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Hillary Clinton recalls that famous debate moment: “Donald Trump was looming behind me”

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In an excerpt from her upcoming book, she relives an “incredibly uncomfortable” situation many American women probably remember.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the second presidential debate in 2016
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the second presidential debate in 2016.
Photo by Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

In his speech in Phoenix last night, President Donald Trump reprised some of his greatest hits from the 2016 campaign, from attacks on the press to chants of “build the wall.” But a newly released excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s upcoming book offers a look back at a different noteworthy campaign moment: the second presidential debate, when Trump stood right behind Clinton, staring down at her as she spoke.

In the audio excerpt, featured Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Clinton described what it felt like to have Trump “looming” behind her as she addressed millions on national television, less than a month before Election Day. And while many Americans are probably tired of hearing about the 2016 campaign, it’s worth revisiting her experience because it’s such a telling example of the sexism that Clinton faced — and that American women had to watch.

“He was literally breathing down my neck”

Clinton calls the episode “incredibly uncomfortable” in her forthcoming account of the 2016 presidential campaign, titled What Happened. “He was literally breathing down my neck,” she says. “My skin crawled.”

She also describes a kind of gut check: “It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching, ‘Well, what would you do? Do you stay calm, keep smiling, and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say, loudly and clearly: Back up you creep, get away from me.’”

Most American women have not shared a debate stage with Donald Trump. But as Andrea Mitchell put it on Morning Joe on Wednesday, “every woman has had an experience with a man that is that kind of threatening moment.” And many have sat still while men invade their space or otherwise harass them, wondering whether to speak up or stay silent.

Clinton chose to ignore Trump’s looming, but she says she’s always wondered if she should have confronted him. “Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.”

Some parts of the excerpt have the forced, workshopped feel of Clinton’s weaker campaign speeches, as when she offers readers a disclaimer: “I don’t have all the answers, and this isn’t a comprehensive account of the 2016 race.” But her description of digging her fingernails into her fist and trying to do her job while a man made it nearly impossible feels genuine — and, for many women, will be achingly familiar.

Her description encapsulates the sexism she faced throughout the campaign

For candidate Trump, looming over his opponent during the debate was just one small moment in a campaign rife with sexist comments and behavior. The following week, he built on his debate performance by telling a crowd in North Carolina that “when she walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed,” thus implying that he had evaluated the former secretary of state’s body and found it subpar. And when accused of invading Clinton’s space, he said, “Believe me, the last space that I want to invade is her space.”

To watch the 2016 campaign was to watch a woman forced to experience, before an audience of millions, the kind of treatment too many women have received throughout their lives. In some ways, this was cathartic: You could point to the television and shout, “This! This is what it’s like!” There was a sense that Trump’s behavior toward Clinton might finally force some sort of reckoning with American misogyny, bringing sexism into the open in a way that couldn’t be ignored.

To some degree, that may have happened. In the past few months, feminist activism and commentary have gained enormous visibility, from women’s marches around the world to the political journalism of Teen Vogue. But feminists have spent much of their energy opposing Trump, after, of course, he won the election in November. And now, the same women who had to watch Clinton deal with his physical intimidation have to hear her relive the moment and wonder, as so many of us have, if she should have done something differently.