Donald Trump on Tuesday insisted that Hillary Clinton did not get under his skin during their first debate and suggested that he may “hit her harder” in their next encounter by raising the subject of former President Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
“I really eased up because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Trump said on Fox News, saying he would have brought up “the many [scandals] that Bill Clinton had” but held back because the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea was in the audience.
“I didn’t think it was worth the shot,” he said. “I didn’t think it was nice.”
Trump’s provocative post-debate comments kept the focus on the GOP nominee’s defensive performance during Monday’s event at Hofstra University on Long Island.
For her part, an ebullient Clinton told reporters that she had a “great, great time.”
“The real point is about temperament and fitness and qualification to hold the most important, hardest job in the world, and I think people saw last night some very clear differences between us,” the Democratic nominee said on her campaign plane before flying to North Carolina.
The former secretary of state declined to respond to Trump’s suggestion that he might go after her husband’s personal life.
“He can run his campaign however he chooses,” Clinton said. “I will continue to talk about what I want to do for the American people.”
Before going to her seat, she turned back and fired one last jab. “Anybody who complains about the microphone,” Clinton said with a smile, “is not having a good night.”
Trump maintained that the Democratic nominee did not unnerve him. “No, not at all,” he said on Fox News. “I didn’t see it that way.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton’s running mate, told “CBS This Morning” that the night showed Trump can be “easily rattled.”
“That was very, very apparent throughout the debate,” he said. “And the longer the debate went on, the more apparent that was.”
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said that voters will see Trump as a “changemaker,” praising the real estate developer for being “polite and a gentleman.”
Conway told CNN that Trump was prepared to bring up Bill Clinton’s marital indiscretions during the debate, but that he made a “a split-second spontaneous decision” not to raise the issue. That will earn him points with female voters, she said.
“I think that whole exchange will grow in importance over the next couple of days,” she said. “Women will like that.”
The clash came at a critical juncture in the campaign. With six weeks until Election Day, and with voters in some states already starting to cast ballots, polls show Clinton’s summer lead has all but evaporated. Trump is effectively tied in many of the battleground states where Clinton had enjoyed comfortable leads.
For his part, Trump said he was pleased with the points he made on immigration, trade and jobs in the first half hour of the debate. He gave his Democratic rival a “C plus” when asked to grade her performance, but declined to grade himself, saying: “I know I did better than Hillary.”
Despite his apparent sniffles throughout the night, Trump said he did not have a cold or allergies. He blamed the noises on his microphone, which he said could not be heard well in the room.
“I don’t want to believe in conspiracy theories, of course,” Trump said. “But it was much lower than hers, and it was crackling.”
During the 95-minute debate, Trump unrelentingly blamed the nation’s chronic problems on Clinton as a “typical politician.” Yet he found himself mostly on the ropes as she denounced him for racial insensitivity, hiding potential conflicts of interest and “stiffing” those who helped build his business empire.
After circling each other for months, Clinton and Trump finally took the stage together for the first time, and each tried in a series of combative, acrimonious exchanges to discredit the other.
Trump spent much of the evening explaining himself – about his temperament, treatment of women and minorities, business practices and readiness to be commander in chief, as well as over his long perpetuation of a falsehood about Barack Obama’s birthplace to delegitimize his presidency.
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior, and the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” said Clinton, the Democratic nominee. “Barack Obama is a man of great dignity, and I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him that this was being touted and used against him.”
Trump, who earlier this month at last acknowledged Obama’s birth in Hawaii, replied by invoking Clinton’s 2008 rivalry with Obama: “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work.”
In an earlier exchange, Clinton said it was unfortunate that Trump paints a dire picture of the livelihoods and economic circumstances of many African Americans. Trump groaned in apparent disgust.
The television networks were preparing for as many as 100 million people to watch, which would put Monday night’s debate in the pantheon of the Super Bowl.
Both candidates delivered performances likely to please and energize their core supporters. Clinton eviscerated Trump’s character and record while championing progressive ideals. Trump directly confronted Clinton over her email scandal and general trustworthiness. Less certain was how the debate might shape the perceptions of the slivers of the electorate still up for grabs, especially college-educated white women.
Clinton poured forth with policy details and practiced catch phrases – “Trumped-up trickle down” to describe his tax plan, for instance – and tried to sow doubts about the seriousness of Trump’s proposals. She seized on his comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest that Trump does not understand the global threats the country faces.
Where Clinton was measured in her attacks, Trump was a feisty and sometimes undisciplined aggressor. He regularly interrupted Clinton, as well as the moderator, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, and raised his voice. At times, Trump delivered rambling, heated and defensive answers.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Trump vehemently denied he had supported the Iraq War at the outset, as Clinton had, while Clinton looked on incredulously. Trump sought to blame Clinton for the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, snapping, “You were secretary of state when it was a little infant.”
Clinton mocked Trump’s discussion of national security, suggesting he is uninformed and even unstable. “Whoo,” she said with a laugh, when Trump finished one oration about NATO and the Islamic State.
Earlier, Trump grew visibly frustrated by Clinton’s critique of his economic plan and declared: “Typical politician. All talk. No action. Sounds good. Doesn’t work. Never gonna happen. Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs, in terms of what’s going on.”
Trump, whose pugilistic aggression made him a dominant force in the Republican primary debates, began the first general-election debate with an uncharacteristically respectful tone. He ditched his campaign trail nickname of “Crooked Hillary” to call his opponent “Secretary Clinton.”
“Is that okay?” he asked her. Clinton smiled. “Good,” Trump continued. “I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.”
But Trump’s demeanor quickly grew more aggressive, even bitter. He tried to portray Clinton as a relic of Washington and protector of the status quo. In one of his few dominant moments, he challenged Clinton on trade policy, saying the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade pacts have contributed to the hollowing-out of America’s middle class.
“Your husband signed NAFTA, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry,” Trump said to Clinton. “You go to New England, you go to Ohio, you go to Pennsylvania – you go anywhere you want Secretary Clinton and you will see devastation.”
Trump added: “You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?”
Near the end of the debate, Trump repeated his claim that Clinton lacks what he sees as “the presidential look.”
“She doesn’t have the look. . . . She doesn’t have the stamina,” Trump said.
Clinton looked at him with a smile, laughing.
“As soon as he travels to 112 countries,” Clinton said, “he can talk to me about stamina.”
That line drew loud applause in the hall.
Clinton continued. She said that Trump had tried to change the conversation from her “look” to whether she had stamina.
“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs,” Clinton said. “One of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy,’ and then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she is Latina,” Clinton said. “She has a name, Donald.”
Trump countered by suggesting that he had considered delving into the Clinton family’s tawdry past on the debate stage.
“I was going to say something extremely tough to Hillary, to her family, and I said, ‘I just can’t do it,'” Trump said.
Clinton accused Trump of postponing the release of his tax returns – something every presidential nominee has done for decades – because he has something to hide. Trump has said he is keeping his returns private on the advice of his lawyers because he is under federal audit.
Clinton speculated that Trump was “hiding” his tax returns because they would show he is not as rich as he says he is, or is not as charitable as he claims, or has debts to major banks and foreign entities, or pays nothing in taxes at all.
At that last suggestion, Trump scoffed, “That makes me smart.”
Trump countered by offering to release his taxes if Clinton agreed to release her missing 33,000 emails. “I think it’s disgraceful,” Trump said of her use of a private email server as secretary of state. “And believe me, this country really thinks it’s disgraceful also.”
Clinton said, “I made a mistake using a private email.”
“That’s for sure,” Trump interjected.
“I don’t make any excuses,” she continued.
With her concise answer, Clinton avoided the lawyerly details that have usually accompanied her discussion of the email issue, which her campaign staff has warned her sounds to voters like she is splitting hairs.
From the beginning, Clinton’s strategy seemed in part to be to goad Trump to respond intemperately. Early on, she reminded the audience that “Donald was very fortunate,” to the tune of what she said was a $14 million loan from Trump’s father. Her father was a small-business man, Clinton added.
Trump, who is famously sensitive to suggestions that he owes his success to anyone else, took the bait. He used part of his next chance to speak to say he had received only a “small loan.”
The exchange may seem petty, but it invokes central themes of the election, including the economic health of the middle class and which candidate is on the side of the little guy.
Clinton continued to press that case, charging that Trump took advantage of his workers and contractors who helped build his real estate assets.
“I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald,” she said. “I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do.”
Clinton cited an architect who designed the clubhouse at one of his golf courses yet was not paid all he was owed. Trump retorted: “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work.”
Trump went on to laud the achievements of his company, repeatedly saying his success reflects the kind of the thinking the nation needed in its political leaders.
In another exchange, Trump seemed rattled as Clinton accused him of saying that climate change “is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese.”
“I do not say that, I do not say that,” Trump interjected, shaking his head – though he has done so several times.
This was the first of three debates between Clinton and Trump sponsored by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates; the other two are Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. The vice-presidential nominees, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, will face off once, on Oct. 4 in Farmville, Va.
The third-party candidates did not qualify to participate in the debate because they did not meet a minimum polling threshold. Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, who is positioned to be a potential spoiler in many states, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein both made appearances on campus Monday for media interviews. Stein staged a protest and at one point was ushered off campus by security because she did not have necessary credentials.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Matea Gold, Philip Rucker, Anne Gearan