Politics 101: Fact-checking (and explaining) the third Clinton-Trump debate

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It was an exercise in mudslinging. At the final presidential debate Wednesday, Donald Trump doubled down on denying he ever sexually assaulted women, and on claims — refuted by several Republican officials — that the election is “rigged.” Hillary Clinton faced attacks based on evidence of corruption and flip-flopping on her attitude toward big banks.

You could call it an October surprise for the ages.

But in this election, what would normally be bombshells are turning out to be mundane additions to an already mud-drenched campaign — so we’re combing through the details for you and sorting out what it all means. Here are the most important fact checks on Wednesday’s final presidential debate, followed by analysis of how it will affect the race.

Trump’s sexual assault issues gave Hillary Clinton a target, while her marriage with Bill Clinton barely came up.

When asked about the nine women who had accused Trump of unwanted sexual contact, Trump not only denied the claims but discredited the women, saying they made the claims because they wanted “10 minutes of fame.” Trump said they’ve been “largely debunked.” A 10th woman accused Trump Thursday morning.

There is no evidence other than Trump’s own denials that the allegations are not true. And if word-against-word is the factual standard in this campaign, it’s worth noting that Trump also has a well-documented history of having affairs, and his first wife once said he raped her — she later walked that back to say she “felt violated.”

Trump has attempted to push back by accusing Hillary Clinton of “viciously” attacking women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse.

But Trump’s claim, which came up at the second debate, is exaggerated at best, and a lie at worst — there is evidence Hillary Clinton played some role in discrediting some accusations, but none that she attacked women who claimed sexual misconduct. And the oft-repeated criticism that Clinton laughed at a rape victim is also untrue.

In a strange twist, although moderator Chris Wallace brought up Bill Clinton’s actions, Trump brought up Clinton’s email scandal again rather than taking an easy opportunity to use his attack. Clinton’s strongest moment of the night was a strikingly personal appeal against Trump’s treatment of women, followed by a rattling-off of the most offensive moments of his campaign.

WikiLeaks released emails from Clinton’s campaign chair that reveal controversial quotes.

WikiLeaks, an international organization that publishes secret political information, released emails that quote Clinton as saying she wants “open borders” and being more empathetic to Wall Street bankers than her public statements would suggest. Clinton said her full “open borders” quote was referring to energy policy, rather than immigration.

There are conflicting guesses as to what she meant. During the debate, Clinton said she was referring to an energy grid that crosses borders, and the original quote did say she wanted open trade.

One analyst said it would be “redundant” to mention open trade and open borders if she wasn’t referring to open immigration by saying “borders.” During the campaign, Clinton has constantly supported border security.

She did, however, largely sidestep a question about whether donors to her charity, the Clinton Foundation, were given special political access when she was secretary of state. Clinton veered off and talked about the humanitarian achievements of her charity, only able to say there is “no evidence” to say it was run in a pay-to-play way. Trump and Wallace pressed her accordingly.

Clinton said the Russians are behind the WikiLeaks releases.

Clinton was right here, if you go by what the U.S. intelligence community says. She rightly said that 17 U.S. agencies — by a joint statement from the director of national intelligence — formally accused the Russian government of directing the leaks.

Blaming Russia opened up a tough trap for Trump.

Trump actually encouraged Russia in July to engage in espionage to find Clinton’s deleted emails. Trump and Putin have praised each other in the past, and that history set the backdrop for Clinton to imply that Trump has had Putin’s help in this election and that he would be Russia’s “puppet” if elected.

Trump, notably on the defensive, made several attempts to distance himself, saying “I don’t know Putin … This is not my best friend.”

Trump accused Clinton and President Barack Obama of paying to incite violence at his rallies.

This is in one sense largely false, and in another sense possibly true.

Videos released by conservative group Project Veritas Action this week show Democratic National Committee operatives allegedly discussing tactics to get people to cause violence at Trump rallies. That group has been criticized in the past for deceptively editing videos to support its agenda.

The Clinton campaign did pay a campaign consultant featured in the video about $1,600 two weeks before violence broke out at a Chicago Trump rally, but the consultant’s connection to violence is tenuous at best. The DNC said the two committee operatives who were the video’s main subjects are no longer assisting the committee.

There is no evidence that either of the operatives were Clinton campaign insiders, and there is no support for the idea that Obama was involved at all. Other groups have also been given credit for shutting down the Chicago Trump rally.

But whether there is any truth to the video’s portrayal of DNC workers discussing or planning violence at Trump rallies in general cannot be disproven based on what is currently known.

Trump contradicted himself again on trade.

Trump continued his long-standing tirade against the North American Free Trade Agreement, yet also said the U.S. would have “a lot of free trade” if he were elected.

Trump can’t have it both ways. We have written at length about NAFTA and Trump’s trade inconsistencies, which you can view here. Clinton — almost — admitted that she flip-flopped on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

But the main takeaway was that Clinton was able to rise above the insults, especially after Trump’s rigged election comments.

Clinton and Trump aggressively criticized each other — Clinton jabbed at Trump’s admitted penchant for avoiding paying taxes, called him a puppet and implied she was doing real work while he was “doing Celebrity Apprentice.”

Trump said several times that Russian President Vladimir Putin has outsmarted Clinton on foreign policy, and called her actions criminal and her campaign sleazy. Trump also interrupted Clinton several times, simply saying “Wrong” at two times when Clinton was undeniably right: Once at the mention of his support for the Iraq war, and once about his mocking a disabled reporter.

One of Trump’s main cases against Clinton is that she’s a criminal and unfit for office. But Clinton was able to look presidential — and more mature — in emotionally condemning Trump’s alleged treatment of women and in calling his claim of a rigged election “horrifying”. That claim gave Clinton elbow room to launch into a tirade on Trump’s behavior of outward blame as a pattern — she was able to peg him as someone who paints the system as rigged if it doesn’t let him have his way. (And for the record, the claim of elections being rigged is demonstrably false.)

Although Clinton wasn’t entirely honest in the debate, Trump’s lies were more visible and, well, taller. The dishonesty came to a head when Trump said “Nobody has more respect for women than me” — and the audience audibly laughed. At this point in the campaign, that statement can be fact-checked to absurdity.

That contrast may define the election for Clinton and Trump. Clinton will come out as a slightly untrustworthy politician (read: a politician) who has the temperament to be president, and Trump will come out as an outright liar at best, and a bigot at worst, even for those who may have supported him otherwise. The difference may become conclusive come Election Day.

Contact CU Independent Editorial Manager Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu and on Twitter @ArnoldEllis_.

Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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