Clinton repeatedly puts Trump on defensive, accusing him of perpetrating a ‘racist lie’ with birther movement and ‘stiffing thousands’ of blue-collar workers.
Donald Trump’s freewheeling approach spun wildly out of control in the first presidential debate as he was forced on the defensive during a chaotic clash with Hillary Clinton.
Goaded by Clinton and pressed hard by moderator Lester Holt, the Republican nominee angrily defended his record against charges of racism, sexism and tax avoidance for much of the 90-minute clash at Hofstra University, outside New York.
Trump hit Clinton on trade and her political record – issues that have helped him draw level in recent polls and may yet dominate the election – but the property tycoon appeared thin-skinned and under-prepared as he sniffled his way through the debate.
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“It’s all words, it’s all soundbites,” he retorted after a particularly one-sided exchange, adding that Clinton was a “typical politician: all talk, no action”.
But the Democratic nominee seized on Trump’s meandering responses and apparent loss of focus as their long-anticipated clash wore on.
“Words matter when you run for president, and they really do matter when you are president,” said Clinton.
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. You know what else I did? I prepared to be president,” she added.
In her sharpest exchanges, the former secretary of state accused Trump of racism for questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship.
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior. And the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” said Clinton.
She also accused him of “stiffing thousands” of contractors by declaring bankruptcy as a businessman. And in a powerful closing argument she highlighted Trump’s record of sexism, noted that he had called women pigs and slobs and, in one case, called a beauty contest Miss Housekeeping “because she was Latina”.
In turn, Trump attacked Clinton’s suitability as president in blunt terms. “She doesn’t have the look and she doesn’t have the stamina,” he said. “I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home,” he added.
But after rattling off her record of visiting 112 countries in four years as secretary of state, Clinton shot back: “When Donald Trump spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”
Clinton hits back after Trump attacks her ‘stamina’ at debate
Questions of stamina and temperament were levelled instead at Trump as he appeared to lose concentration during the uninterrupted appearance – his first one-on-one appearance on a political debate stage.
Trump took to the media spin room immediately after his debate to defend his performance. Boris Epsheteyn, a Trump campaign spokesman, criticized the moderator: “Lester Holt interrupted Mr Trump more. He followed up with Mr Trump more. He was much harder on Mr Trump.” However, Trump himself said that he thought Holt did “a great job”.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign basked in a victory lap – declaring that the debate had underscored Trump was both “unhinged and unfit to be president” – but was cautious not to bolster expectations on its impact.
“He came in unprepared and what we saw was kind of a meltdown,” said Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“We’ll have to see how the voters judge this,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters.
“But I think the consensus of this entire debate was that Secretary Clinton was the only one on that stage prepared to be president, and I think the totality of the debate proved how deeply unfit he was.”
Aides to Clinton said they had expected Trump to showcase a more subdued demeanor, citing his efforts in recent weeks to stick to a teleprompter on the campaign trail and tone down his bombast.
“We thought we’d see a more disciplined Trump tonight – maybe someone who’d try to steal an early headline with a gesture of grace and show some magnanimity,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon.
“Instead, this was the same Donald Trump in the primary. Which, of course, is the true Trump.”
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Trump had participated in a pre-debate walk-through of the venue at Hofstra University, 20 miles outside New York City in the densely populated suburbs of Nassau County, while Clinton spent the afternoon preparing with aides at the nearby Garden City Hotel.
Afterwards, while Trump was filmed hastily disappearing in his car, Clinton told supporters at a debate watch party to keep fighting, telling them: “You saw tonight how high the stakes are.”
Inside the hall, a small live audience were given strict instructions not to clap or respond to the debate. Though dwarfed by an estimated television audience of up to 100 million people, they included well-known political figures including former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio as well as celebrities such as billionaire Mark Cuban and controversial boxing promoter Don King.
At first Trump appeared to be trying to rein in his more aggressive tendency. “Is that OK? I want you to be happy. It’s very important to me,” he said to Clinton, using her title, Secretary Clinton.
But Trump, who was sniffing and sounded nasally congested, quickly grew agitated, repeatedly interrupting Clinton and often shouting over her as she attempted to respond to questions.
In particular, he aggressively went after her record on trade – interjecting as Clinton spoke, by pointing to her husband Bill Clinton’s signing of Nafta in the 1990s.
Clinton immediately jabbed at Trump, making reference to the $14m that the Republican nominee got in a series of loans from his father, Fred, to start his business empire. The older Trump, a successful real estate developer, helped to fund his son’s effort to remodel the Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown Manhattan and also aided his son with his political connections. Trump immediately fired back, insisting that “it was only a small loan” from his father, taking the bait offered by his Democratic rival.
Trump then knocked Clinton for previously supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the landmark 12-nation trade pact brokered under the Obama administration. When Clinton sought to clarify that she no longer backed the agreement, Trump intervened again and began drowning her out with shouts of: “Is it President Obama’s fault? Is it President Obama’s fault?”
Clinton largely kept her cool, eventually offering wryly with a smile: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
Donald Trump defends ‘birther’ stance: ‘I think I did a good job’
Moderator Holt appeared to struggle to remain on topic as Trump and Clinton traded barbs that vacillated between policy and the personal. Trump was especially challenging to control, as he launched frequently into tirades that did not necessarily address the question asked.
The two candidates entered into a fiery exchange about Trump’s taxes as the Republican nominee pledged to release his tax returns provided that Clinton released the 33,000 emails that were deleted from her private home server.
Clinton fired back and proceeded to lay out all the hypothetical reasons that Trump, who has claimed he is under a tax inspector’s audit, was not releasing his tax returns. Clinton said perhaps Trump was “not as rich as he says he is, not as charitable as he says he is” and even suggested that Trump hadn’t paid any income tax for several years.
The Republican nominee responded “that makes me smart” and Clinton continued to admonish him by suggesting: “I think he is probably not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of the country see because it must be something really important, even terrible that he is trying to hide.”
Afterwards, Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications adviser, avoided repeated questions from reporters about whether the Republican nominee has paid federal income taxes. Miller insisted “of course he pays taxes” and that “he has paid taxes at every level” but repeatedly declined to state whether Trump had paid federal income tax every year in the past 20 years. In two of five years in the 1970s where Trump had to share his tax returns with the New Jersey state casino control commisssion in order to receive a gaming license, he paid zero taxes.
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Trump also had difficulty under attack for on his past support of the Iraq war and of climate change. The Republican nominee repeatedly stood by his false claim that he was against the war in 2002; Trump expressed his support for the invasion of Iraq at the time and has since denied it.
On climate change, Trump denied his past skepticism after Clinton jabbed: “Donald thinks climate change is a hoax by the Chinese.” “I did not say that,” responded the Republican nominee, even though Trump tweeted in November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” He has also repeatedly called global warming “a hoax”.
Despite Trump’s uneven performance, where he repeatedly contradicted himself –sometimes in the course of the same sentence, the Republican nominee has already persevered through a multitude of controversies and missteps in the course of his campaign.
On this momentous night in a long campaign, he didn’t change his tactics or approach. The question as polls have tightened in recent days is whether voters will end up supporting the uncouth demagogue who has confounded pundits in the past 15 months.