Finley: Trump in debate failed to recover from disaster

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Destroyed. Dead. Done.

That’s the status of Donald Trump’s campaign following the worst weekend for a presidential candidate ever.

He walked onto the stage of Washington University in St. Louis Sunday night needing to erase his words captured on an 11-year-old videotape, strategically released to coincide with the debate, that served as a primer of sorts for molesting women.

He didn’t deliver.

The second question of the evening, from moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN, went directly to the tape, asking Trump if he did the things he spoke of in the recording. Instead of a sincere apology and a plausible explanation, he dismissed it as locker room talk and quickly pivoted to a ramble about defeating ISIS and keeping America safe. The moment called for contrition and a convincing assurance that he was a changed man. Trump lost the night right there.

He didn’t make the issue go away, and he also failed at his second mission — looking presidential.

Instead, Trump looked exactly like a man who’d had a couple of really bad days and wasn’t happy about it.

He seemed at times subdued, at other times angry. And too often unfocused. It was as if he were trying to remember words he had rehearsed but couldn’t coax back on the debate stage.

He missed the opportunity on a question about the WikiLeaks release of Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches to remind the audience of her description of herself as an elitist who finds it necessary to hide her true self and positions from a simple-minded electorate. Instead he went rabbit hunting, yapping about Warren Buffett and George Soros, and allowing himself to be drawn into yet another convoluted explanation of his taxes.

The same was true in his response to Clinton’s answer to a rare question about her emails. Trump should have shown up ready to tick off the precise lies she’s told throughout this sordid business. He wasn’t. In fact, he was short of facts throughout the evening. And chose too often to chide moderators who were refreshingly fair and in control.

This was a night to mount a spirited defense of his candidacy and to make a case for the superiority of his positions. He chose instead to turn nearly every answer into a disjointed attack on Clinton. That appealed to his fervent base, but missed what should have been his target audience, those voters who have fallen out of his camp due to his campaign missteps.

Understanding her advantage, Clinton took no risks. She stayed calm and stuck to message and went easy on Trump — no sense shooting a guy who’s already shot himself.

But that’s just scorecard stuff.

Trump’s troubles now are too large for even a sterling debate performance to solve.

The words on that videotape had a last-straw feel to them. Saturday morning, Republican candidates for offices ranging from Congress to drain commissioner — literally, since retiring Rep. Candice Miller who is running for that office in Macomb County was among the first — couldn’t sign on to their email accounts fast enough to denounce his comments and distance themselves from their presidential standard bearer. Many revoked their support outright.

Donald Trump’s Howard Beale act has played out to its predictable end. Being mad as hell may for a time win cheers from the angry crowd, but it won’t win the White House.

There’s one final debate, and be sure it will also be preceded by more damaging leaks. Trump looks for all the world like a piece of toast.