate press event with Bill Clinton’s rape, sexual harassment, and assault accusers Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey on Sunday seemed to confirm our worst fears about the debate that would follow. The indication from that event seemed to be that Trump would respond to the apocalyptic fallout from the Washington Post’s Friday leak of a tape of him bragging about sexual assault by heaving a dirty bomb at his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, her husband, and the last remnants of American political decorum. That only sort of happened. Basically, it could have been a lot worse.

Trump did reference Bill Clinton’s accusers, but not as specifically, graphically, or forcefully as many expected. In fact, he mentioned them only the second time the tape came up. (The first time, he deflected by pivoting, surreally, to ISIS.) All told, Trump didn’t outwardly seem substantially more incoherent than he’s been in the past. In fact, Trump ended on a high note, responding to a question about the qualities he admired in Clinton with perhaps his most gracious moment of the campaign. “I will say this about Hillary,” he said. “She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She is a fighter.”

Ultimately, the debate wasn’t the dramatic cataclysm we braced for. It will instead be seen as the kind of Trump disaster we’ve become accustomed to. That’s all Republicans could have hoped for, and that’s exactly what they got. It’s already being speculated, in fact, that his performance will help stall the weekend’s exodus of GOP elite political support.

This is in spite of the fact that Trump spent more time normalizing boasts about sexual assault than he did discussing energy policy. The tape and Trump’s incredible defense of his words as mere “locker room talk,” though, came up early enough in the debate that they were buried by the discussions that followed. Trump also managed not to deepen or widen the controversy by going full bore into the Bill Clinton accusations, giving the GOP room to move on. Naturally, the political media will be happy to oblige them. NBC’s Chuck Todd called this Trump’s “best 90 minutes.” If we allow ourselves to forget why the bar for him Sunday night was so low, that’s how this debate will be remembered.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.