Clinton stays calm while Trump loses cool during first presidential debate
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.
“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.”
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.
Some of his responses seemed little more than free-associative non-sequiturs. “I have a son who’s 10, he’s so good with computers,” said Trump when asked about US cybersecurity weaknesses.
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.