Showdown At Hofstra


Clinton-Trump was most watched Presidential Debate in U.S. history.

Every news story about the election now begins with the same opener: “These are the two most unpopular candidates in American history.”

That was how the first debate between the Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Republican challenger, billionaire real estate tycoon Donald Trump was introduced. But that statement continues to be media confirmation bias and doesn’t say much about the vast differences between two candidates who have won more votes than any other primary candidate in their respective parties, ever.

The debate itself, however? That spoke volumes.

Spoiler alert: Clinton won handily – on facts, on substance, on gravitas, on temperament. (Undecided voters at CBS polling gave the debate to Clinton 16 to six. CNN had an even wider margin, 18 to two.)

For weeks Trump’s team has been lowering expectations for their candidate, like running for president isn’t the most important job interview in the country and is one for which you get to be graded on a curve. If Trump didn’t tear out the beating heart of the moderator, he would be assured of a win. Conversely, expectations for Clinton have been raised almost beyond the ability to be met – she was expected to make people who don’t like her like her, make herself warm and cuddly, but retain gravitas and somehow lure in the last few recalcitrant millennials with a debate that was geared toward policy that would be of little interest to that age group.

If the debate was meant to make either Clinton or Trump more likeable to those who don’t like them now, I doubt any minds were changed. Trump came in attempting his new calm, on-message persona, but that got shattered about 11 minutes in by challenges from Clinton. For her part, Clinton was wonky, wonkier, wonkiest: never wavering from her message and massive details. At times that felt a little like a lecture in which only one student was prepared and the other was just sitting there, lost.

NBC anchor Lester Holt was the moderator and while many of his questions were good, his ability to get Trump to actually answer them was not. At one point during the debate the New Yorker queried where Holt was, wondering if he had left the building.

Clinton-Trump was the most watched debate in presidential history – on the anniversary of the first televised debate between then-vice president Richard Nixon and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Clinton started and finished strong and barely faltered at any point. She was her most prepared and detailed self—that pragmatic progressive President Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have been touting on the campaign trail and which Trump refers to as “boring” and “lacking in stamina.”

Yet Clinton proved her stamina: she rattled Trump out of his calm almost immediately when she dismissed him as a spoiled, privileged billionaire who had started his business with a $14 million loan from his father. Trump refuted that claim, but fact-checkers at the New York Times, PolitiFact, Washington Post and Huffington Post all validated Clinton’s assertion as true.

The ploy worked well and Clinton seemed to gain confidence as Trump went further and further off the track his latest campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has tried to set him on for weeks. The more calm and “presidential” Trump reading from Teleprompters and staying mostly on message was gone within minutes. Clinton brought out the bully Trump his staunchest supporters love – he interrupted her repeatedly, yelling “wrong” over and over again at both her and moderator and NBC anchor Lester Holt. 

Trump seemed not to notice he had reverted to his belligerent and bellicose self, but the split screen utilized throughout the debate showed a serene and mostly smiling Clinton and a scowling and water-guzzling Trump.

The toughest moments of the night had to do with racism and sexism – two of the constants throughout both the primary and the general election and the most contentious issues in America right now. On both, Trump failed miserably.

Holt asked Trump the question his campaign staff had hoped would never be raised: why had he, since 2011, promoted the idea that President Obama was not an American citizen? Trump immediately attempted to deflect the issue onto Clinton, but neither she nor Holt, who is black, would accept that. Holt repeated that there was no evidence anyone but Trump had promoted the attack on the first black president, known as “birtherism,” and that reality was borne out by fact-checkers.

Clinton said, “It can’t be dismissed that easily. He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. There was no absolutely no evidence for it. But he persisted, he persisted year after year,” Clinton said.

Clinton also referenced Department of Justice lawsuits, in which Trump was accused of discriminating against black tenants by putting c for colored on their applications “He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.”

This was one issue on which Holt refused to back down but neither did Trump. Even after the debate Trump was in the spin room – unheard of in previous debates—and was asked again about the birther issue. He said he was “proud” he had “forced” President Obama to release his birth certificate and that Clinton was “unable to get the job done.” (Clinton never asked Obama to produce his birth certificate, it was never an issue between her and then-Sen. Obama in the 2008 race and at the debate she said she knew the issue had been deeply hurtful to President Obama.)

In his exchange with Holt on why he continued to push birtherism, Trump said, “Nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one who got him to produce the birth certificate, and I think I did a good job.”

But as I and other reporters have noted, Trump continued to push the birtherism issue as recently as January of this year. And there were no less than 67 tweets between 2011 when Obama produced the long-form birth certificate and 2016. So Trump not only didn’t “close the deal” as he asserted at the debate, he perpetuated the fiction. ABC’s Martha Raddatz produced dozens of tweets from Trump which she presented to GOP VP nominee Mike Pence on “This Week” on September 18. Pence said it wasn’t relevant, but when Trump has spent years trying to de-legitimize the first black president, it’s definitely an issue.

On foreign policy, Trump was obviously out of his depth, and said things about NATO that caused Clinton to apologize to our allies, noting “words have meaning and consequences” and assured our allies that we would be fulfilling our role at NATO.

Trump had also insisted he was against the war in Iraq, a claim that has been debunked repeatedly. “I did not support the war in Iraq. That is a mainstream media nonsense,” Trump said. “Wait a minute. I was against the war in Iraq. Just so you put it out.”

“The record does not show that,” Holt said.

“The record shows that I’m right,” Trump said. But in a 2002 interview with radio host Howard Stern, in which Trump had said he supported the war before it began.

Some of the most brutal exchanges (and the only time Clinton seemed even remotely off her game) is when Trump attacked Clinton for posting her plan to fight ISIS on her website. Trump said Gen. Douglas MacArthur – leader of American forces in World War II and the Korean War – wouldn’t have done that. (He also never ran for president and died four decades ago.)

Clinton quipped, “Well, at least I have a plan to fight ISIS.”

“You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,” Trump said. Then said something wildly wrong, “You have been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”

ISIS was formed in 2003. While Clinton was a senator.

But on trade Trump scored well and showed Clinton’s one clear weakness in these debates: She has to both defend her husband’s record on NAFTA from the 1990s and explain her shifting sides with President Obama on TPP. She did neither successfully.

But trade was not the main event at tonight’s debate and Trump – though forceful in his declarations – was wrong more times than he was right when touting numbers on jobs going to Mexico and other countries. The two states he mentioned – Michigan and Ohio – have seen record job increases, not losses, this year. And the manufacturing jobs Trump is always talking about actually have been gone since the Reagan years, three decades ago. How those would be brought back to the U.S. is something no one has been able to explain, least of all Trump who has no details on his website.

Trump was also wrong on crime, once again declaring that the “African-American community is living in hell.”

I’m not black, but I do live in a 95 percent black neighborhood in a 66 percent black city. We aren’t living in hell. And Trump’s dismissal of millions of African Americans and the work being done in communities against violence and to promote education and small businesses as well as his ignorance of the burgeoning black middle class is just unconscionable.

Trump said Clinton was incapable of uttering the words “law and order,” which not only calls up the iconic TV series theme, but also illumines how out of touch Trump is with actual statistics.


Trump insists that crime in New York is “way up,” when it’s actually down. He ignored the issues about gun control Clinton raised in the debate and said “stop and frisk,” which has been judged unconstitutional as racial profiling, had to be instituted. Trump touted his endorsement by the NRA, but did not address the fact that stop-and-frisk is all about taking guns away from black and brown Americans.

Also at issue is Trump’s misogyny, which I first wrote about here over a year ago. Clinton has an ad running in battleground states including my own with young girls and Trump’s comments about women. It’s not pretty. At the debate Trump made references to Rosie O’Donnell as a “fat pig” when Clinton challenged him on his comments about women

Clinton also challenged him about former Miss Universe (Trump used to run the Miss Universe pageants) Alicia Machado. Machado alleges Trump referred to her as “Miss Piggy” because he thought she was fat and “Miss Housekeeping” because she was Latina.

When Clinton talked about her, Trump wanted to know “where you got that” and then said “oh really” when Clinton said Machado would be voting come November. It was a bad moment for Trump that made him look not just dismissive of women, but also of Latino/a voters.

                                                                                                                              Alicia Machado

Clinton repeatedly called out Trump’s misogyny, but drove it home when she said, “This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs. And someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers. Who has said women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good of a job as men.”

“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs.” 

Trump interrupted and said that wasn’t true, but fact-checking proved once again, it was. What’s more, Clinton had addressed equal pay in her opening question and also family leave, which were issues never raised by Trump in the entire debate. Clinton also addressed Trump’s failure to pay employees, which Trump dismissed and Holt demanded Trump’s tax returns, which he also dismissed.

Among the final debate questions was one to Trump from Holt: What did Trump mean when he said a few weeks ago that Clinton “doesn’t look presidential”?

Trump tried to deflect but Holt held his ground. Trump said,”She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina. I said she doesn’t have the stamina. I don’t believe she does have the stamina.You have to be able to negotiate our trade deals. I don’t believe that Hillary has the stamina.”

Clinton disagreed, smiling, and noted that “As soon as he travels to 112 countries, or even spends 11 hours testifying before a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”

Trump responded that “Hillary has experience. But it’s bad experience.” He had previously referred to the vastly important Iran Deal which Clinton brokered as “dumb” and “bad.”

In the end, Trump tried hard to undercut and undermine Clinton and failed. He also failed to make a case for his own policy. For her part, Clinton dismissed Trump as a “crazy” racist and misogynist who had tried to de-legitimize the first black president, present all African Americans as “living in hell” and present all women as the sum of their physical parts–calling women “fat pigs, slobs and dogs.”

Trump said Clinton has a terrible temperament but there has never been any evidence of that. (Think about all the times she’s been asked about her emails and asked why she wasn’t likeable and how she’s always remained calm in response to what has to have been hurtful questions). Trump insisted that his temperament was his best asset (to titters from the audience who had been warned not to respond) – yet if the debate was any indicator, he simply cannot retain his cool for even a few minutes when challenged – not a trait one wants in a leader.

Will these factors sway voters? Hard to say. Those still inexplicably on the fence or even less understandably considering two even more unqualified candidates in Green Party’s Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson, should have seen a lopsided debate between a man who thinks bluster passes for leadership and an admittedly over-qualified woman whose knowledge of foreign and domestic policy is massive and whose plans to govern make sense for anyone who wants to see America move forward in a progressive and unifying manner.

As Clinton noted when Trump said she’d been off the campaign trail, “I think Trump just criticized me for preparing for this debate. You know what else I prepared for? Being president.”

 Yes. She. Did.

And it showed. There are two more presidential debates. Maybe Trump should prep next time, too.