Trump often interrupted Clinton and moderator Lester Holt. The more Trump attacked, the more she smiled and waited for an opportunity to respond. She came prepared and seemed to accomplish what she set out to do.
The task for Clinton, the Democrat, was to avoid being a policy wonk, to erase even just a little of her image as untrustworthy and unapproachable. She also sought to test his presidential temperament.
Trump, the Republican, succeeded at times in showing policy polish and in portraying her as politics-as-usual. But his lack of rhetorical restraint overshadowed his performance.
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Their face-off at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island, the first of three, came as the race tightens considerably.
Here are five takeaways from their first time on the stage together:
Meet the new Trump, same as the old Trump?
A big question was who would we see at the first debate: a restrained Trump, given to cogent answers to complex questions of policy? Or the shoot-from-the-hip, political decorum-be-damned critic?
“I have a feeling I’m going to be blamed for everything,” Clinton said with a derisive laugh after one long Trump harangue.
“Why not?” Trump said.
At another point, she said, “I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” defending the reversal of her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Clinton took the lead from the outset, casting Trump in the unfamiliar role of playing defense on questions about the economy. He was more reserved initially. But within the first 20 minutes, the aggressive version emerged. Trump began talking over her and and hectoring her. It was straight out of his Republican primary campaign playbook.
He ran the risk of cementing what many suburban female voters say turns them off about the Republican nominee.
When Trump championed “stop and frisk” as a policy to lower crime, moderator Holt of NBC News did step in, noting that it had been ruled unconstitutional.
Clinton: Still ‘likable enough’?
Clinton continued her years-long quest to show everyday Americans that she’s one of them.
Attempting to show a softer side, she spoke about granddaughter Charlotte, who celebrated her second birthday Monday, and repeatedly mentioned her father, a small business owner who died more than two decades ago.
“He worked really hard,” she said. “He printed drapery fabrics on long tables, where he pulled out those fabrics and he went down with a silkscreen and dumped the paint in and took the squeegee and kept going.”
The former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady has been trying to show she can relate to working American families after being criticized as an out-of-touch Washington insider garnering hefty paychecks for speeches and books.
Told during a 2008 Democratic primary debate that voters in New Hampshire seemed to like Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, more than her, Clinton humorously said, “Well, that hurts my feelings, but I’ll try to go on. He’s very likable. . . . ” Obama then interjected, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
The business of Trump is business
Clinton attacked Trump on what he touts as his strength – his businesses and his knack for negotiating deals. She said he’d started out ahead, with a $14 million loan from his father.
“And when we talk about your business,” she said, “you’ve taken business bankruptcy six times. There are a lot of great businesspeople that have never taken bankruptcy once. You call yourself the king of debt. You talk about leverage. You even at one time suggested that you would try to negotiate down the national debt of the United States.”
“Wrong. Wrong,” Trump replied.
Clinton said he had stiffed workers on various development projects – people like her father.
She also raised the issue of his refusal to disclose his tax returns. Clinton said that if he’d actually paid no taxes, “that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health. And I think probably he’s not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are, because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide.”
“I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company,” Trump countered. “My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.”
To fact-check or not to fact-check
Whether Holt should fact-check the contenders if they uttered something untrue became a debate in itself in the weeks leading up to their encounter. Both candidates worked the refs ahead of the game.
The Clinton camp insisted that Holt should call out falsehoods because Trump’s record of lying has been well documented. Trump said it should be the job of each candidate to point out the other’s errors, not the moderator’s. Holt did call out Trump for his statements about stop-and-frisk, saying it had been ruled unconstitutional. And Trump told him he was wrong in return – that it just wasn’t appealed by the current New York mayor.
Holt mostly adhered to his role as questioner, with one admonishment to the audience to be quiet.
But Clinton was quick to call out Trump. “I kind of assumed there would be a lot of these charges and claims,” she said, then directed viewers to her website, which she said was fact-checking Trump’s statements in real time.
The email scandal continues
You knew this would come up.
When Trump was asked about releasing his tax returns, he quickly said he would if she releases the 30,000 emails she deleted as secretary of state.
“The country really thinks it’s disgraceful, believe me,” he said.
It’s the issue that’s dogged Clinton’s campaign from the start. And Clinton once again apologized.
“I made a mistake using a private email,” she said. “I take responsibility for that.”
Clinton has been blasted for exclusively using personal email routed through a private server for government business while she was the nation’s top diplomat. The FBI launched an inquiry into the handling of sensitive data after classified information was found in some emails, but the Department of Justice declined to prosecute.
The issue persists, however. In recent days, news broke that three more witnesses were given immunity for their cooperation with the FBI’s investigation.
Clinton didn’t face the same amount of criticism in her prolonged Democratic primary against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who proclaimed at a debate that “the American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails.” Clinton smiled and shook his hand to thank him.