He’d gotten in some hits on Hillary Clinton and was well on his way to turning in his best performance of the three presidential debates.
Then, he refused to say he’d accept the election’s results and he called Clinton “such a nasty woman.”
Any gains Trump had made were undone, and he blew his last big, nationally televised chance to broaden his base — making a case to women, moderates and disaffected Republicans whose rejection has left him far behind in the national polls.
Here are five takeaways from the final debate of the 2016 presidential race:
Trump refuses to accept election’s outcome
The integrity of the vote is the very foundation of American democracy — and on Wednesday night, Trump was toying with it.
Asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he’d accept the election’s results, he said: “I will look at it at the time.”
The answer was stunning — and immediately became the one that would dominate all post-debate coverage.
Trump repeatedly used the word “rigged” — bemoaning media bias, inaccurate voter rolls and the FBI’s decision not to charge Clinton over her use of a private email server.
Pressed again on whether he’d accept the election’s outcome, Trump revealed his motivations. “I will keep you in suspense,” he said.
“That’s horrifying,” Clinton shot back.
It was the biggest moment of the night — and perhaps of all three debates. By entertaining the idea that he’d refuse to concede the election if he loses, Trump guaranteed the topic would dominate in the precious few days he has left to catch Clinton.
Bad spot for Republicans
Trump has put every other Republican on the ballot this November in yet another tough spot.
This time, less than three weeks from the election, they’ll be forced to decide between defending Trump and defending the integrity of the democratic process.
They’ll have to explain why Trump went somewhere even his running mate wouldn’t go.
Mike Pence told CNN’s Dana Bash just an hour before the debate started: “I’ve said before that we’ll certainly accept the outcome of this election.”
Afterwards, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Trump would accept the elections results “because he will win,” then left an interview when Bash continued to question Trump’s statement.
Trump’s comments drew immediate rebukes from Republicans who have already rejected him. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Trump is “doing the party and the country a great disservice.”
Even conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, a reliably pro-Trump voice, wasn’t having it.
“He should have said he would accept the results of the election. There is no other option unless we’re in a recount again,” she tweeted.
Given Trump’s propensity to fight with his fellow Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan, he may not care that conservatives are unhappy. But he needs Republicans to turn out on November 8 if he’s going to win — and his party needs those same voters to keep control of Congress.
‘Such a nasty woman’
Trump’s biggest political challenge is his huge disadvantage with women.
But you wouldn’t have known it when — with minutes left in the debate — he interrupted Clinton, leaning into the mic and saying: “Such a nasty woman.”
It was the culmination of a night of interruptions and asides that could alienate the very voters Trump needs most. “Wrong,” he said over and over. “You can’t,” he said as Clinton described a plan. When Clinton attempted to interject during one of his answers, Trump held up his hand. “Excuse me — my turn,” he said.
Meanwhile, his insistence that the multiple women who have come forward accusing him of sexual assault since the second presidential debate left Clinton an opening to point out that his defense, used repeatedly at rallies, has been to suggest the women weren’t attractive enough.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” she said.
When Trump answered that “nobody has more respect for women than I do,” moderator Wallace had to admonish the crowd, which had started laughing.
Trump always takes the bait
Early on, the debate resembled the policy battle you might hear in any other election — a surprising departure for the 2016 campaign. The two jousted over the types of justices they’d nominate for the Supreme Court. Trump defended gun rights; Clinton advocated for abortion rights.
Trump landed some clean shots at Clinton, mocking her for turning a question about what a WikiLeaks hack revealed she’d said in a paid speech into “a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders.”
But Clinton poked and prodded Trump — and once again, it worked.
Over Trump’s decision not to raise his proposed border wall in a meeting with Mexico’s president, Clinton said “he choked and then got into a Twitter war.”
When Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin would rather deal with him than Clinton, she said: “Well that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
It was the beginning of Trump’s slide.
Soon, he made a big mistake — telling Clinton she’s “been in a position to help” solve problems for 30 years. “The problem is, you talk, but you don’t get anything done, Hillary. You don’t,” he said.
That teed up Clinton for a memorable answer.
“You know, back in the 1970s, I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, and I was taking on discrimination against African-American kids in schools. He was getting sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his apartment buildings,” she said.
“In the 1980s, I was working to reform the schools in Arkansas. He was borrowing $14 million from his father to start his businesses. In the 1990s, I went to Beijing and I said women’s rights are human rights. He insulted a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, called her an eating machine,” Clinton said. “And on the day when I was in the Situation Room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting the ‘Celebrity Apprentice.'”
The results: A CNN/ORC instant poll found 52% of debate watchers viewed Clinton as the winner compared to 39% who felt the same about Trump.
Voters’ lack of faith in Trump’s temperament and leadership capacity, polls show, are among his biggest political liabilities.
On Wednesday he offered a glimpse at how he measures effective leaders.
Trump praised Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad — who has used chemical weapons — as better than American leaders. “He’s just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama,” he said.
He also continued to refuse to distance himself from Russian President Vladimir Putin — or acknowledge that intelligence officials have said Russia is responsible for hacks into Democratic operatives’ email accounts.
“This is not my best friend,” Trump said. “But if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn’t be so bad.”
It was a window into Trump’s thinking: Strength — almost to the exclusion of all else — is paramount, all challenges must be met and no slight can go without rebuttal.
It was the same thinking that led Trump to air his personal grievance with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the opening minutes of the debate — and to weigh in when Clinton mocked him for complaining that when “The Apprentice” didn’t win awards, Trump “started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.”
“Should have gotten it,” Trump said.