Trump versus Clinton will go down in American history as the dirtiest campaign of all time. It seemed at times as though script writers had let their imaginations run wild. But the consequences for democracy in the United States will be long lasting.
The Script of a Real-Life Tragedy
One could imagine the pilot episode for this series beginning with a fast-paced time-lapse video from the Hudson to the Potomac, music rising dramatically in the background. The flight would start over New York, Manhattan bathed in morning mist, before shooting up Fifth Avenue, banking over the 58-floor Trump Tower and heading out over the countryside to the southwest. The route would take us over New Jersey, past Philadelphia and then Baltimore, where the battle that inspired the US national anthem was fought -- land of the free, home of the brave. Finally, we would reach Washington D.C., the river, the Watergate building, the proud Mall with its monuments, the dome of the Capitol and then, the center of power, the White House.
It would make for a dramatic beginning of the series with the working title of "Dirty Duel" or "Sad!" or perhaps, more prosaically, "The Next President." Or simply "Trump versus Clinton." It would ultimately be a tragedy, but one with so many twists and turns, sudden mood swings, absurd side stories and crazy coincidences that it could pass as fiction. It would feel like a television docudrama written by screenplay writers who let their fantasies run wild.
On Tuesday, the final episode of the series will be filmed -- when American voters go to the polls to elect their country's 45th president. Up until a week ago, the race had seemed over. The attempt by New York real estate mogul Donald Trump to transform himself from a political nobody into the most powerful man on the planet looked as though it had failed. This Twitter-clown's dream of launching a cultural revolution and installing his own unique interpretation of American democracy was over. But then, it wasn't.
The bewildering stories about incorrectly forwarded emails and/or emails hacked by Russian agents returned. The head of the FBI suddenly looked like a shady Trump stooge and this other guy from New York, the one who has a penchant for sending obscene selfies to assorted women, returned to the stage together with his beautiful estranged wife, who by a quirk of fate just happens to be one of Hillary Clinton's top advisors. In short, the final days of the campaign became so insane that, as a Washington Post columnist wrote, one feels like the figure in Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream." And one is tempted to scream: Stop! Enough!
Hillary Clinton, no doubt, feels the same. On Wednesday, she made another visit to Las Vegas, hoarse and exhausted. There, in a venue on the edge of town, she spoke to a couple hundred plumbers and electricians. The Clinton team had brought along an employee of the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas who beseeched the crowd not to vote for his boss.
Then Clinton climbed onto the stage and held a strangely feeble speech. Instead of using her last reserves of energy to convince her audience to vote for her, she spent far too long talking about her opponent Donald Trump. "Let's face the facts," she said. "A lot of Americans are voting for him, right? A lot of people are still considering who to vote for. I think people who are considering voting for him say to themselves: ... maybe he'll become different when he becomes president." She asked the people in the hall to imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office. The last casualty of his presidency, she intimated darkly, would be democracy itself.
For the last year, American democracy has become a circus, one in which the most outlandish gag gets the most applause. And it won't be without consequences: The country will have to live with the scars of this ugly campaign for quite some time to come. Make no mistake: When the advances of civilization are set aside, even if only temporarily, fractures are the result and they aren't easy to repair. When arguments don't count and lies are accepted as truth, when politicians have entire teams working to spread disinformation, democracy as we understand it ceases to exist.
Clinton and Trump have managed to drag US politics -- already not the purest of spectacles -- into the muck. With the help of the hysterical media, they have transformed the race into a soap opera, and this time, reality has far exceeded even our wildest imaginations. Five current and two former US SPIEGEL correspondents have re-watched all of the episodes in this series and documented what has taken place thus far.
Episode 1: Huge Expectations
In March 2015, Huma Abedin was driving on the highway along the East River in New York. In the middle of the river, which flows between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens, the lights of apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island were flickering.
Abedin was 39 years old and had already become a living legend in Washington. For almost 20 years, her entire professional life, she had been working for Hillary Clinton, first as an intern in the White House when Clinton was first lady and later as her personal assistant once Hillary entered politics herself. She was always available, always reliable and by spring 2015, she had become Clinton's deputy chief of staff. If a problem arose that was considered insoluble, it was Huma Abedin's job to solve it. She was perfect for the position: calm, intelligent, unflappable and she looked like a cross between Angelina Jolie and an Indian princess.
Abedin had long known that her boss was considering a run for the White House. She looked across the East River to the lights on the island, named after Franklin D. Roosevelt. If Clinton really did make a run, she was thinking, wouldn't that be a perfect spot to kick off the campaign?
Another candidate had already been kneeling in the starting blocks for two months. At the end of January 2015, Donald Trump had chosen a neo-baroque theater in Des Moines, Iowa to make an appearance, a venue with heavy curtains and satin-covered seats.
The occasion was the annual meeting of Citizens United, a group that is a wing of the Tea Party movement on the right-wing of the Republican Party and about 1,000 supporters had shown up. Trump inveighed against Jeb Bush, the brother of George W., who was also running for the presidency. "The last thing we need is another Bush," Trump blustered. The applause was polite and reserved. There were still almost two years until the election and Trump at the time was seen as an outsider without a chance.
After his speech, he wandered around backstage. There were a couple of cameras, but they weren't trained on him. Three or four bored reporters listened to what Trump had to say, but the rest of the journalists were concentrating on Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, who was speaking on stage.
Trump had come to the event with two bodyguards who seemed strangely out of place because there was nobody who took much of an interest in the man from New York. But Trump kept eagerly talking anyway: "I know someone who can make American great again, and that is Donald Trump."
Make America Great Again. It was soon to become a sentence heard everywhere. And Donald Trump would also have a lot to say. In April 2015, realDonaldTrump, as he calls himself on Twitter, opened his campaign against Hillary Clinton by retweeting the following: "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?" It was a tweet that set the tone for the coming race.
Episode 2: Candidates
It was June 2015 and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" was pounding through the first floor of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, music that was a good fit for the skyscraper on Fifth Avenue. Finished in 1983, the building has a black facade with pink marble, gold and a three-story waterfall in the atrium. The landlord, now 70, had his best years in the 1980s: He had several large construction projects going, was married to the model Ivana Trump and made frequent appearances in the tabloids.
Back in his tower, Trump gave the thumbs up sign and smiled, his hair in the style once described by a comedian as: "dead squirrel." Next to him was his third wife Melania. Twenty-four years his junior, she was the daughter of a Slovenian car-salesman and a seamstress -- and, again, a model. Behind a podium flanked by eight American flags, Trump formally announced his candidacy.
"Our country is in serious trouble," he intoned. "When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?" He then swung his attention south: "When Mexico sends its people they're sending people that have lots of problems . They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people . It's got to stop and it's got to stop fast."
Many listeners found his words troublesome and there was widespread indignation afterwards. But it was a speech that laid the cornerstone for Trump's presidential campaign. China, Mexico, trade and immigration. Innuendos, speculation, racism and impudence. That was his strategy.
He would go on to bring that strategy to bear against "Crooked Hillary," as he calls her, doing all he can to portray her as the puppet of a hated political caste system, as an out-of-touch pawn of the Washington elite. He, the billionaire, would portray himself as the advocate of downtrodden white men -- and he didn't care about the contempt of intellectuals on the country's East and West Coasts as long as those in the "flyover zone" got his message. The country, Trump said in his speech in the Trump Tower in June 2015, was in need of a leader like Donald Trump.
Trump's announcement came just three days after Hillary Clinton had announced her own candidacy, with the race officially starting for her on June 13, 2015. And everything was just as her advisor Huma Abedin had imagined it. The party, with Bill and Chelsea at her side, took place on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. As usual, Abedin had taken a final look at her speech. Clinton would talk about her mother and then declare her candidacy for US president.
Abedin knew that the day would mark the beginning of a long and difficult journey and that she wouldn't have much time to spend with her son Jordan. But her husband would support her, Jordan's father Anthony Weiner. He owed her that much -- and plus, he didn't have a job. Abedin and Weiner -- his name pronounced like the light-hearted American slang term for the male member -- got married in 2010. At the time, he was considered one of the Democrats' greatest political talents: energetic, sharp-witted, well-informed and gave off the impression of authenticity.
His career, though, was derailed by his dark passions: In 2011, Weiner had to resign from the House of Representatives after sending salacious selfies -- photos of his own penis, covered only by his underwear -- to women in social media networks. Abedin stood by him at the time and proudly watched as he attempted to make a comeback by running for New York mayor. But during the campaign, it was revealed that he had sent yet more revealing selfies, this time under the alias "Carlos Danger."
That was the end of Weiner's political comeback. His wife was forced to endure public humiliation, something that likely strengthened her bond with Hillary Clinton, who had also gone through some rough times with her husband Bill. But Weiner could prove dangerous to the candidate. Clinton, it was said at the time, insisted that Abedin leave Weiner -- unsuccessfully.
But now, Abedin had to focus her attentions elsewhere. Hillary's campaign required all her energy. The task was that of portraying Clinton as a friendly, modest woman, just as she had done in a short video in April 2015 that focused primarily on the candidate's potential voters. The video showed a white woman watering plants and a girl arranging letters of the alphabet; there were gays, African-Americans and Hispanics, who said in Spanish what their concerns were. "I'm getting ready to do something too," Clinton said in the video. "I'm running for president."
Her campaign would become an event planned down to the last detail, a well-oiled machine designed to elevate a professional and intelligent, but only moderately popular candidate to the presidency. Paradoxically, it is possible that her professionalism became her greatest Achilles heel. It helped Trump portray himself as Clinton's polar opposite. On the one hand is a candidate that controls her image down to the last nuance. On the other is a man who tosses aside his manuscripts, exceeds his allotted speaking time and improvises according to his gut feelings. Intellect versus instinct, machine versus authenticity, calculation versus charisma.
Clinton's campaign, in any case, didn't start as promising as had been hoped. And Abedin was with her around the clock, often visiting two cities per day.
Anthony Weiner, who owed her quite a lot, stayed home with Jordan, their son of three-and-a-half years. In the evenings, when he got bored, Weiner would take off his T-shirt and pants and take selfies of his chest and crotch. At one point late in the summer of 2015, he took pictures of himself -- half naked and clearly aroused -- next to his son. He sent the photos to a woman, a Trump fan who supports the weapons lobby and hates Barack Obama. Abedin knew nothing about it.
The Dark Art of Character Assassination
Episode 3: Trump Reigns It was August 2015 and the first televised debate between the Republican candidates was about to begin inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Ohio. Ten candidates were standing on the stage. "Are you nervous?" the moderator, Megyn Kelly of Fox News, asked.
Ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who was still considered the frontrunner at the time, nodded. Marco Rubio, the young, emergent Senator from Florida forced a laugh. Donald Trump, in the middle, stretched his hand out and made a gesture to mean "kind of." With millions of television viewers, it was the first real opportunity for him to see how he stacked up against his competitors. And even though Bush and Rubio were considered the favorites, it was Trump who cleaned up.
"You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.' Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?" Kelly asked Trump. It wasn't a bad question, but Trump's answer was even better. "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct," he responded. "I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either."
After the debate was over, Trump launched an unhinged, sexist attack on the moderator. "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
Trump, it was clear on that evening in Cleveland, is polarizing. Even as half the studio audience booed Trump's answers, the other half was rollicking in support. But somehow, everybody -- the entire nation -- would become addicted to seeing and hearing more and more from this candidate Trump.
Trump clearly relished the attention, likewise becoming addicted to the cacophony of the masses, no matter whether they booed or cheered -- and he continued to increase the dosage of his impudence. He likewise began forging alliances with the political fringe, such as Roger Stone, who in political America is considered a master at the dark art of rumor-driven character assassination.
One could also say that Stone is the biggest mudslinger of them all. His Twitter profile once had a picture of his naked back, on which was a tattoo of Richard Nixon, for whom he once worked. Stone has been a close friend of Trump's for 35 years. In summer 2015, he was working on his book, "The Clintons' War on Women," which accuses Bill of having raped several women and Hillary of helping to cover it up. The volume insinuates that Bill had had a son with a prostitute and that Chelsea Clinton wasn't Bill's daughter.
The purveyor of this garbage was an advisor to Trump during the first summer of the campaign, until August 2015. The lack of scruples that Trump's campaign has displayed is thanks in large part to him. Almost everything that Trump thinks he knows about politics and power comes from Stone. And Stone's most important piece of advice was: "Attack, attack, attack."
From the very beginning, Trump's favorite channel for his attacks was Twitter. He often grabs his Samsung Galaxy late at night or in the early hours of the morning to fire off insults, taunts and derisive comments. In his tweets, almost all politicians -- except for himself, of course -- are "crazy," "weak," "dumb" or "corrupt." But even that form of derisive drivel scored him points. Following him on Twitter became cult.
He attacked well-respected Senators, governors, Hollywood stars and athletes who didn't support him. He accused them of being mentally ill, losers, failures and nitwits. On August 31, 2015, he took aim on Twitter at Clinton advisor Abedin, calling her a "major security risk" and "the wife of perv sleazebag Anthony Weiner."
His attacks on President Barack Obama have never ceased and he continuously tweets them out to his 15 million followers. He has accused the president of being "ignorant," of having "no control" and of having a "horrible attitude." Obama, according to Trump, is "incompetent," "dishonest" and "has done such a poor job as president, you won't see another black president for generations!"
Obama makes "one mistake after another," "has no understanding of how to create jobs," "has no problem lying to the American public," does "absolutely nothing for Christians," is a "total disaster," a "terrible president," "an incompetent leader," who "looks and sounds so ridiculous," and is "perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States!" According to Trump.
Episode 4: You've Got Mail
Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton stepped onto the stage at Pasco-Hernando State College in Dade City, Florida hand-in-hand with Alicia Machado, who was chosen as Miss Universe in 1996 when she was 19. Trump slammed her at the time as "Miss Piggy" and an "eating machine" after she gained a bit of weight.
"It was really painful for me," Machado told the gathered audience. Her role at the rally was that of crown witness against Trump and she balled her hand into a fist and led the audience in anti-Trump chants. Clinton's people tracked her down and asked if she would be prepared to make an appearance to talk about the abuse she had received from Trump, a move designed to help the Democratic candidate gain even more support from women and Hispanic voters.
Clinton's machine has done its job. Her attacks on Trump have worked well and he is now widely seen as a blatant sexist. She even managed to put him on the defensive. Clinton's own weaknesses, though, have been with her throughout the entire campaign. She is hated and derided by Trump and by Republicans more broadly. And she herself is partially to blame, much of it stemming from an appearance in the United Nations building in March 2015.
She wasn't yet a candidate for president at the time and not everything was quite as magnified as it has since become. On that afternoon, she was facing questions after it had become public that as Secretary of State she had sent and received official emails through a private server in her house in Chappaqua, located an hour's drive north of New York. It caused quite a commotion at the time and it hasn't yet died down. When it comes to misconduct while in office, the American democracy can be quite strict -- and the FBI began investigating.
For those wishing to understand why many people don't trust Hillary Clinton, it is worth reading the transcript of this appearance. It is a long sequence of untruths and obfuscations -- a transcript of the arrogance of power.
Clinton said that the use of her private email account "was allowed" by the State Department, but that isn't true. She said: "I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material." That too is incorrect. Investigators found 110 emails that contained information classified as "top secret" and 22 mails with "top-secret" material. In 65 cases, she sent material that was classified as "secret."
Things didn't look good for Clinton. But Trump was likewise proving himself the master of the misstep. On Dec. 28, 2015 at around 11 p.m., Trump retweeted an altered image showing his adversary Jeb Bush picking his nose. Whenever people began thinking that the campaign had sunk to the lowest depths possible, Trump would prove them wrong.
Episode 5: Triumphs
In March 2016 -- to the horror of his opponents and to the surprise of his own party -- Trump began looking like he might actually win the GOP nomination. He was in the lead and only Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio were still in the race. It was the day of the vital Florida primary, a crucial vote that could provide the winner with a decisive boost.
Trump had invited guests to his vacation home in Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach. It was a place to which he was fond of retreating with his wife Melania, a place he had been coming to for many years to enjoy the Florida sun. But on that evening in March, the second "Super Tuesday," he was hoping that Mar-A-Lago would be the place where he would celebrate his greatest primary triumph yet. In a back room at the estate, he was watching television as the results came in.
Five states held their primaries on that day and Trump emerged victorious in four of them. Trump wasn't just receiving the support of traditional Republican voters, he had also managed to attract many non-voters, primarily from the lower classes. He received 40 percent in North Carolina, 41 percent in Missouri, 39 percent in Illinois and, most importantly, 46 percent in Florida.
"We're going to win, win, win and we're not stopping," Trump told his followers that night.
Episode 6: Defeats
As Trump was winning, Clinton was losing. In February, she took to the stage in Manchester, New Hampshire with "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten blaring from the speakers. The audience was chanting "Hil-la-ry, Hil-la-ry," but she had just suffered a disastrous defeat in New Hampshire. Her adversary for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, the only Senator in the US who referred to himself as a socialist, received 60 percent of the votes. Clinton needed a new message and she needed to inject more heart and emotion into her campaign.
Just a few days before the Nevada primary, she appeared together with immigrants and spoke about the hopes and dreams of those who had long been living in the US, but who had no papers. A 10-year-old girl named Karla Ortiz raised her hand. "My parents, they have a letter of deportation," she said. "I'm scared that they are going to be deported." Then she began to cry.
Clinton brought her up to the front of the room with her. "You're being very brave," Clinton said. "And you have to be brave for them too, because they want you to be happy. They want you to be successful. They don't want you to worry too much. Let me do the worrying. I'll do all the worrying, is that a deal?" The girl nodded and the guests were touched. Some in the audience shed tears as they applauded. A few days later, the Clinton campaign released a video of the scene as an advertisement.
At the end of April in New York, Anthony Weiner issued a podcast in which he talked about his life as a father. Weiner said that he had seen the light. He said that he may have failed as a politician due to the obscene selfies, but that he was a good father and was now, as a kind of compensation, making it possible for his wife to join Hillary Clinton in the White House.
In the podcast, there was absolutely no indication that even then he was still sending out "dick pics," as the photos are known. There was a storm brewing on the horizon that spelled bad news for the Clinton camp.
And the misery of the email affair also refused to go away. In early summer, with just four months to go before the election, a Senate committee addressed the issue and heard testimony from James Comey, head of the FBI.
If one had to name a person who embodied what Donald Trump refers to in his speeches as the "corrupt Washington system," Comey would be a good choice. The FBI director is a pliable career bureaucrat who was long registered as a Republican before becoming independent. Under President George W. Bush, he was deputy attorney general before transferring to the arms industry and then to a hedge fund. He is well-liked in Washington because he gets along with everybody and has led the FBI for almost three years.
Comey's office spent months investigating Clinton's email server and on that sunny July morning in the Senate, he presented the results. The FBI, he said, had found more than 100 emails on Clinton's private server containing classified information and that she had been "extremely careless" and had not adhered to the rules. But he also said that "no charges are appropriate in this case." Such decisions can make or break careers in Washington and it looked at the time as though Clinton had emerged from the email scandal merely with a black eye.
But looks can be deceiving.
Explosive Scandals Mar Final Stretch
Episode 7: Seeing Red Viewed from a European perspective, the American party conventions can seem like giant children's birthday parties, but they are also showcases of American diversity. At the Republican Convention, the GOP even allowed someone from San Francisco onto the stage, a man from Silicon Valley, surely one of the most liberal places in the world. The Valley views itself as a center of progress -- not just technological, but also societal. Companies like Google, Apple and Facebook take advantage of every opportunity to preach their political philosophy of an open, liberal society that supports environmental protection, gay marriage and immigration.
Peter Thiel is a leader in this world. He graduated from elite Stanford University, founded the online payment service PayPal and was Facebook's first investor, moves that earned him billions and established him as a confidant of Mark Zuckerberg. Thiel is rich, smart and backs Trump.
On July 21, he stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention in a "Prime Speaking Slot," during the best possible evening time. "I am proud to be gay," he said, marking the first time those words had even been uttered from the stage at a Republican Convention. Then Thiel spoke of "fake culture wars" that distract us from "our economic decline." It's time, he said, to "rebuild our country," with Donald Trump.
When it comes to making America "a normal country again," he would later say, gay marriage and gender equality are unimportant. The only thing that can help, he believes, is radical change -- which he thinks only Donald Trump can deliver.
By June, the Republican candidate had collected the number of delegates necessary to secure the nomination, a moment he celebrated on the terrace of the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York. Almost exclusively old white men were on hand with large watches on their wrists and hair gelled back. Some were wearing red "Trump" baseball caps to complement their suits and ties.
It was on that June night that Trump read a prepared speech from a teleprompter for the first time. Up to that point, he had constantly bragged to voters that he didn't require such help. But his team had begun to realize that he needed more gravitas and had to soften his callous image. It was time for him to reconcile a Republican Party he had spent months dividing -- in other words, he had to become a real candidate.
"You've given me the honor to lead the Republican Party to victory this fall," Trump told supporters at the time. As if to convince himself of the canned sentence, he quickly added: "We're going to do it folks. We're going to do it."
Then came the convention. The entire show at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland was conceived as a significant moment of harmony before the election -- an early victory party, a veritable confidence fest during which a stream of prominent supporters would shower their blessings on the man they had pinned their hopes on. The only problem was that Trump didn't have any -- or at least not very many.
There were even last-ditch efforts to stop his nomination. Delegates from nine states joined together in an attempt to force a roll call vote to change the convention rules to allow them to vote based on their conscience. There was much outcry and a voice vote was held. The outcome of the voice vote wasn't entirely clear, yet the Trump camp was still declared the victor.
On the last day of the convention, Donald Trump appeared on stage in the blue-lit cloud of a fog machine. He hugged his wife Melania, who had lifted entire passages from her convention speech from one given by Michelle Obama, and then he began speaking -- with the help of a teleprompter. Trump had managed to become the Republican Party's candidate.
If he could contain himself, he could become anything, it seemed, even President of the United States. All he needed to do was heed what Melania had said earlier in the year when she was asked at an event which habit she would like her husband to quit. "Tweeting," she said.
Episode 8: Seeing Blue
As Bill Clinton stood on the stage of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, he abandoned all restraint. The big balloons had already fallen from the roof of the arena, just as they do at the end of every convention. The arena filled with color and the former president threw, kicked and hit balloons from the stage into the audience. It almost seemed like he had been nominated again and not his wife.
The convention was a show for both Clintons, thoroughly choreographed with big doses of pathos and celebrity. Bill put in a strong performance, delivering a declaration of love of sorts. "In the spring of 1971, I met a girl," his speech began, by which point he had already won over the audience.
Hillary Clinton's own speech offered what was more or less a demolition of Trump. She implied he was a "little" man, one "moved by fear and pride." "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."
But to what extent can Hillary Clinton, a person who may have sent classified information in unsecured emails, be trusted? And who is even capable of fully understanding this complicated flurry of email scandals? The FBI is currently investigating two different email affairs. There's Clinton's blurring of the public and the private, but also the other, more bewildering ignominy: the slow, steady release of clearly hacked emails from Democratic Party officials and advisors.
In this second mail scandal, the FBI appears to be up against an even bigger foe than the two candidates in Washington: It appears that Russian government hackers have been seeking to interfere in the election. During the summer of 2015, hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers, and a further breach occurred in the spring of 2016.
FBI agents didn't notice the first attack, but they did detect the second one. They are now tracking a trail that leads to Eastern Europe and further. The FBI believes Putin's people are behind it, Russian intelligence services. It raises important questions, too: Is the Kremlin seeking to sway the American vote in Trump's favor? And then, in a development that could hardly be invented, another old hat suddenly got his hands on Democratic Party emails -- Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks whistleblowing platform. As if the cast of characters with Trump and Clinton wasn't big enough already, Putin and Assange joined the party as well.
What's in these emails? Some are completely banal, others are embarrassing for the Democrats and then there are some that provide evidence of the close ties between Clinton, her foundation and major donors. It is precisely these emails that reinforce the image of a candidate who is part of a small societal elite and who is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes -- one who serves her cronies and rich donors. Nothing in the mails appears to be truly explosive. But everything seems a bit shady.
Episode 9: Pneumonia
Huma Abedin took a day off from the campaign to spend a Sunday with her husband Anthony Weiner and son Jordan in the Hamptons near New York. That afternoon, a reporter from the tabloid New York Post called Weiner on his cell phone and informed him the newspaper would be printing new Weiner "dick pics" the following day, including a July 2015 photo showing his son Jordan next to Weiner's half-erect penis.
The next day, Abedin announced her separation from Weiner on Twitter in what turned out to be a disaster not only for her, but also for the Clinton campaign. It meant more negative press and the taint of perversion, sex and smut.
Trump, whose own campaign wasn't going particularly well, then began to focus Clinton's physical and psychological health. As usual, he took to Twitter, claiming that Hillary "doesn't have the strength or the stamina to make America great again." He wrote that on Sept. 1. It would soon look prophetic.
Ten days later, at Ground Zero in Manhattan, as on every anniversary of Sept. 11, thousands of people gathered for a memorial service for those who died in the 2001 terror attacks. Clinton and Trump both attended the vigil.
The candidates, who had been campaigning brutally against each other from afar for weeks, were now standing almost right next to each other, with only a few other visitors separating them. She wore sunglasses and he a red tie. As the names of the victims were read out, the rivals didn't even acknowledge each other with a glance.
After an hour, Clinton abruptly left the ceremony. Together with a handful of staffers, she walked across the southern tip of the memorial towards West Street and waited at the curb for her car.
Clinton looked weak and had to lean against a gray pole while a staffer helped keep her upright. A Secret Service agent then closed off the scene. The black van pulled up in front of Clinton and an assistant opened the sliding door, but Clinton didn't get in. She couldn't even manage the two steps to the vehicle. Helpers caught her when she then collapsed and lifted her into the van before it drove off. It was a scary scene.
Later, it emerged that she had been driven to her daughter Chelsea's apartment on 26th Street, where she rested. She then assessed the possible political fallout with confidants, called friends, drank a bottle of Gatorade and played with her grandchildren. Heat exhaustion was blamed in the first official explanation provided. Shortly before noon, she addressed the media, saying, "I feel great." Everything seemed just fine.
But it wasn't. That moment of weakness is the only thing people remember from that day. Having a fainting spell in front of the eyes of the nation is a nightmare for any candidate, but in this election season that has so little to do with actual content and so much to do with secondary concerns like vigor and performance, it was particularly disastrous.
It also wasn't a smart move on Clinton's part. She tried to hide the fact that it was actually walking pneumonia that had caused her fainting spell. It was only later in the afternoon that her team announced she had been ill, and an episode that had only lasted a few seconds triggered another national debate over Clinton's integrity. Once again, she lost the lead she had managed to gain and Trump recovered in the polls.
Meanwhile, fresh dirt was on the way -- real dirt. A 15-year-old girl came forward with allegations she had had an online sexual relationship with Anthony Weiner. Trump, who had known Weiner for 20 years as a local politician in New York, suddenly sensed he had been given fresh ammo he could use against Hillary.
But even as Clinton had her back up against the wall, Trump began stumbling, damaging himself badly in the process. During the early hours of Sept. 30, a Friday six weeks before the election, Trump couldn't find peace of mind. It wasn't the horrific news pouring out of Syria that was bothering him, it wasn't the debt crisis in Europe, competition with China, America's greatness or even his own poor standing in the polls. No, Trump wanted to exact revenge on a beauty queen who had had the audacity to say she was backing Hillary Clinton in this election.
At 3:20 a.m., Trump began a campaign of character assassination against Alicia Machado, disparaging her in a tweet as a "con," the "worst" and "disgusting" in the wee morning hours. But that was just the start. Fifteen other tweets followed over the next two hours -- all with one goal: that of destroying the former Miss Universe's reputation. Did he really not have anything better to do?
Episode 10: A Tanking Campaign
At the beginning of October, a video was sent to journalist David Fahrenthold inside the offices of the Washington Post. Farenthold watched the video and immediately knew he was sitting on a bombshell. The video from the TV network NBC showed 11-year-old raw footage from "Access Hollywood," a show focusing on celebrities.
In the video, at the end of a bus ride with show host Billy Bush, Trump boasts that he can just start kissing women and "grab them by the pussy."
The footage electrified Fahrenthold. He had already published a number of Trump scoops, but this was a whole different level. Once posted on the Washington Post website, the video quickly went viral.
It outraged Republicans all across the country and within hours, an exodus began among Trump supporters. His campaign appeared to be on the verge of collapsing. Inside Trump Tower, his top campaign staffers convened for a crisis meeting and Trump sent out a tweet describing the footage as "locker room talk" between men. But that didn't go far enough for campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. The lawyer persuaded Trump to apologize without any ifs, ands or buts.
Conway's staff quickly wrote up a speech for Trump and late that night, he spoke into the camera, with the nighttime New York skyline as his backdrop. "I've said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them," he said. "Anyone who knows me knows these words don't reflect who I am. I apologize." But it failed to stop the flood of media coverage. Indeed, for days it was all they focused on. At the beginning of October, it looked as though there was nothing left standing between Hillary Clinton and the White House.
The Trump camp tried to strike back. Two days later a woman named Juanita Broaddrick could be seen sitting next to Trump in St. Louis where, one hour later the second of three televised debates between Trump and Clinton was to take place. Trump needed to dig up something worse than his own insulting chauvinism so he brought along Broaddrick to share her account. She claims to have been raped by Bill Clinton.
It was an allegation Broaddrick had taken public 17 years ago, saying she had wanted to volunteer for Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas. She says Clinton suddenly started kissing her and then raped her in her room in 1978. There were no witnesses and the allegations have never been proven.
Today, Broaddrick is a 73-year-old woman, with shoulder-length, curly blonde-gray hair. She had become a part of the Trump campaign, a decoy designed to distract from the candidate's own weaknesses. Once the second debate ended, Broaddrick was the first person the campaign dispatched to waiting reporters. When asked by a reporter why she had chosen the middle of an election campaign to go public with her allegations, she replied that people had only now started listening to her.
Episode 11: The Finale
In October in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Al Smith Dinner took place, an annual benefit hosted by the Catholic Church. The proceeds go to charitable causes, the men wear white tuxedos and women wear evening gowns.
During election years, both presidential candidates traditionally give witty and charming speeches in which they poke fun at each other in a respectful manner. Kennedy and Nixon managed it in 1960 and George W. Bush even did so in 2000.
Trump and Clinton sat close to each other, with only a cardinal between them.
Trump spoke first. Initially, he tried to adhere to the tradition, but he quickly slipped into campaign mode. Parts of the audience began booing -- a scandal, an unprecedented incident in 70-year history of the gala benefit. Former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani, a hero after 9/11 and by now one of the last and most important of Trump's supporters, tried to quiet the audience.
When Hillary got her turn, she directed her jabs at Giuliani, who had left no opportunity unexploited to insult Clinton. The former mayor was unable to conceal his discomfort. This was no longer humor -- it was hatred.
On Oct. 26, a man in workers' overalls appeared in Hollywood with a jackhammer and a pick axe at the Walk of Fame and proceeded to destroy Donald Trump's star.
Episode 12: Overtime
For quite some time, it felt like things were over for Trump, that the spell had been broken. But then FBI head James Comey reappeared on the stage a week ago Friday, just 12 days before the election. He sent a new letter to Congress in which he announced that the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server would be reopened and, unbelievably, investigators had found a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner containing 650,000 mails from the time when Weiner's wife Huma Abedin had been a senior deputy to then-Secretary of State Clinton.
There's an inviolable rule that investigations should not be launched during the final leg of an election. Comey is well aware of this rule, but he decided to break it anyway. It will take until after the election to investigate the reasons behind the decision, but it did generate a shock, an unbelievable turn that placed a question mark over what had seemed like a certain Clinton victory. Comey's announcement, which circled the planet within seconds, triggered a media tsunami that could potentially shift the outcome of the election in Trump's favor.
Is Comey a Trump stooge? Is he deliberately seeking to harm Clinton? There are also rumors circling from unnamed investigators relating to Trump and Putin claiming that the Russian leader is in possession of video of a sex orgy Trump purportedly engaged in while in Moscow. That Trump could be the target of blackmail and that's why he's Putin man. Comey and his people are also familiar with these rumors, but he hasn't written any letters about them. He has remained silent about them. Why?
Meanwhile, one of the more tragic subplots of this episode is the career Huma Abedin, one of Clinton's most loyal staffers. Other advisors are urging Clinton to distance herself from Abedin as quickly as possible. Those envious of her have already recognized their opportunity, but she also has defenders. Philippe Reines, an important advisor to the Clinton family, reportedly went on a rampage about Anthony Weiner during a campaign conference call, saying he was going to "reach through this phone" and "pull out" his throat.
Episode 13: Counting Sheep
As of Thursday night, Clinton and Trump were almost even in the polls. With only four days left to go until the election, it has become clear that this entire abusive, mud-slinging campaign has been a zero-sum game. The two candidates resemble two boxers in the 12th round of a fight, both only half-conscious, unable to raise their fists to deliver any more punches.
They are looking around to see who is still backing them and who has jumped ship. Close to 400 economists have written an open letter to American voters warning them against the threat of a Trump presidency. The real estate developer, they warn, "is a dangerous, destructive choice for the country." A month and a half ago, 300 other economists issued a warning about Clinton's economic policies.
The four former presidents still living, the current president, three Democrats and two Republicans -- George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama -- have all said they do not want to see Donald Trump become president. But Trump does have some prominent supporters, like boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson. He leads a list of celebrity Trump endorsers that also includes rock singer Ted Nugent, professional wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, Clint Eastwood and the far less famous American reality television star Tila Tequila.
The list of prominent people backing Clinton is more impressive and includes Meryl Streep, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lady Gaga, Sigourney Weaver, George Clooney, Richard Gere, Salma Hayek, Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Beyoncé and Katy Perry. Bryan Cranston, the leading actor on the series "Breaking Bad," has threatened that he will leave the United States if Trump gets elected.
Anthony Weiner will also presumably vote for Clinton. It has been reported that he has checked himself into a clinic to be treated for exhibitionism, cybersex and pornography addiction.
The Klu Klux Klan's newspaper has also backed Trump. But that, at least, is one endorsement too far for the Trump team. It has rejected it.
By Markus Feldenkirchen, Ullrich Fichtner, Veit Medick, Philipp Oehmke, Gordon Repinski, Thomas Schulz and Holger Stark