WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump loomed over another debate Thursday night, even though he was nowhere near the North Carolina stage where incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr faced challenger Deborah Ross, a former Democratic state representative.
The first question from ABC News’ Jonathan Karl was actually about low trust in Hillary Clinton, but Ross quickly turned it to Trump, saying the GOP nominee “has demonstrated particularly this week that he is singularly not qualified to be our commander in chief.”
Ross mentioned Trump encouraging Russia to hack computers in the United States, as well as the video that emerged last week of Trump saying he likes to sexually assault women.
“Sen. Burr has stuck by Donald Trump during all of this and I think that that shows a lack of judgment,” Ross said. “What I want to do is get up every morning and work for the people of North Carolina every day, and you can trust me.”
Asked by Karl directly about Trump, Burr executed the same two-step that has become so familiar from embattled Republicans trying to manage the oddly tinted whirlwind at the top of their ticket: Burr condemned Trump and supported him.
“I’m the son of a Presbyterian minister,” Burr began. “When someone asks for forgiveness, you grant it. Now, I’m not going to defend Donald Trump ― what he said or his actions. But when I look at our choice, it’s not close for me. I’m going to support my nominee. I’m going to support Donald Trump.”
He prompted a tart response from Ross. “Sen. Burr has toed the party line even when Donald Trump has crossed the line,” she said.
Indeed, Burr again stood by Trump after being asked about women who have complained about Trump’s lewd behavior, and if Trump’s raunchy description of how he like to touch and kiss women without consent was assault.
“If in fact he did it, that would be sexual assault,” Burr said, but added, “I take him at his word. He said he didn’t do it.”
Ross was not impressed. “He has bragged about sexually assaulting women. I completely understand forgiveness,” she said. “You can forgive somebody, but you do not trust that same person with the awesome responsibility of commander in chief.”
Burr, who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also had to oddly duck another Trump claim that was right in his bailiwick.
Karl asked the senator if he stood by the assessment of the United States intelligence community that Russia was trying to interfere in the U.S. elections by hacking Democrats, or whether he stood with Trump, who has questioned whether Russia is to blame.
Burr at first said he stood by an unrelated statement from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that Russia had infiltrated voting systems. But he declined to offer an opinion on the hacking that’s revealed internal Democratic emails, and suggested that the intelligence community had not released the formal assessment.
Karl quoted from the assessment, but the chairman was still confused, and cited his position as a reason not to answer.
“Jonathan, I am not at a point where I can comment on that,” Burr said. “I’m not sure that the reports that you read are from official sources. And given that I can’t remember whether this administration has released anything about that, then I’m bound ― and protected ― under classified information.”
Burr also repeated charges that Ross, the former head of the state’s ACLU office, had opposed the state sex offender registry. Ross answered that she voted 18 times for sex offender bills.
The race is a near dead heat, with Burr holding a narrow edge in HuffPost Pollster averages.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.