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Trump surrogates attempt to defend, clarify election outcome comments

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the spin room at the UNLV debate. (SBG)

A lot of people are talking about Republican nominee Donald Trump’s performance in the third and final presidential debate Wednesday, but not necessarily in the way he would like.

“What Donald Trump needed was people at the end of the debate talking about a clear-cut victory for him,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, following the debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Instead the lead takeaway from the night is everybody’s talking about whether or not he’s going to accept the results of the election.”

Speaking with allies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the hours after the debate, it was clear Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election was dominating the conversation, much to the dismay of Trump surrogates.

At the end of the first debate last month, Trump and Clinton both said they would accept the outcome of the election and concede if they lose. In the days afterward, he wavered on that commitment, but over the last couple of weeks, he has made explicit and implausible claims of mass voter fraud a cornerstone of his stump speeches.

On Wednesday night, debate moderator Chris Wallace observed that Trump’s running mate and his daughter have said in recent days that the campaign will accept the results of the election. Asked if he would make the same commitment, Trump responded, “I will look at it at the time.”

After Wallace pressed for an answer several more times, Trump said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?”

“Let me respond to that because that’s horrifying,” Clinton said.

In the spin room, her supporters shared her sentiment.

“The voters who participate in the election will decide the outcome, not Donald trump or Hillary Clinton,” said interim Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, “and anyone who thinks they can make a mockery of our democracy by challenging the results I think undermines not just our government but they undermine our voters’ confidence in the process itself.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said teachers would struggle on Thursday to explain to their students why a presidential candidate is challenging the legitimacy of the election before ballots are cast.

“You have Hillary who’s talking about what she stands for and asking for people’s support and their vote, and you have someone else that acts like it’s supposed to be given to him, and if you don’t give it to him he might make trouble,” she said.

“That was chilling. The difference between these two candidates to me is so stark.”

Trump surrogates made dogged efforts to defend his comments, with some claiming he was misunderstood and others insisting that the election could indeed be stolen from him.

“He’s not going to concede and no one would concede until they know the results of the election,” said Ashley Bell, senior strategist and national director of African American engagement for the Republican National Committee.

After the results are in, though, Bell said Trump would be on board with a peaceful transfer of power to the victor.

“Once the votes are tallied, absolutely we’re going to support whatever the will of the people is, and we’re going to support a clear and open transition of power in this country. We always have and we always will.”

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took Trump’s words more literally.

“I said, ‘Donald, you’re right.’ The Clintons are cheaters and is it beyond possibility that they would cheat in this election? No,” Giuliani said.

After blasting the Clinton Foundation as a “racketeering enterprise,” he called the Clintons “grifters” and “an embarrassment to the United States of America.”

“The Clintons cheat, so I would say I’ll accept the results of the election when I see the paper, see how much they won by,” Giuliani said. “If it’s a big enough margin that you can’t defraud your way out of it, I’ll accept that either way.”

He then pointed to Al Gore fighting for a recount in Florida in 2000 and suggested the outrage aimed at Trump represents a double standard.

Others presented Trump’s point about the election as a call for awareness and vigilance in the face of voter fraud, which experts say is rare but does occur.

“Why is it that we’re not all serious about stopping that kind of thing?” asked Dr. Ben Carson, a former primary opponent who has endorsed Trump. “We can send a man to the moon, we can do all types of fantastic medical procedures, but we can’t verify voting? Of course we can if we really wanted to.”

Campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson suggested Trump was merely stating he would not concede the race before all the votes are cast and counted.

“What Mr. Trump has said is he’s not going to accept the results of an election that has not occurred yet,” she said.

Assessing Trump’s performance in Wednesday’s debate more broadly, Pierson said he did a “fantastic job” of defending himself and prosecuting a case against Clinton.

Kall said there were indeed some bright spots for Trump. He landed hard blows against Clinton on her family’s foundation, her use of a private email server as secretary of state, and her foreign policy failures.

There was much pre-debate speculation that Trump would drag the debate into the gutter based on leaks from his staff and a bizarre guest list that included a woman who claims Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her, Barack Obama’s half-brother, and Wayne Newton. Trump’s attacks were instead relatively straightforward and conventional.

Even when given an opening by Wallace to talk about Bill Clinton’s sexual impropriety, Trump didn’t. Kall said Trump seemed to recognize that approach would not win over the female voters he desperately needs.

“You could kind of tell that he made a course correction that it didn’t really work in the second debate… It was smart,” he said. “Rather than do that, he immediately went to the private email server.”

However, Clinton’s debate skills and preparation kept Trump from building up the momentum to do serious damage.

“She deserves credit because she was forceful and just was really well read and briefed on all this opposition research on Trump,” Kall said.

Although Trump has spent the last week mocking her debate prep, Clinton’s days of cramming left her better equipped to talk about the issues, a notable edge in a debate that focused more on policy than the previous two.

“It was the most substance-filled debate that we’ve seen and I think that actually hurt Trump,” Kall said. “He’s still a political novice.”

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), a Clinton supporter, said the focus on policy enabled Clinton to draw upon her decades of experience in public service while Trump spent the last 30 years in the service of his own wealth and financial success.

“I think it was Hillary Clinton’s strongest performance yet because she had so much substance,” Chu said. “She was able to lay out clearly what she would do for the American people in terms of bringing about jobs…making college affordable, preserving social security, these are the things that Americans care about on a day-to-day basis.”

However, like Trump, his surrogates attempted to portray Clinton’s years of political experience as a weakness.

“At every turn, he made sure we held Hillary Clinton accountable for her failed policies of the last 30 years. She has no accomplishments, only disasters in 30 years,” Bell said.

“She’s another politician with a lot of words and no action.”

Offered a chance to make one-minute closing arguments to voters, Clinton delivered a message aimed at convincing the public that she can work with people of all ideologies and backgrounds to improve the country. Trump made the points he often does about everything he thinks is currently wrong with America under Barack Obama, but according to Kall, that might be a tactical mistake.

“What a poor way to end the evening: saying if you get Clinton, you get four more years of President Obama, who’s sitting at 53 percent in the Gallup poll. He’s much more popular than both of these candidates,” Kall said.

With less than 20 days until the election, Trump’s debate performance Wednesday was likely not strong enough to completely reverse his poll slide, but his comments on the legitimacy of the electoral process have guaranteed he will remain the center of attention for at least the next few days.

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