By Timothy Bolger and Rashed Mian
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival, Donald Trump, traded barbs in frequently tense exchanges when they shared a stage for the first time Monday during the presidential debate at Hofstra University.
Clinton and Trump each alternated between detailing policy proposals, attacking one another’s records and defending past mistakes during the 90-minute televised debate moderated by NBC News anchor Lester Holt. Topics ranged from the economy to national security and race relations, although the candidates occasionally side-stepped Holt and directly responded to one another as each sought to prove themselves to America’s undecided voters.
“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes,” Clinton said, reiterating a one-liner from her nomination acceptance speech that alluded to Trump’s frequent Twitter feuds.
Trump, who said the line was getting old, maintained that he has the better temperament to be president and questioned the quality of her credentials.
“Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience,” Trump said.
The debate—the third for Hofstra and the first of three for the candidates this election cycle—was expected to draw ratings rivaling the Super Bowl. As it neared the end, the live studio audience disregarded Holt’s request that they not cheer. And once it was over, the campaigns for both candidates were quick to claim victory.
At no point were the differences between the two candidates more stark than when they discussed their policy plans. For example, Clinton said she backed alternatives to incarceration and doing away with minimum mandatory sentencing, among other ideas, to reverse systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Trump, on the other hand, said he would restore the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policies in New York City, which Holt noted were struck down as unconstitutional. Trump claimed that ruling would have been overturned if the city had appealed.
While the exchanges were often testy, the gloves really came off when Holt asked Trump about his tax returns. Trump, who maintained he can’t release them because he’s being audited, said he will do that “once she releases her 33,000 emails.” Clinton apologized for her role in using a private email server when she was Secretary of State and said it was a mistake, but asserted that Trump’s real reason for not releasing his tax returns is they will show that he’s neither as rich as he publicly claims, nor as charitable.
“She talked to the American people about jobs, about having prosperity that is shared across the spectrum.” – Donna Brazile, acting DNC chairwoman
For all the tit-for-tat, there were also a few moments of levity and agreement. Trump said he agrees with Clinton’s call for barring those on the no-fly list from buying guns as well as the need for child care reform. Trump sparked laughs when he alluded to a 400-lb. hacker sitting on his bed somewhere and Clinton got chuckles when she urged fact-checkers to get to work on Trump’s debate claims.
But those moments were fleeting. In a stunning denunciation, Clinton called Trump racist for challenging the citizenship of America’s first black president.
“He tried to put the whole racist birther lie to bed. But it can’t be dismissed that easily,” Clinton said. “He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted—he persisted year after year because some of his supporters, people that he was trying to bring into his fold, apparently believed it or wanted to believe it.”
Trump, as Holt noted, did not cease questioning Obama’s citizenship after the president produced his birth certificate in 2011—but continued even into the presidential primary.
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior, and the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” Clinton said, referring to two Justice Department probes into Trump’s alleged racial discrimination in his real estate business in the ’70s.
Trump claimed it was Clinton’s camp who started digging into Obama’s past during the 2008 primary. Holt reiterated that it was him.
The debate kicked off with questions about how each candidate would move the economy further. Clinton said it was vital to build an economy that “works for everybody, not just those on top.” She would do that by investing in infrastructure, manufacturing, technological innovations and clean renewable energy.
That’s when Trump pounced, criticizing her past support for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and her husband’s implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trump contested that other nations, mainly China and Mexico, are stealing American jobs and companies.
Of China, he said: “They’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild” their economy.
“He was presidential but he was also tough.” – Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford)
Trump, who has made trade deals a central issue of his campaign, said his plan to reduce taxes on the wealthy would lead to more jobs.
Trump, the self-proclaimed “Law and Order” candidate, demurred when asked about what he’d do about homegrown terror. Instead he placed the blame of ISIS’ rise in the Middle East on Clinton and Obama for creating a power “vacuum” by pulling American troops out of Iraq.
Clinton shrugged off the criticism as untrue, claiming it was President George W. Bush who had agreed to the date in which troops would be pulled out, and the Iraqi government wouldn’t relent upon their insistence the American soldiers leave the country.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said afterward in the spin room at Hofstra that he was pleased with Trump’s performance, adding that he thought the billionaire looked presidential.
“To me, he conducted himself extremely well tonight,” King said. “He was presidential but he was also tough.”
Unsurprisingly, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus proclaimed Trump the winner.
“I think Donald Trump did a great job,” he said, adding that the American people want to “pick the change candidate and want to see the next president of the United States on stage, and I think that’s what they saw.”
Acting Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile said Clinton was effective in speaking directly to the American people.
“I thought Secretary Clinton did a fantastic job tonight,” she said. “She talked to the American people about jobs, about having prosperity that is shared across the spectrum. She talked to the American public about the future of this country.”
The debate amounted to a streamlined version of both nominating conventions in which Trump focused on the purported problems in America today, while Clinton expressed a desire to continue the success of the Obama administration.
But, at the end of the day, it’s on American voters to decide which narrative they relate to more.