First Debate Reactions

Well, the first presidential debate is a done deal, and as always I like to quickly type out my own personal reactions before reading everyone else's, to give you an opinion uninfluenced by the herd mentality of the rest of the media.
09/27/2016 01:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens du
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Well, the first presidential debate is a done deal, and as always I like to quickly type out my own personal reactions before reading everyone else's, to give you an opinion uninfluenced by the herd mentality of the rest of the media.

Because of this, I apologize in advance for any misquotes, since I am only using my hastily-scratched notes for what the candidates said. Each has at least the flavor of whatever the word-for-word transcript will say, but I may miss nuances of phrasing. Just to get that caveat out of the way... but enough of this debate prep (as it were), let's get right on to the debate itself.

 

Overall reactions

Did Lester Holt just leave the stage for large chunks of time during the debate? I mean, the cameras weren't on him, so he could easily have stepped out for a bite to eat or something. The absence of Holt, and his downright inability to take any sort of control of the debate, was noticeable, to put it mildly. We can argue about who won the debate, but Lester Holt definitely lost the debate, that's for sure.

Of course, with Donald Trump debating Hillary Clinton, the whole thing felt more like a cage match or a Roman gladiatorial bout in the Coliseum. I almost expected a boxing ring announcer to begin the proceedings: "In this corner, weighing it at...."

Clinton wore a power-red outfit, Trump had a subdued blue tie. For the most part, they were civil (well, civil enough) towards each other, dashing the hopes of late-night comics everywhere. Trump used both "Secretary" or "the Secretary" with an occasional "Hillary" thrown in, while Clinton mostly just stayed with "Donald" when she was addressing him directly. But there was no "Crooked Hillary" from Trump's lips during the entire evening. At one point, he even tried to be polite, asking her if "Secretary Clinton" was OK with her, "because I want you to be happy."

Clinton mostly had a pretty disdainful look for Trump the entire time (although she did break into laughter a few times). It's understandable -- if I was Hillary Clinton, I'd certainly be thinking: "How did this buffoon get on the stage with me?" if I had to stand next to Donald Trump for 90 minutes.

Trump had one strange affectation -- the loud sniffs that happened on a pretty regular basis, at least during the first half of the debate. This has led to much gleeful speculation (and the rejoicing of the late-night comics) about what exactly Donald Trump had been doing with his nose right before he appeared on stage. Tune in later tonight for the inevitable "doing lines?" jokes, that's for sure.

Kidding aside, though, while I'm not in the habit of saying "who won" debates, here are my reactions of how each candidate met the expectations set for them:

Overall, Trump mostly cleared the abysmally-low bar his team had set for him. He didn't use profanity. He didn't call Clinton ugly or a bitch or "crooked" to her face. He didn't storm off the stage in a snit. On these levels, Trump succeeded.


The absence of Holt, and his downright inability to take any sort of control of the debate, was noticeable, to put it mildly. We can argue about who won the debate, but Lester Holt definitely lost the debate, that's for sure.

Clinton, overall, gave a pretty solid performance, which met the expectation everyone had for her. She drifted off into wonkiness at times, but also got emotional and passionate when she needed to. She got in a few zingers which will be on tomorrow's news, and at least for the first half of the debate, she rarely engaged when Trump tried to bait her (mostly by interrupting her). Clinton mostly ignored these eruptions from Trump, and just finished what she was going to say anyway. Of course, things got noticeably looser in the second half of the debate, but while it lasted it was a pretty good strategy for Clinton, and showed Trump's inability to stay within the debate format.

 

The debate play-by-play

Lester Holt, as previously mentioned, lost control of the debate, and he lost it very early on. After a first question about jobs, both candidates gave their philosophy in a nutshell. On trade, Clinton tried her first zinger of the night, and it fell pretty flat (of course, it was hard to tell what the eventual reaction will be, since the crowd had been told to remain silent). Clinton made the case that Trump was just rehashing failed Republican policies, saying: "I call it Trumped-up trickle-down." Thud. Even if laughter had been allowed, there probably wouldn't have been much of it.

Clinton hit Trump on how he got his start in business, with a "$14 million" loan from his father. Trump responded with a line that might work its way into a future Clinton ad, calling it a "small amount." Lester Holt tried valiantly to ask the question he had actually posed (which was how Trump would actually get jobs back to America), but Trump largely ignored it for a second time. Clinton then baited Trump by pointing out that he had actually rooted for the housing crisis to happen, to which Trump snapped back: "That's called business" -- another prime candidate for a new Clinton ad.

After a round of answers on climate change and green energy, Trump baited Clinton on her husband's legacy. Clinton ignored his noise, and powered through her answer, but eventually got into a back-and-forth with Trump (only the first of many to come). Clinton got off her second zinger, and this one was much more effective, since it applies to so many of the things Trump says: "I know you live in your own reality, Donald."

Lester Holt had apparently stepped out at this point, probably to buy a hot dog from a concession stand in the hallway, or something.

At approximately one half-hour in, Trump got shouty for the first time. Clinton countered back by inviting people to visit her site, where she was providing "real-time fact-checking" for everyone's edification.

Lester Holt wandered back in at this point, tried to take control of the proceedings, and failed.

Trump got even more shouty about his non-plan for defeating the Islamic State. Lester Holt finally got a word in edgewise, and asked about the two candidates' tax plans. I thought Clinton did well here, explaining her tax plan with just enough detail to show how comprehensive it is, whereas I could barely even understand Trump's meanderings on the subject of his "tremendous" tax plan. Lester Holt tried mightily to smack down Trump's constant interruptions, but without much notable success.

Towards the end of the tax plan back-and-forth, Trump got in a very funny line, although it wasn't directed at Hillary but rather the current president: "When Barack Obama goes off to the golf course for the rest of his life...." Astonishingly enough, this was just about the only time during the entire evening that Trump tried humor in his answers. He's known for being a lot more amusing at his rallies, that's for sure. But he was trying mightily to be Trump 2.0, I suppose.

Lester Holt then tried to get Trump to answer why he wasn't releasing his tax returns, and then utterly failed to ask the proper and obvious followup question (which, as I've said before, really should be: "OK, you're under audit, but audits only go back so far, so why not release a few years from before the time period the audit covers? Why not release your 2008 or 2007 tax returns, for instance?").

Trump then issued a challenge to Clinton, which was most likely his best soundbite of the whole night, promising that he'd release his tax returns -- against the advice of his lawyers -- if Clinton would release her 30,000 deleted emails first. Clinton responded that this was classic "bait and switch."

Clinton's answer to Trump's refusal to release his returns was my favorite moment from her of the whole night, because she made her case completely and quickly, and struck right to the heart of the matter: "What is Trump trying to hide?" She ran down a quick list of what this might be: Trump's not as rich as he says he is, he's not as charitable as he says he is, he owes more money that he's willing to admit, and/or he pays zero in actual federal income taxes (which is indeed the case on the only two tax returns ever made public from Trump). Clinton truly knocked this answer out of the park.

Lester Holt then asked her about Trump's email taunt, and Clinton gave the simple answer she should have given in the first place: that she made a mistake, wouldn't do it again, and takes full responsibility for her mistake.

Trump, at this point, started wandering all over the map in his answers. Well, truthfully he had been doing a bit of this all along, but it got noticeably worse as time went on. When Clinton got to speak, she pointed out that she had invited an architect to tonight's audience who had designed a building for Trump -- but then got stiffed for his efforts. She called on Trump to apologize. This was also very well-played. Trump, of course, refused to apologize, said the guy probably did bad work for him, and then claimed he has always paid everyone (which is not true, since he's gone through bankruptcy so many times).

At roughly the halfway point through the debate, Lester Holt essentially announced that he had lost all control of the debate. This wasn't exactly news to anybody. He then pivoted to a discussion about race.

Clinton got wonky for a while. Trump began by flatly stating: "Our inner cities -- African-Americans and Hispanics are living in Hell." He followed this up by leaning heavily on his Nixonian pledge to restore "law and order," and also strongly supported stop-and-frisk policies. Trump actually then fearmongered (during a section on racial relations, no less) about "bands of illegal immigrants roaming the streets." Nothing like Republican minority outreach, folks!


Clinton got off her second zinger, and this one was much more effective, since it applies to so many of the things Trump says: "I know you live in your own reality, Donald."

Lester Holt desperately tried to salvage himself at this point, by attempting a fact-check on how stop-and-frisk was actually ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. Trump, true to form, said the judge was biased against good ol' law-n-order. Trump refused to admit there was any hint of racial profiling about the policy, which is patently not true.

Clinton pointed out that not all minorities live in Hell in our country, and that there were actually successful Black and Latino families everywhere. She agreed with Holt that stop-and-frisk was indeed ruled unconstitutional, and spoke out strongly against mandatory minimums and the practice of using private prisons. Also, a little later, pledged she'd put money in her first budget for better police training.

The two candidates then (gasp!) actually agreed on a policy. Clinton brought it up, but Trump agreed that people on the No-Fly List or Terrorism Watchlist should be banned from buying weapons. I've written before on how this idea -- while popular politically, to be sure -- is not exactly constitutional either, because it tramples all over the concept of "due process," but it certainly was interesting to see Trump and Clinton agree on anything tonight.

They then both returned to form, and had a squabble for the fact-checkers to referee on the murder rate in New York City. This was roughly an hour in to the debate, and this was the point where Trump began to lose control and revert to being shouty and all over the map on virtually every answer.

Clinton got in another excellent zinger at this point, after Trump sneered about how he had been travelling "all over," while Clinton "decided to stay home." In an obviously-rehearsed (but very well-delivered) line, Hillary responded: "I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing."

Lester Holt, returning from the hallway with a soft-serve ice cream cone and hastily getting back into his chair, then asked Trump directly what had changed his mind on the whole birther issue. Trump trotted out his "Hillary started it" defense, which fell mighty flat. He then tried to pivot quickly to ISIS, jobs, and his border wall, but Holt had been energized by the ice cream, and hit him again with a fact-check on Trump's birther history. Trump essentially repeated his answer, with a very bizarre "ah... the birth certificate" intonation (check the video -- this was just downright weird). Holt tried a third time, telling Trump the birther thing was insulting to African-Americans, and asking whether Trump owes them (or Obama) an apology. Trump, unsurprisingly, did not take the opportunity to do so, instead standing on his birther record.

Clinton, when asked to respond to Trump's refusal, quipped: "Just listen to what he said." She then launched into her own condemnation of Trump, stating quite accurately that he had "started his whole political career" with what she unflinchingly called a "racist lie," before also hitting Trump on getting sued by the Justice Department twice back in the 1970s for refusing to rent to minorities. Clinton summed up by stating Trump has "a long history of racist behavior," and that his birther crusade was downright insulting to Barack Obama.

Trump scored what might very well have been his best comeback of the night, pointing out some of her behavior on the 2008 campaign trail against Obama. Trump said he'd been reviewing her debate performances in preparation, and he saw Clinton "treat Obama with no respect" during them. He hit her for her campaign circulating a photo of Obama in African garb, something a lot of people have forgotten about. Trump was essentially admitting that while he was down in the mud, Hillary actually belonged right there beside him, rather than her being all "holier than thou." For anyone who remembers the 2008 campaign, Clinton is indeed a little weak on this issue.

Trump then blew it by admitting that he did have to settle the two cases from the Justice Department, using as his only defense the fact that a lot of other landlords were sued at the same time and that he managed to "not admit guilt" in the settlement. Not very convincing, to say the least. Trump also pointed out he doesn't actively discriminate at his Florida club, which also wasn't very convincing (the battles to get minorities admitted into country clubs are pretty old hat, these days).

Lester Holt then led us into some wonky territory on cyber attacks and Russia. Clinton responded in a wonky way (as is her wont, at times), then hit Trump for "publicly inviting Putin to hack America." Trump responded with his endorsements from admirals and generals, as well as ICE and the Border Patrol. He leveled probably the strongest words at Clinton of the evening, calling her a "political hack" (which, for him, barely even registers on the Trump insult-o-meter). He then sounded almost deranged, saying about the D.N.C. getting hacked: "Maybe it was Russia, maybe it was China, maybe it was a guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds." Um, what? We're under attack from obese hackers? Strange, I haven't seen that in the news....

Clinton responded with her stock line about how she has an actual plan to attack ISIS, and trots out her "I helped kill Bin Laden" line -- after an hour and a quarter, which is perhaps a new record for Clinton (for not deploying it earlier in the debate).

Trump responded with his wish to return to colonialism, saying we should have just "taken the oil" in Iraq, so ISIS never would have formed. Clinton, bizarrely, just let this one slide rather than taking it on directly. Instead, she focused in on Trump being "for the Iraq War, for what we did in Libya" and then pointed out that George W. Bush negotiated the American pullout from Iraq, not Obama. Hillary then got downright hawkish, speaking of an "intelligence surge" that sounded a lot like giving the N.S.A. the green light to do whatever it wanted (perhaps this was just my interpretation, though). We then had a little back-and-forth on NATO and the Iran nuclear deal, with both candidates saying predictable things.

Lester Holt took one last shot at relevance, and tried to get Trump to admit he had been for the Iraq War before it happened. Trump completely lost it, in response. He finally admitted the Howard Stern quote exists, but then repeated "Call Sean Hannity" for proof he was against the war before it started. One can imagine the researchers digging through Hannity's shows from 2002 and 2003, all night long, to fact-check this nugget. Holt absolutely hammered the question again and again -- his finest moment of the evening. He finally got out the original question, which was actually about temperament. Trump then (of course) said he had a wonderful temperament, that it was perhaps the most tremendous thing about him, and his temperament was better than Clinton's. I don't have this exact quote, because I was so busy rolling around the floor laughing, so my apologies for the omission.


Trump complained that Clinton's ads about him "were not nice." I mean, the absolute chutzpah to say this right after blaming Rosie O'Donnell for what Trump called her -- it was just astonishing.

Clinton responded in similar fashion: "Woo! OK...." She then debunked Trump's egotistical (and untruthful) claim to have woken NATO up to fighting terror, pointing out that NATO joined America to attack Afghanistan after 9/11. We then had some more back-and-forth over the Iran deal, with Clinton quoting Trump about Iranian ships "taunting our military" where he said we should have "blown them out of the water." Clinton quite rightly used Trump's own quotes to show how his temperament wasn't exactly presidential, and then got off her final great zinger at Trump: "A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not be anywhere near the nuclear button." This was well-delivered and entirely accurate.

Lester Holt tried to regain control to introduce the last segment, and after failing a few times, finally managed to ask Trump about first-strike nuclear policy. Trump said he wouldn't strike first, after rambling a bit about China and North Korea. He then ended by hitting the Iran deal again.

Clinton looked downright presidential in her response, which began with: "Words matter." She explained how our allies need to know that the United States is true to our word, defended the Iran deal, and ended with "Donald's secret plan to fight ISIS -- his secret is that he has no plan." This line's been working for her out on the campaign trail, so it wasn't surprising to hear it tonight.

Lester Holt then skewered Trump on a comment he made about how Hillary doesn't have a "presidential look." Trump tried to spin it that he was hitting Hillary's "stamina" instead, and Holt took another shot at reading Trump's own words to him (which Trump could not bring himself to admit he had actually said). Clinton had a good comeback for this one, stating that Trump can "talk about stamina" after he flies around the world and makes international agreements, or sits in front of a congressional committee "for 11 hours."

At this point the crowd realized that Lester Holt wasn't going to chuck them out on their ear, and there were loud cheers for Clinton's statement. The Trump fans also cheered his response, just to get in on the action.

Things at this point fell completely apart for Trump. Clinton, sensing the crowd's mood, hit Trump on how he's called women "pigs, slobs, and dogs," and told the story of one of his pageant contestants who Trump disparaged, "who is now a citizen and looking forward to voting." Trump was rattled by this entire line, you could tell, and he then displayed his "outreach to women" -- by stating baldly that "Rosie O'Donnell deserved it." Hoo boy. That one is definitely going to be in a Clinton ad coming soon!

Immediately afterwards, Trump complained that Clinton's ads about him "were not nice." I mean, the absolute chutzpah to say this right after blaming Rosie O'Donnell for what Trump called her -- it was just astonishing.

Holt had an interesting final question for both candidates (although obviously aimed at Trump): If the other person wins, will you accept the outcome and not challenge the result? Both Clinton and Trump said they would abide by the results, which is reassuring to hear from Trump (who, earlier, had flirted with calling the whole thing rigged, months before voting even started).

 

Conclusion

The first debate is now one for the history books. I'll be very interested to see how everyone else reacted to it, which I'm going to do right after I post this. As I said before, Clinton turned in a good performance. Maybe not her best debate of all time (she's done almost 40 of them), but certainly not her worst either, by a long shot. She didn't stumble or get caught out by Trump once during the evening, and she showed her verbal fighting mettle at several points. She did manage to get under Trump's skin (especially at the end) several times. The astonishing thing for Trump was that (except at the end), even when she rattled him, he was usually able to calm himself down after a few minutes of shouting. He's obviously been coached that the whole shouty thing doesn't really come across as very presidential, and you could see him forcing himself to shift gears away from it several times.

Trump kept it together more than he managed during some of the primary debates. He didn't become completely unhinged at any point during the evening, although he did dance up to the edge of doing so a few times. He insulted women, Rosie O'Donnell, Barack Obama, African-Americans, Hispanics, and many others during his performance -- which is all pretty much par for the Donald Trump course. Trump did manage to get some actual policy answers out, most notably in the earlier portions of the debate. But he doesn't do well after about the hour mark -- something that was already apparent during the primary debates and was also on full display this evening.

Who "won" the debate? Well, I'll leave that for the punditocracy to determine, without my help. I thought Clinton did a great job tonight, and looked pretty presidential for the entire evening. I thought Trump meandered all over the map and ignored many facts and truths he doesn't want to admit. But then I'm one of the roughly 85 percent of the public who knew who they were rooting for before the debate started, so you can call my conclusions biased if you'd like. That's how I saw the debate, but I'd be interested in hearing how everyone else reacted (down in the comments, as usual) as well.

 

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