Clinton and Trump press pointed attacks in debate

New York Times News Service

Donald Trump relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton over trade and her private email server during their fiery first debate Monday night, often brusquely interrupting her, while Clinton portrayed Trump as unqualified for the presidency and lacking facts to back up his arguments.

After initially approaching Clinton with uncharacteristic restraint, even making clear to her that he would address her as “secretary,” Trump confronted her aggressively. He noted that her husband, Bill Clinton, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law and accused her of wanting to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever signed everywhere,” Trump said, invoking a pact that is deeply unpopular in several swing states, and then added that the Trans-Pacific Partnership “will be almost as bad.” After Clinton said she had opposed the trade deal, Trump interjected and, raising his voice, talked over her.

“You called it the gold standard,” he said, nearly shouting.

Clinton, in a measured tone and with a tight smile, responded with a harsh rejoinder of her own. “Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” she said.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump shake hands at the start of their presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Trump hurled so many accusations at Clinton — and with such fervor that he frequently had to sip water — that she found herself saying at one point, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”

“Why not?” Trump shot back.

“Why not? Yeah, why not,” Clinton replied. “You know, just join the debate by saying more crazy things.”

The debate was like no other in the television era: The first female presidential nominee of a major party facing off against an alpha male businessman with no political experience, both of them world-famous and both of them deeply unpopular, with a potential record-setting audience of 100 million watching and hoping to see their preferred candidate blow the other to smithereens.

The opening seconds were almost surreal. For months, Clinton has portrayed Trump as nothing less than an enemy of the republic, a demagogue who traffics in racism, sexism, xenophobia and a bizarre adoration for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, while Trump has relished calling her “crooked Hillary” and reveled in his supporters’ chanting “lock her up.” But after being introduced by the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, Clinton and Trump strode across the stage toward each other, shook hands and even smiled.

“How are you, Donald?” Clinton said.

“Good, Hillary,” he replied.

Hillary Clinton speaks during the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Seeing them side by side after so much rancor was a spellbinding moment in American politics. No one watching across the country, or across the world, knew what would happen next.

Clinton, taking the first question, got off to a confident start: Asked by Holt why she would be better at creating jobs, she said she would support small businesses, working parents, equal pay for women and paid family leave. Trump was steady as well, sounding familiar themes about cutting taxes and stopping auto manufacturers and other companies from moving jobs overseas. He also said that “Hillary and I agree on child care,” but parted ways on other topics.

Clinton assailed Trump’s economic policies as favoring wealthy Americans, calling them “trumped-up, trickle-down,” and then made the first of several attempts to bait Trump into an overreaction. She said he got a $14 million loan from his father to start his business and asserted that he “really believes the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be.”

Trump responded simply that it was “a very small loan” — a sign that he had been prepared to be careful about attacking Clinton.

Clinton also poked at Trump by saying he believed that climate change was a “hoax,” prompting him to interject, “I do not say that, I do not say that.” (He did, in 2012.) He called himself “a great believer in all forms of energy” and said the nation had too much debt to risk jobs on energy policies that might protect the environment. Then he blasted Clinton as a candidate with lots of policy ideas but no history of success or results.

“Hillary, you’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Trump said. “Why are you just thinking about these solutions?”

“I have thought about this quite a bit,” she said.

“Yeah, for 30 years,” he replied sarcastically.

Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The candidates were largely left to themselves to challenge and correct each other’s facts: The moderator, Holt, was an unobtrusive presence, asking pointed questions but infrequently butting in to stop Trump from interrupting Clinton or talking over his time limit.

Trump was characteristically elastic with the truth, misstating Clinton’s views on issues like trade and job creation, but Holt rarely called him out, and Clinton had a hard time interjecting.

A revealing moment for Trump came when Holt asked him why he would not release his tax returns, as other presidential candidates have done for four decades. “I don’t mind releasing — I’m under a routine audit,” Trump said, then insisted that his financial disclosure form was available to the public, even though it lacks extensive details. Holt pressed him, saying that he was allowed to release his returns even under audit. Trump dodged the question.

“I will release my tax returns against my lawyers’ wishes when she releases her 33,000 deleted emails,” Trump said, drawing a rare burst of applause from the audience as he referred to the messages Clinton’s team deleted as nonwork-related when she turned over her State Department emails.

Hillary Clinton speaks during the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Clinton seized on the issue of Trump’s taxes, which polls show is resonating with voters.

“It must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide,” she said. If Trump were “to get near the White House,” she continued, “what would be those conflicts? Who does he owe money to?”

Trump quickly criticized Clinton for using a private email server as secretary of state.

“I made a mistake using a private email,” Clinton said.

“That’s for sure,” Trump said.

“And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently,” she added.

Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Trump would not let it go. “That was more than a mistake — that was done purposely,” he said. “When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth, so they’re not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it’s disgraceful.”

Trump had one major task in the debate: to start persuading more voters that he has the competence and temperament to be commander in chief. That is a relatively low bar for a traditional nominee to pass, but a critical one for Trump given his history of making inflammatory and insulting comments about Hispanics, women, Muslims, people with disabilities and other groups.

He was on the attack against Clinton from the start, mostly sticking to policy differences but often raising his voice, interrupting her, and sometimes talking over her and mocking her.