Donald Trump on Wednesday refused to say he would accept the result of the presidential election if he loses to Hillary Clinton, raising the possibility of an extraordinary departure from principles that have underpinned American democracy for more than two centuries.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said when asked during the final presidential debate whether he would concede if he loses on November 8, following his claims that the election is “rigged” against him.
He added: “I will keep you in suspense.”
The comments at the Las Vegas showdown marked a stunning moment that has never been seen in the weeks before a modern presidential election. The stance threatens to cast doubt on one of the fundamental principles of American politics — the peaceful, undisputed transfer of power from one president to a successor who is recognized as legitimate after winning an election.
Trump’s debate performance could doom his chance to win over any remaining undecided voters at this late stage in the campaign. His comments about the election results came during a debate in which he spoke of “hombres,” language that could offend Latinos. And he referred to Clinton as a “nasty woman.”
The election remarks expose a divide with Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer before the debate, “We’ll certainly accept the outcome of this election.”
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Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN’s Dana Bash after the debate that Trump will “accept the results of the election because he’s going to win the election.”
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who is leading Trump in most polls, said her competitor’s remarks were “horrifying” and accused him of taking refuge in the idea that any event that turns out against him — even an Emmy award that goes to a rival — is “rigged.”
The final presidential debate
Photos: The final presidential debate
“That is not the way our democracy works,” Clinton said. “We’ve been around for 240 years. We have had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what is expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.”
She continued: “He is denigrating — he’s talking down — our democracy. And I for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.”
Trump’s remark about the election result is certain to dominate the aftermath of the debate with only 19 days to go before the election, and it seemed likely to overshadow the GOP’s nominee’s strongest performance in any of the three presidential debates.
A CNN/ORC instant poll found 52% of debate watchers viewed Clinton as the winner compared to 39% who felt the same about Trump.
Trump didn’t have much margin for error going into the debate. He’s down eight points in the latest CNN Poll of Polls and is nearly out of time to launch what would have to be one of the most remarkable comebacks of modern times.
A new edition of the CNN electoral map on Wednesday moved two key swing states, Florida and Nevada, to “lean Democrat.” Two other states that have voted almost exclusively Republican for decades, Utah and Arizona, are now considered battlegrounds.