Donald Trump successfully “sprayed a lot of squid ink” to avoid the fallout from lewd comments caught on tape, according to close US politics watcher Chas Licciardello.
Mr Licciardello, co-host of the ABC’s Planet America, said the Republican candidate nullified the tape scandal with interruptions, arguments and tangents – including a warning shot fired at Bill Clinton, who was seated in the audience.
“In the end, it became a blur as much as anything. I feel, from a viewer’s perspective, it was kind of a wash and will make no difference,” the ABC host told The New Daily.
Last week, The Washington Post published 2005 audio of Mr Trump bragging about kissing women and grabbing their genitals. It quickly dominated the US news cycle.
An hour before the debate, the candidate fronted a press conference with four women. Three had accused Mr Clinton of rape or sexual assault in years past. The fourth was the victim in a rape case where Hillary Clinton acted as public defender for the accused.
At the debate, Mr Trump dismissed his lewd remarks as “locker room talk”. He said Islamic State was the more important issue, that Mr Clinton “did far worse”, and that Hillary should be “in jail” because of the email scandal. Mrs Clinton called it “big diversion”.
According to Mr Licciardello, it worked. The tactic “effectively killed off” the issue, proving Mr Trump learned from his mistakes in the first debate, he said.
“I’m not saying Trump did tremendously well, but I can’t emphasise enough how much it just became a mess, and I just don’t think people are going to remember much of it.”
Mrs Clinton’s biggest failure was not skewering her rival on policy. For example, Twitter lit up when Mr Trump contradicted his running mate, Mike Pence, on the Syrian civil war.
But Mr Trump spun this as a win, Mr Licciardello said.
One of the moderators asked if Mr Trump supported Mr Pence’s view that the US should push back against Russian provocations in Syria, and be prepared to attack the Syrian army.
Mr Trump replied: “He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree. I disagree. I think you have to knock out ISIS.”
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) October 10, 2016
Rather than being seized on by Mrs Clinton as proof of the campaign’s dysfunction and Mr Trump’s ignorance, he was able to spin himself as “an independent guy” who refuses to “fall in line and do the expected things”, including plunging the US into another foreign war, Mr Licciardello said.
Another big win for Mr Trump was when Mrs Clinton raised his tax returns. The New York Times published last week a copy of the Republican’s 1995 tax return, which revealed he claimed an almost billion-dollar loss.
It was speculated by the NYT that Mr Trump could have used this loss to minimise his tax for the next two decades.
Not only did Mr Trump confirm that he used the tax loophole, but managed to spin this as Mrs Clinton’s fault for failing to legislate tax reform during her eight years in Congress because of her friendship with billionaires.
He then promised to close the loopholes if elected.
“It cut through for Trump. It did seem like he was going to raise his own taxes, which is absolutely untrue, but it would’ve come off that way,” Mr Licciardello said.
“So often Trump says things that are just blatantly untrue and ridiculous, but they sound convincing because she doesn’t rebut them, and I think that happened a lot during this debate.”
The big win for Mrs Clinton was her calm and calculated body language, he said.
While Mr Trump paced the stage “like a wild animal”, Mrs Clinton used camera angles to her advantage and gave out perfectly-timed sighs of exasperation when her opponent interrupted or gave ridiculous answers.
“Ironically, despite her giving these more well-rounded answer, it’s the non-verbal stuff that will cut through.”