Tonight, all the questions would be answered.
Would Donald Trump try to play the tame statesman, or the snarling orange rage-ball from the primaries? Would Hillary Clinton finally inspire the energy and passion lacking from her so-far bloodless campaign? Could Trump possibly display some substantive policy knowledge, or just coast on his central planks of “walls” and “deals” and “winning?” Could Clinton contain her dismay at having to stand quietly through the speaking time of somebody with only the thinnest sliver of her experience and expertise? Could Trump stand quietly for any time at all?
In short, the bar for Trump coming into the first presidential debate of the general election season at Hofstra University in Hempstead was incredibly low. If he could avoid looking completely routed and humiliated every single second of the hour-and-a-half-long faceoff, he could reasonably consider the event a success. On the other hand, if the candidate confrontation looked for even a few moments like anything other than a cosmic mismatch, Clinton would have severely underperformed expectations.
How’d it go? Well…
Not so “good”
“Donald. It’s good to be with you.”
That sarcastic jab, and Trump’s grimacing nod in response, set the tone for the entire encounter. Clinton was grinning and nimble on the attack, showcasing her burnished debate skills, and leaving Trump off-kilter and on the defensive.
She persistently needled him on his lack of policy creds and preference for bluster over substance, with a pocketful of ready-made soundbites sure to loop across TV screens tomorrow—labeling his economic proposals “Trump-ed up trickle-down,” noting “Donald was very fortunate,” claiming “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
Trump couldn’t control his impulse to interrupt, whether with objections or with groans, including a memorable Al Gore-esque “ugh” while discussing racial issues. And when trying to engage on issues, the Queens-born businessman was left stammering out mystifying comments like “no wonder, you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”
“Oof, okay,” she said after an especially rambling attack from Trump that spanned the Iraq invasion and her temperament.
When Trump attempted to attack the former first lady for having “stayed home” instead of visiting violence-plagued inner-city neighborhoods, Clinton mockingly claimed he had attacked her for “preparing for this debate”—and leveled perhaps her most devastating one-liner of the night.
“You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
After a week of at-times violent Black Lives Matter protests in cities like Charlotte and Tulsa, brought on after high-profile police killings of African-American men, and with Lester Holt as moderator, Trump’s promotion of false theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace was bound to come up.
Trump again sought to blame Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and alluded to allegations that her friend and advisor encouraged a McClatchy reporter to investigate whether the president was born in Kenya. He stumbled repeatedly trying to explain to Lester Holt why he continued to press the issue for years after Obama released his birth certificate, then launched into one of his few clearly rehearsed lines.
“I want to move on to defeating ISIS, I want to move on to saving our jobs…” he said.
Clinton retaliated with another of her crisp ripostes.
“Just listen to what you heard,” she said, before attacking the “racist lie” of birtherism.
But when laying out her foreign policy ideas or her vision for racial reconciliation, the stilted, wonkish Clinton returned. She obviously wanted to flaunt her policy knowledge, but she was better at showcasing that strength when answering the fact-free Trump than when offering her policies.
“NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly in the history of this country.”
Trump’s one strong moment came early in the debate, in his attacks the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Bill Clinton signed Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s runningmate, also voted for as a member of Congress.
Clinton missed the opportunity to highlight this contradiction, or Trump’s history of manufacturing his branded items overseas. He also pinned her briefly on the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive deal which would include Japan, Australia and numerous other Pacific Rim nations—which Clinton helped negotiate as secretary of state, and which Obama still hopes to convince Congress to pass and which the Democratic nominee has since repudiated.
Such populist arguments are core to Trump’s appeal to blue-collar voters in crucial states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was less successful in articulating his arguments to “bring the money back” companies have stashed overseas through a massive corporate tax cut, or to end “red tape,” and fell back on repeating himself over and over.
“Mainstream media nonsense”
Trump’s biggest embarrassments on the campaign trail have involved foreign policy, and that didn’t change tonight. He has repeatedly attacked Clinton’s vote on the Iraq invasion in 2003, but was only able to dismiss Holt’s point that he had endorsed the war in an interview on the Howard Stern Show in 2002 as “mainstream media nonsense”—and demanded that reporters call his supporter Sean Hannity to learn about his real opposition to the attack.
He insisted again and again on how “horrible” the Obama administration’s deal to get Iran to pause its nuclear program for a decade in exchange for lifting sanctions, but didn’t explain what he would have negotiated instead. The mogul also recommended encouraging China to “go into” North Korea to shut down its nuclear program.
Clinton attacked Trump’s “cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons,” and repeated her applause line from the Democratic convention: “a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.” She also mocked his insistence that he has a “secret” plan to defeat ISIS.
“The only secret is that he has no plan,” she said.
But Trump’s biggest problem was that he apparently never bothered to memorize where he got his information, and only referred vaguely to his sources as “many articles” and “the shows.”
War for Women
Holt also dug into another Trump’s tender spots: his rock-bottom polling among female voters. Asked about his claim Clinton “doesn’t have a presidential look,” Trump bickered with the moderator over whether he had said “look” or “stamina” (he’s said both). The emphasis on “stamina” would call attention to the ex-secretary of state’s well-publicized recent bout of pneumonia, and numerous rumored other ailments. “Look,” well….
“As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional hearing, he can talk to me about stamina,” Clinton said, before pivoting to the Republican’s infamous references to women as “pigs” and “dogs.”
“He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them,” she mocked, before recalling a Latina model Trump had mocked as “Miss Piggy.”
Trump replied with maybe his strangest line of the night:
“Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
It’s unclear how many women that one won over, or his claims that his “winning temperament” outclasses Clinton’s. But Trump actually made the unheard-of decision to personally cameo in the media “spin room” after the forum, to argue he that he had triumphed in the conflict—and to play up his free trade stance and ex-President Clinton’s infidelities.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.