Donald Trump dominated even a two-person debate — but that is not necessarily a good thing for him.
Hillary Clinton put him on defensive, often looking pleased with herself for bringing up his inheritance and an early ’70s discrimination lawsuit. Was she smug? Maybe. But while she grinned, he looked perturbed.
He was at his best in talking about trade, as he tried to tar Clinton with NAFTA, the massive trade agreement forged under her husband’s watch, and the Trans Pacific Partnership, which was negotiated when she was Secretary of State, yet she later opposed. But she deftly was able to move the conversation to other topics.
Here are the other moments that stood out on Monday night.
The birther issue. This may have been Trump’s weakest moment — the question of why he only recently declared that President Obama was born in the United States.
“When I got involved, I didn’t fail,” Trump said. “I got him to give the birth certificate.”
But moderator Lester Holt pressed him on why he continued to doubt Obama’s birth certificate was authentic, many years after the president released it. Instead, he blamed Clinton’s campaign for starting it, citing Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton family friend who was not a part of the campaign in 2008. The problem for him is that his means of shifting blame got too into the weeds — many viewers probably wonder just who Blumenthal is.
“It can’t be dismissed that easily,” Clinton said of Trump’s birther crusade. “He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie.”
Tax returns. Clinton also pressed Trump on not releasing his tax returns. She noted that the “only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.” Trump replied, “That makes me smart.”
Trump tried to turn the tables and press Clinton on the use of a private email server. She admitted that it was a “mistake.” “That was not a mistake. This country thinks it’s disgraceful.” But given that he strayed from the format on occasion, it is a surprise that he didn’t press the issue further.
Law and order. This debate showed two different views of where the country is — and Trump’s vision is dark. He frequently described urban areas as fraught with crime and lawlessness. He used the term “law and order” to describe his approach to policing, which includes support for stop and frisk policies. “African-American communities are being decimated by crime,” he said.
It actually was part of a discussion about race in America, as Clinton challenged him on the notion that stop and frisk policies were beneficial. Holt noted that a judge ruled it unconstitutional, even though Trump tried to dispute that point by saying that the judge was very anti-police.
ISIS. Trump mocked Clinton’s strategy for fighting ISIS, noting that she “tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don’t think Gen. Douglas MacArthur would like that too much.”
He also got into a bit of hyperbole. “No wonder you’ve been fighting ― ISIS your entire adult life.” But she criticized his “secret plan to fight ISIS” as no plan at all.
Temperament and stamina. Trump declared that he had “much better temperament” than Clinton. It drew laughs from the audience.
“I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not know how to win,” he said.
But the remark actually gave Clinton an opening to talk about statements that Trump has made about NATO and threats to blow Iranian military personnel “out of the water” if they taunt U.S. sailors. “That’s not good judgment,” she said.
After Holt had asked him why he had said that Clinton didn’t have the “look” to be president, Trump said that she didn’t have the “stamina.”
“As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a Congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she said.
Rosie O’Donnell. The most acrimonious part of the debate came near the end, when Clinton slammed Trump for calling a beauty pageant contestant “Miss Piggy.” Trump, however, complained of Clinton’s negative campaigning and in doing so, brought up Rosie O’Donnell.
“I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her,” he said. “But you want to know the truth. I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.’” He then complained that Clinton’s campaign had spent millions on negative ads about him and “it’s not nice, and I don’t deserve that.”
O’Donnell responded with a tweet: