This first presidential debate may turn out to be the be-all-and-end-all of this campaign, but lost in the breathless anticipation is that it’s also unique:
Hillary Clinton, the first female major party presidential nominee on the general election debate stage, will face Donald Trump, seeking to be the first person elected to the White House with no record of government service — an asset in the minds of many of his supporters.
What’s unpredictable is that despite the endless hours of speculation and written words of advice and analysis, no one really knows how the dynamic between these two very different contenders will play out on screen.
The idea that Trump will be as bombastic as he is at his rallies, or Clinton as studious as she has been at many points in the campaign, seems too simplistic a way to characterize this first match-up. The stakes are high, but there’s no guarantee that this is a decisive moment. As much as this debate may change the nature of this race, tilting it one way or another, there’s also the possibility of a draw. If so, within a day, attention will start to focus on the next Clinton-Trump debate on Oct. 9.
So follow along with our live blog, which we’ll be updating with all the biggest moments below.
8:59 pm ET: In the audience. Among the guests in the audience are Harvey Weinstein, Mark Cuban and CAA’s Michael Kives (guests of Clinton) and Don King, Bobby Knight and Sheldon Adelson (guests of Trump).
9:06 pm ET: Jobs question. Clinton, answering an easy question on what jobs she would create, says, “Donald, it’s good to be with you.” It sets a respectful tone and she gives an upbeat answer. “I want to invest in you. I want to invest in your future,” she says.
Trump takes a more negative view of the employment situation, but he is otherwise respectful in his first answer. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us. We have to stop companies from leaving the United States.”
9:13 pm ET: The bait. Clinton already tries to bait Trump about how he obtained his wealth — from his father — but he insists that his father gave him a “very small loan.”
9:16 pm ET: Some irritation. Clinton gets in another dig at Trump. “Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing collapse.” “That’s called business, by the way,” he responds. Then she says that he called climate change a “hoax.” “I did not say that,” he says.
9:21 pm ET: The meme. Trump’s sniffles.
9:22 pm ET: Trade. Trump is trying to lay the blame for NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership on Clinton. It starts an exchange between the candidates that seems to have irked Trump. She smiles as he berates her and says, “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
9:25 pm ET. Where is the moderator? Holt has stayed out of this exchange, in part because the rules were looser this year than they were in past cycles.
Somehow, the exchange gets so acrimonious that the segment drifts over into foreign policy when Trump chides Clinton for fighting ISIS, just after having asked viewers to go to her website. “No wonder you have been fighting ISIS your entire life,” he says in a moment of hyperbole. “At least I have a plan to fight ISIS,” she responds. Then she adds, “Fact check!”
Clinton is basically laughing off Trump’s outbursts. “Join the debate by saying more crazy things,” she says.
9:28 pm ET: Clinton to Trump. “I have a feeling that I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” It sums up how she’s been responding when Trump goes off on her.
9:36 pm ET: Trump’s taxes. Clinton is pressing on the issue of Trump not releasing his tax returns. “There’s something that he’s hiding. We’ll be guessing what he’s hiding,” she says.
Trump turns the tables by bringing up Clinton’s use of a private email server. She admits that it was a “mistake,” and he interjects, “That’s for sure.”
On his taxes, Trump says, “You don’t learn a lot from tax returns.” He adds that he is “extremely underleveraged.” But he still says he cannot release the returns as he is under audit.
9:40 pm ET: It’s about Trump. Clinton seizes on an opening to talk about Trump’s business acumen.
“If your main claim to be president is your business, then I think we should talk about that,” Clinton says. Then she cites people who he’s “stiffed.”
“You have taken bankruptcy six times. There are a lot of great business people who have never declared bankruptcy once,” she says.
Trump says he’s built “an unbelievable company,” but he acknowledges on “certain occasions” he’s taken advantage of the laws four times, referring to bankruptcy. He actually is given a significant moment to defend the way he has run his business, blaming his refusal to pay clients on shoddy work. He says that it’s the hard-edged mentality needed in the federal government.
9:46 pm ET. Law and order. Trump has been sprinkling in references to Clinton’s long career in politics — to peg her as a creature of an old Washington establishment. But on race relations, he says the country needs to go back to “law and order,” a phrase that hearkens to Richard Nixon’s use of the term in his successful 1968 campaign.
He says that “you need better relationships between the community and the police,” but he’s also for stop and frisk. Holt notes that it has been ruled unconstitutional, even though Trump disputes that.
Clinton says that Trump is characterizing a “dire, negative picture” of black communities.
“I think I have developed very very good relationships over the last little while with African Americans,” she said.
9:55 pm ET: I agree. Trump says that “we have to look very strongly” at access to guns for those on the no-fly and no-watch lists — in line with what Clinton supports. But he also notes that he has the support of the NRA, even though they have helped block recent legislation.
10 pm ET: Birther question. Holt presses Trump on why he continued to question Obama’s birth certificate even after he produced. “I was the only who got him to produce a birth certificate and I think it was a good job,” Trump says. He says that he didn’t come out and acknowledge until recently that Obama was born in the United States because no one pressed it. (Actually, reporters have been pressing it for months.)
Trump tries to pin the blame on the birther question on a Clinton friend, Sidney Blumenthal, in 2008, even though he was not an official part of the campaign that year.
Clinton says that Trump “really started his political activity on this racist lie that our first black president was not born in this country.”
She also cites a lawsuit in the early ’70s against Trump and his father, Fred, over the refusal to rent properties to African Americans. The lawsuit was settled.
10:10 pm ET: Another Clinton prepared line. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate… You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”
10:15 pm ET: Iraq invasion. Clinton makes another call for fact-checking when she says that Trump actually supported the invasion (the evidence shows he did) even as he says, “Wrong.” Matt Lauer took a lot of criticism for not calling Trump on this at the Commander in Chief Forum, so it’s interesting that Clinton called him on it before Holt did.
“I did not support the war in Iraq — that is mainstream media nonsense, put out by her,” he says. He says that he told Sean Hannity that he was against the war. “No one calls Sean Hannity,” he says.
But he then cites a magazine interview — presumably in Esquire — but it was from 2004. The war started in 2003.
“I have much better judgment that she has, there is no doubt about that. I also have much better temperament,” he says. That gets some laughs, presumably from Clinton supporters in the audience.
10:24 pm ET: Temperament. Clinton jumps on Trump’s comment about temperament to cite his comments about NATO and his “cavalier attitude” toward nuclear weapons.
“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not be anywhere near the nuclear codes,” she says, repeating a line from her Democratic National Convention speech. Trump says the comment is getting “old” but she responds, “It’s a good one.”
10:30 pm ET: Another Clinton prepared remark. “It’s like what he says about ISIS. He says it is a secret plan, but the only secret is that there is no plan.”
10:34 pm ET: U.S. role in the world. Trump says, “we cannot be the policeman of the world,” responding to her criticism that he wants to back out of commitments to allies.
10:35 pm ET: Stamina. Trump repeats the word “stamina” in describing Clinton’s abilities.
“When Donald Trump spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she responds.
“She’s got experience, but it is bad experience,” he says.
The debate gets particularly acrimonious as Clinton slams Trump’s rhetoric about women. Trump responds by noting the huge sums Clinton spent on negative attack ads yet polls show him even or ahead.
10:39 pm ET: Support the winner? Clinton says that she respects democracy. Trump says that if Hillary Clinton wins, “I will absolutely support her.”
This was a much more acrimonious general election debate than the norm. As commentators pointed out, Clinton called him a “racist” and he called her a “political hack.” But part of that is also a function of the looser rules of this debate and the reluctance of Holt to step in an referee.