This is it, folks. Wednesday is the final presidential debate, which means it’s the final time this campaign we get to force both candidates to stand on a stage and answer questions before Election Day.
Or at least hope they answer questions. In the past two debates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have managed to avoid some tough queries. (Trump has managed to avoid most questions off the stage, too — while Clinton has resumed taking occasional questions from her traveling press corps, it has been more than 80 days since Trump’s last news conference.)
Sometimes the candidates avoid tough debate questions by dodging them: They just answer a different question than the one asked. Sometimes they’ve gotten lucky, and the thorny issues just haven’t come up. But plenty of people see their luck run out in Las Vegas. On Wednesday night, that group could include both major-party candidates.
Since they last met 10 days ago on the debate stage, both Clinton and Trump have been put on the defensive with news stories about leaked emails and sexual abuse accusations, respectively. For the most part, they haven’t really faced tough questions about some of the headlines. Now they will take live questions from debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, who is known to be a tough questioner.
Which means things could get awkward for the candidates. Here are three questions neither candidate has really answered so far that they could face Wednesday:
1. The WikiLeaks release of internal campaign emails may be illegal — but the content of those emails has again raised questions about whether you’ve been completely candid with the American people about Clinton Foundation donations and the content of Wall Street speeches, among other issues. Can you understand why people may be concerned by what they’ve learned? How would you address those concerns?
Background: WikiLeaks has spent much of this month releasing hacked emails purportedly from her campaign. But Clinton’s team has refused to verify the authenticity of the emails, suggesting that if these hacks were carried out by Russia, the emails could be fake.
The emails paint a picture of a politician plotting to win an election. So far, here is what we’ve learned from them:
1) The country of Qatar donated millions to Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of state.
2) The Clinton campaign looked for information to undermine one of her husband’s accusers, Juanita Broaddrick.
3) She promoted “open trade and open borders” in past speeches to Wall Street, despite being opposed to President Obama’s free-trade deal in 2016.
If those things are true, Clinton would have some explaining to do about all of them. But the first order of business is to get her on the record about whether she and her campaign actually did, said and thought those things.
2. (Believe it or not, Clinton has not been asked in a general election debate yet about the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans killed in a 2012 attack in the Libyan city of Benghazi while she was secretary of state. This question is likely to come in the form of an attack from Trump, who is bringing the mother of one of the Americans killed that night to Wednesday’s debate.)
Trump has repeatedly tried to pin the attacks on Clinton. But the facts don’t support that.
Even House Democrats have acknowledged that security measures in Benghazi leading up to the attack were “woefully inadequate.” But an 800-page, House Republican report released in June after a two-year investigation into the attacks didn’t find any specific wrongdoing by Clinton, nor evidence that she deliberately misled the American people about what had happened. The report instead points to the CIA and military officials as failing to recognize the danger in Libya, and delays in coming to the rescue of embassy officials.
That said: The image of a grieving mother who blames Clinton would make for a tricky dynamic for the former secretary of state as she addresses questions about the incident.
3. Was there any attempt by State Department officials to change the level of classification of the emails you sent and received on your private email server while secretary of state?
We already know that the FBI has said Clinton was “extremely careless” about how she treated classified information (a characterization Clinton has disputed.)
Then this week, the FBI released emails suggesting there was at least one attempt by a top State Department official to get the FBI to change the classification rating on one of Clinton’s emails. Even more potentially damning, the exchange suggests the staffer was also considering helping out the FBI by giving the bureau more access in Iraq.
That staffer, Patrick Kennedy, has said his motivations in changing the email classification weren’t political, and there’s zero indication that he was acting on Clinton’s behalf. The FBI and State Department have denied any quid pro quo. Still, the story has thrust Clinton’s other email problems back into the spotlight in a big way.
1. Elections experts — and even your own campaign manager — say the presidential election won’t be “rigged.” Political scientists add that talking about the vote in these terms is dangerous for democracy, and maybe even for voters themselves. What evidence do you have that the election this year — much of it overseen by Republican officials — is anything but free and fair? And if you don’t have any, isn’t it irresponsible to make these claims?
Background: In America, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than face a fraudulent election, experts say. That’s because rigging an election would require widespread collusion of both major parties, at every step in the process. And all this supposed rigging would have to be done in the open, because elections are held in public places such as schools and churches and watched by trained bipartisan officials. The Post’s Sari Horwitz has more.
Trump’s insistence, despite the facts, that the presidential election is rigged is also raising concerns among election officials that there could be unrest or even violence on Election Day. Trump has urged his supporters to go vote, then sit outside other polling places in cities such as Philadelphia and watch for any hint of fraud.
2. In the second presidential debate, you told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that you never sexually assaulted women — putting into action your bragging about it. Since then, at least 10 women have come forward and accused you of doing just that. So we will ask you again: Have you ever done anything that could be interpreted as sexual assault — in particular, grabbing or kissing a woman before or without her consent?
Trump has denied each and every allegation against him (here’s a list of them.) But voters aren’t necessarily buying his apologies: 68 percent of likely voters think he made unwanted advances to women, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The way Trump has denied wrongdoing isn’t exactly winning over women. He has suggested that these accusers weren’t attractive enough to warrant his attention in the first place, which is maybe not the best thing to say when you’re losing women voters by eight points, according to that Post-ABC News poll. If Trump is ever going to figure out a way to talk about the charges without alienating even more female voters, now would be the time to do it. So far, there’s been no sign that’s the case.
3. Can conservatives really count on knowing who you’d nominate for the Supreme Court? Or could you pick someone whose name you haven’t mentioned yet?
The Supreme Court vacancy has been one of Trump’s biggest . . . well, trump cards. The fact that he alone in this campaign would replace a conservative justice with another conservative justice is something about which he frequently reminds Republicans. To that end, he has put forward two lists of a total of 21 people he’d consider nominating — all judges and politicians who are more or less acceptable to the conservative community.
Case closed? Not exactly.
As with many Trump positions, there appears to be a certain amount of . . . flexibility involved. “We’re either going to choose from this list or people very close to it,” Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity in May. “At a minimum, we will keep people from this general realm.” That wasn’t the only time this year Trump suggested in TV interviews or at rallies that he might nominate someone not on that list. Trump has often said unpredictability is one of his greatest assets. On issues like this one, the Republican base — including many Fox viewers — which cares deeply about who fills the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat, may not agree.