In the first presidential debate Monday night, September 26, Donald Trump aggressively blamed many of the nation’s chronic problems on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, yet found himself mostly on the defensive in their first face-to-face confrontation, in which each tried in a series of combative, acrimonious exchanges to discredit the other.
Many gave the edge in the debate to Clinton on points, though Trump was able to achieve his primary goal of not messing up and portraying himself as being able to serve in the role of commander-in-chief. Trump noticeably did not counterpunch and missed many opportunities to prove his contention that Clinton lies. He was noticeably less aggressive than he was during the primary debates and was extremely careful to avoid alienating voters by over-reacting to criticism, as he has done in the past.
Some suggested that this was a deliberate tactic, designed to help Trump appeal to undecided independents and Republicans who are still not sure whether he has the temperament and ability needed to serve as president. By exercising self-control in his comments, and demonstrating his grasp of domestic and national security issues, Trump was able to clear the bar of basic competency to serve as president.
Clinton poured forth with policy details and practiced catch phrases and tried to sow doubts about the seriousness of Trump’s proposals. She seized on his comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest that Trump does not understand the global threats the country faces.
Trump was often feisty in response to the attacks by Clinton, as well as the moderator, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt. At times, Trump answers became rambling, heated and defensive.
BLAME IT ON THE REF
Charles Krauthammer said that while the debate overall was a draw, Trump has to be judged the winner because he was still standing after 90 minutes of one-on-one debate against a seasoned political candidate, automatically raising his stature to the presidential level.
Trump’s people said that the debate moderator Holt was far more aggressive in questioning him than he was with Hillary Clinton. Holt asked tough questions about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to apologize for promoting the so-called “birther” controversy over Barack Obama’s citizenship, and Trump’s claim to have been an early opponent of the US invasion of Iraq. Holt also challenged the accuracy of Trump’s responses in tough, fact-checking follow-up questions. By contrast, Holt failed to question Clinton on any of her most vulnerable points. These include her private e-mail server, providing State Department favors for donors to the Clinton Family Foundation, and her responsibility as Secretary of State for the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the subsequent Obama administration cover-up. Holt also failed to challenge the accuracy of any of Clinton’s statements.
Veteran media analyst Howard Kurtz judged Holt’s performance to be extremely one-sided against Trump. While none of the harsh questions and fact-checking challenges Holt hurled at Trump were unfair or out-of-bounds, he failed to give Clinton similar treatment. During the course of the debate, Holt asked Trump six follow-up fact-checking questions, but asked Clinton none.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that Holt should be ashamed of the way he moderated the debate. Giuliani also said that Holt was incorrect when he said that New York City’s stop-and-frisk anti-crime procedure was unconstitutional. As Trump tried to point out, the constitutionality of the procedure was never resolved because New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio decided, for political reasons, not to challenge a lower court ruling against the procedure.
Speaking Tuesday morning, Trump knocked Holt for the way he handled the role of moderator.
“Well, he didn’t ask her about the emails at all. He didn’t ask her about her scandals. He didn’t ask her about the Benghazi deal that she destroyed,” Trump said on Fox News. “He didn’t ask her about a lot of things that she should have been asked about. I mean, there’s no question about it. He didn’t ask her about her foundation. Why? I don’t know.”
One of Trump’s central charges against Clinton is that she has manipulated her positions of authority for financial gain – “Crooked Hillary,” as he calls her on the campaign trail. But Trump did not mention the Clinton Foundation at all, which has been at the center of conservatives’ accusations that she traded access for donations as secretary of state.
Trump began the debate with an uncharacteristically respectful tone, and referred to his opponent as Secretary Clinton.”
“Is that OK?” he asked her. Clinton smiled. “Good,” Trump continued. “I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.”
The debate quickly became confrontational. Trump repeatedly cast Clinton as a “typical politician” as he sought to capitalize on Americans’ frustration with Washington.
Trump portrayed Clinton as a longtime Washington insider and career politician who has a long record as a protector of the status quo, and who has squandered opportunities to address the domestic and international she’s now pledging to tackle as president.
“She’s got experience,” he said, “but it’s bad experience.”
WHAT’S HE HIDING?
Both candidates portrayed themselves as best-prepared to lead a nation where many are still struggling to benefit from a slow economic recovery and are increasingly fearful of terror threats at home and abroad. When Trump jabbed Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail to study for the debate, she said, “I prepared to be president, and that’s a good thing.
Clinton called for lowering taxes for the middle class, while Trump focused more on renegotiating trade deals that he said have caused companies to move jobs out of the U.S.
Trump also backed the controversial “stop-and-frisk policing” tactic as a way to bring down crime, while the Democrat said the policy was unconstitutional and ineffective.
Clinton was more measured and restrained, but also needled the sometimes-thin-skinned Trump over his business record and wealth.
“There’s something he’s hiding,” she declared, scoffing at his repeated contentions that he won’t release his tax returns because he is being audited.
Clinton speculated that Trump was “hiding” his tax returns because they would show he is not as rich as he says he is, or is not as charitable as he claims, or has debts to major banks and foreign entities, or pays nothing in taxes at all.
At that last suggestion, Trump scoffed, “That makes me smart.”
Trump aggressively tried to turn the transparency questions around on Clinton by offering to release his taxes if Clinton agreed to release the 33,000 emails she had ordered erased in an attempt to hide them from congressional subpoenas. “I think it’s disgraceful,” Trump said of her use of a private email server as secretary of state. “And believe me, this country really thinks it’s disgraceful also.”
Clinton said, “I made a mistake using a private email.”
“That’s for sure,” Trump interjected.
“I don’t make any excuses,” she continued, keeping her response brief to avoid sounding like she is splitting hairs.
Trump brought up the issue one other time, saying, “When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they are not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it is disgraceful.”
Trump repeatedly insisted that he opposed the Iraq War before the 2003 U.S. invasion, despite Holt’s evidence to the contrary. Trump was asked in September 2002 whether he supported a potential Iraq invasion in a comedic interview. He responded then: “Yeah, I guess so.” He then added: “I said very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows.”
I did not support the war in Iraq,” Trump said. “That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her,” referring to Clinton. He said that he had often debated the issue with Sean Hannity before the war even started.
“Everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity!” he said. “I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox. And Sean Hannity said — and he called me the other day and I spoke to him about it — he said, ‘You were totally against the war,’ because he was for the war.”
“And that was before the war started. Sean Hannity said very strongly to me and other people — he’s willing to say it, but nobody wants to call him. I was against the war. He said, ‘You used to have fights with me,’ because Sean was in favor of the war.”
Trump blamed Clinton for the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, snapping, “You were secretary of state when it was a little infant.”
Trump speculated on how he might use nuclear weapons if he’s elected president. He first said he “would not do first strike” but then said he couldn’t “take anything off the table.”
Clinton said Trump was too easily provoked to serve as commander in chief and could be quickly drawn into a war involving nuclear weapons.
“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes,” she said.
Trump replied: “That line’s getting a little bit old.”
CLINTON IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
Trump allowed Clinton to set the tempo and basically was responding to her the whole night. He failed to cover new ground and convincingly chart his own course. By contrast, during the GOP primary debates, Trump was usually the aggressor and delivered devastating counterattacks whenever he was criticized.
Trump wasted several precious opportunities during the debate to press home his most effective criticisms of Clinton in front of a huge national audience. He failed to raise some of Clinton’s more obvious vulnerabilities during the course of the evening. For example, when Holt asked Clinton to comment about cyber-attacks as a threat to national security, Trump could have responded that her private email server exposed the highly classified information it contained to foreign hackers, but he failed to do so. In addition, in answering a question about her stamina, Clinton brought up her marathon testimony before the Benghazi committee, which gave Trump a perfect opening to raise the still unanswered accusations about Benghazi against her. Inexplicably, he failed to do so.
JOBS JOBS JOBS
The candidates sparred over trade, taxes and how to bring good-paying jobs back to the United States.
Clinton said her Republican rival was promoting a “Trumped-up” version of trickle-down economics — a philosophy focused on tax cuts for the wealthy. She called for increasing the federal minimum wage, spending more on infrastructure projects and guaranteeing equal pay for women.
Trump panned the Democrat policies that he said have led to American jobs being moved overseas, in part because of international trade agreements that Clinton has supported. He pushed her aggressively on her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact while she was serving in the Obama administration. She’s since said she opposes the sweeping deal in its final form.
“You called it the gold standard of trade deals,” Trump said. “If you did win, you would approve that.”
Disputing his version of events, Clinton said, “I know you live in your own reality.”
Trump was challenged for his prior role in questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the US, which is a constitutional requirement to serve as president.
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior, and the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” said Clinton. “Barack Obama is a man of great dignity, and I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him that this was being touted and used against him.”
Trump, who first publicly acknowledged Obama’s birth in Hawaii just a few weeks ago, replied by pointing to efforts made by Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign to raise the same questions about Obama: “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work.”
FOR TRUMP A GOOD BEGINNING AND THEN DOWNHILL
From the beginning, Clinton’s strategy seemed in part to be to goad Trump to respond intemperately. Early on, she reminded the audience that “Donald was very fortunate,” to the tune of what she said was a $14 million loan from Trump’s father. Her father was a small businessman, Clinton added.
Trump, who is sensitive to suggestions that he owes his success to anyone else, took the bait. He used part of his next chance to speak to say he had received only a “small loan.”
Clinton continued to press that case, charging that Trump took advantage of his workers and contractors who helped build his real estate assets.
“I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald,” she said. “I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do.”
Clinton cited an architect who designed the clubhouse at one of his golf courses yet was not paid all he was owed. Trump retorted: “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work.”
Trump went on to laud the achievements of his company, repeatedly saying his success reflects the kind of the thinking the nation needed in its political leaders.
In another exchange, Clinton accused him of saying that climate change “is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese.”
“I do not say that, I do not say that,” Trump interjected, shaking his head.
Trump’s criticism of Clinton turned personal in the debate’s closing moments. He said, “She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina” to be president.
Clinton responded, “As soon as he travels to 112 countries, he can talk to me about stamina.” She leapt at the opportunity to remind voters of Trump’s numerous controversial comments about women, whose votes are expected to be crucial to the outcome of the November election.
Trump’s mediocre debate performance can be blamed, at least partially, on to his inexperience with debates in general and especially with the extended one-on-one format, as well as his casual debate preparations. Monday’s debate was much more demanding that the debates during the Republican primaries against multiple opponents, which meant that Trump’s debate responses had to be relatively brief. Clinton had much more experience with extended one-on-one debates, most recently during her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, and in 2008 against Barack Obama. She was much better prepared for Monday’s debate than Trump was. She came into it with a lot of set responses and attack lines which had been carefully scripted and practiced in advance.
Trump spokesmen said that his lack of over-preparation was a good thing. “The undecideds saw a human being in Donald Trump,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y. said. “If you’re saying something about me, and I don’t like it, then I’m going to interrupt you. I thought it was strange, a couple of times, that she didn’t interrupt him.”
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta wasn’t as charitable, saying “He seemed unable to handle that big stage. By the end, with kind of snorting and the water gulping and leaning on the lectern that he just seemed really out of gas.”
Many of Trump’s responses sounded like recycled comments from previous speeches and campaign rallies that he put together on the fly. Trump’s ability to improvise is one of his great strengths as a candidate, but it made him vulnerable, especially during the latter part of the debate, to Clinton’s well-planned efforts to lure him into going off-message in defending himself against her attacks.
Trump later denied that Clinton’s often personal attacks during the debate got under his skin, but admitted that he was irritated when she criticized some of his derogatory past remarks about women. After a moment of hesitation, Trump said that he decided not to respond with by saying “something extremely tough to Hillary, to her family, and said, ‘I just can’t do it,’” out of respect for their daughter, Chelsea, who was in the audience. Later, Trump said that he would hit Mrs. Clinton “harder” in their next debate, adding, “I really eased up because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Trump is expected to learn from his mistakes and do much better in the next two debates. Even though he could have done much better, Trump did accomplish his basic goal by establishing his presidential credentials in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans who were watching it around the country.
The 95-minute debate at Hofstra University on Long Island attracted a record-breaking national television audience of more than 81 million people.
It was the first of three debates between Clinton and Trump sponsored by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates; the others are Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. The vice-presidential nominees, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, will face off once, on Oct. 4 in Farmville, Virginia.
The third-party candidates did not qualify to participate in the debate because they did not meet a minimum polling threshold. Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, who is positioned to be a potential spoiler in many Western states, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein both made appearances on the Hofstra campus Monday for media interviews. Stein staged a protest for being excluded from the debate. At one point she was ushered off campus by security because she did not have necessary credentials.
TIED IN THE POLLS
The debate came at a critical juncture in the campaign. With six weeks until Election Day, and with voters in some states already starting to cast ballots by mail, polls show Clinton’s summer lead has all but evaporated. Trump is effectively tied in many of the battleground states where Clinton had enjoyed comfortable leads.
One of Trump’s goal was to preserve the momentum he has enjoyed in the polls over the past month. He has reduced Mrs. Clinton’s 8-point lead in the nationwide polls in mid-August to just 1 or 2 points.
Trump has staged a major comeback in enough of the key battleground states to bring him almost even with Clinton in the Electoral College vote count which will determine who wins the White House. Trump has made impressive gains in the crucial states of Florida and Ohio, and established slim leads in North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada, all of which Obama carried in 2012. Trump has also come within striking distance of Clinton in the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, whose Electoral College votes would give Trump several additional paths to win the election.
An analysis of the polling data shows that while Clinton’s support has remained roughly level, Trump has been making steady and significant gains among independent and Republican voters. Many believe these gains were due to a shift in the strategy of the Trump campaign over the past month, portraying him as a disciplined candidate, well- prepared to be president. Trump has stayed on-message and presented detailed policy proposals, in contrast to the more provocative populist appeals which characterized his message during the primaries.
Trump tried to continue this approach in the debate, but it limited his ability to respond effectively to Clinton’s attacks. His lack of preparation precluded him from staying on target and responding with informative, intelligent answers. In future debates, Trump will need to deflect Clinton’s efforts to lure him off-message, and redirect the discussion toward the issues on which she is most vulnerable, such as her emails, the Clinton Family Foundation and Benghazi.
Trump dominated the opening 30 minutes of the debate by pushing the key points of his plan to bring prosperity back to this country by creating new jobs for American workers. Trump promised to cut taxes and unnecessary regulations on business, halt the flow of American jobs overseas, repatriate trillions of dollars of US corporate profits now trapped abroad, and renegotiate the unfair terms of free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which have hurt the US economy.
He said that NAFTA and other trade pacts Clinton and her husband supported have contributed to the hollowing-out of America’s middle class.
Trump later agreed that he was at his best at the start of the debate, when he was making his points on the issues of immigration, free trade and job creation which have were the bread and butter of his primary campaign.
One of Trump’s most effectively lines during this segment was an attack on Clinton’s long record of support for free trade agreements.
“Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry. You go to New England, you go to Ohio, you go to Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want Secretary Clinton and you will see devastation.”
In response to Clinton’s criticism of his economic plan, Trump said, “Typical politician. All talk. No action. Sounds good. Doesn’t work. Never gonna happen. Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of your jobs, in terms of what’s going on.”
Later in the debate, Trump acknowledged that Clinton has far more experience in government than he does, but that it was bad experience, which resulted in failed policies. In response to Clinton’s explanation of one of her policy proposals, Trump said, “you’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?”
Trump was obviously prepared for Holt’s question about why he has not released his tax returns. After giving his stock answer, that he can’t do it as long as his returns are being audited by the IRS, he said that he would go against the advice of his lawyers and release his returns if Mrs. Clinton would agree to release the 33,000 emails which she ordered deleted from her private email server. He immediately challenged Clinton’s claim that setting up her private email server was a “mistake,” and implied that she did it deliberately to maintain complete control over access to the emails, even though many of them were government documents.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said afterwards that, “for her to get a pass and act like she’s gotten past it, I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think those are the sorts of things that he should continue to make the American people remind them[selves] of, because I think it’ll be consequential in November.”
Clinton had her own attack lines, some of which were more effective than others. For example, she criticized Trump’s tax cut plan as “Trumped-up trickle down” economics.
Her responses were carefully rehearsed during her intensive preparations for the event, which were often sharper and more effective than Trump’s comments.
It was fortunate for Trump that he was at his best during the beginning minutes of the 95-minute event. As a result, viewers across the country who got bored and turned the debate off early got a much more favorable impression of Trump’s performance than those who stayed with it all the way to the end. In fact, snap polls showed that most people thought that Trump won the debate.
The most important measure of the impact of the debate will be the movement in the national and battleground polls by the end of the week. They will demonstrate how many voters changed their minds about which candidate to support because of the debate.
Veteran pollster Pat Caddell said the debate didn’t change anything. “This debate did not shift the race,” he said, “what it did do was show Trump as plausible, as a strong leader and more importantly that he cares about people.”
Going into the debate, Trump has enjoyed the momentum in the polls, erasing most of Clinton’s once formidable lead in the race. If the pro-Trump momentum in the polls continues, it will indicate that Monday’s debate really didn’t have much impact. That will raise the stakes for the next two debates, especially for Clinton, whose campaign has become increasingly alarmed by its inability to halt Trump’s momentum over the past month.
If the polls become static, Trump will still have an advantage going forward. While there are several obvious ways in which Trump can improve his performance in the next debates, it is hard to imagine how Clinton could do much better than she did Monday. In addition, there is an expectation that there will be an “October surprise,” probably in the form of additional damaging email revelations which will further damage Clinton’s credibility.
At this point, the presidential race is in a rough equilibrium, with the outcome still much too close to call. In recent weeks, the Trump campaign has enjoyed the momentum, especially with Republican and independent voters, and nothing happened during the debate which seems significant enough to halt it.
Trump’s debate performance seemed competent enough to persuade more Republican and independent voters who have had doubts about his qualifications to serve as president to put them aside and give him their support.
Trump also enjoys an advantage in the enthusiasm of his supporters, compared to Clinton’s, which may make a critical difference in voter turnout on Election Day. On the other hand, the Clinton campaign has a better organized “ground game” across the country, which could overcome the so-called “enthusiasm gap.”
With little more than a month to go to Election Day, the race is so close that any of these factors could potentially be decisive. This is already a historic presidential race, in many ways, and it may be a fight to the finish.
The Associated Press and the Washington Post contributed to this report.