Sunday night’s debate began as expected — with a question about the recently released video of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault.
We received a lot of questions online, Mr. Trump, about the tape that was released on Friday, as you can imagine. You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?
So it was somewhat surprising that Trump barely responded to the question and went on an extended riff about ISIS.
Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.
But in an interview with a Maine radio station yesterday, Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis revealed that not answering questions was Trump’s debate strategy. He was coached, according to Clovis, to ignore the questions and make whatever point he wanted to make.
HOST: When he’s asked about this video and he starts talking about ISIS. He’s not answering the question. Now I’m not going to say Hillary was great at answering the question. But she was following the rules better than Donald Trump was and answering the questions more than Donald Trump was.
CLOVIS: Well that’s also debate craft and make no mistake you go out there and you tell your candidate when you are coaching them — these are the four or five or six points we want you to make — no matter what the question is you turn it back to these points.
You can listen to the full discussion (beginning at 6:03):
Responding to the video wasn’t the only time that Trump deployed this strategy.
Asked what he would do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Trump talked about everything from the need to modernize our nuclear weapons program to the generals who are endorsing his candidacy.
Asked about his tweet encouraging Americans to “check out” a sex tape of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, Trump talked about Benghazi.
Asked about whether he paid federal income taxes, Trump talked about Hillary Clinton’s “bad judgment on Syria, Libya, and Iraq.”
The tactic of pivoting from the question to a core message is something that all politicians employ. But Trump, and his campaign, are taking this to a new level. In many cases, that meant simply ignoring the question and ranting about an unrelated topic.
The result is something like what happened Sunday night. A chaotic event that does not resemble a debate as much two people sharing a stage, talking about different things.