Tale of the Tape: Trump and Clinton Drop Gentility for Hostility

  • Debate brings out fights over taxes, trade, Obama’s birthplace
  • Candidates in near dead-heat in polls weeks before election

The First 2016 Presidential Debate in 3 Minutes

So much for a subdued Donald Trump. So much for Hillary Clinton staying above the fray.

The first presidential debate of 2016 saw both candidates go on attack from the start, with gentility giving way to hostility within moments before what could be the largest TV audience for a debate ever.

Clinton said Trump didn’t pay his taxes, stiffed his workers and promoted racist theories of President Barack Obama’s birth. Trump said Clinton was a typical feckless politician who paved the way for the growth of Islamic State, abandoned the black community, led the nation toward fiscal ruin and lacks the stamina to be president.

The confrontation came at a pivotal point in the campaign, with polls showing the candidates virtually deadlocked six weeks before Election Day. In a Bloomberg Politics national poll released Monday, each drew 46 percent of likely voters in a head-to-head contest, while Republican Trump gets 43 percent to Democrat Clinton’s 41 percent when third-party candidates are included.

Both candidates are battling negative perceptions that have depressed voter enthusiasm, even as the tumultuous campaign draws intense interest. Persistent questions over Clinton’s trustworthiness have dogged her campaign, while Trump’s bombast and often casual relationship with the truth have raised questions about his qualifications for the nation’s highest office.

But Monday night’s debate was likely to reinforce what supporters like about the candidates. Clinton seemed unflappable, both better-prepared and able to needle Trump. For the Republican nominee, his unvarnished performance provided the outsider contrast likely to rally his base.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

‘Birther’ Debate

Trump faced tough questions about his longtime refusal to accept that Obama was born in Hawaii, and declared during the debate that he wouldn’t apologize.

The issue exploded back into the headlines after Trump admitted last week that Obama was born in the U.S., a reversal after years of attempting to discredit the nation’s first black president on the issue.

Trump said he had "nothing" to say to those upset over the campaign because Obama "should have produced” his birth certificate “a long time before." The president did so in April, 2011.

Trump also repeated his false accusations that Clinton started the “birther” controversy during the 2008 campaign. Undaunted, Trump said he "did a good job" on the issue, prompting Clinton to reply that the attacks shouldn’t be "dismissed that easily."

"He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie," Clinton said, calling the insinuations "very hurtful."

Patti Solis Doyle, a Clinton campaign staffer in 2008 also referred to by Trump, said on Twitter that neither Clinton "nor her campaign started the birther conspiracy or trafficked in it. Period."

Trump also accused Clinton of pandering to black audiences, saying she had done little to help them during her decades in power.

Clinton used that opening to pivot into an attack, noting Trump’s business had twice been sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination against potential tenants. According to court documents, employees secretly marked the applications of minorities with codes.

Trump said "many" people were sued in the cases and that he wasn’t required to admit fault in his settlement agreement with the federal government.

Taxes, Trade

An economic discussion in the opening minutes led to a fiery exchange between the candidates, including a shouting match over trade deals, taxes -- and, somehow, when Islamic State was founded.

Clinton sought to bait Trump early, needling him over millions in loans he received from his father to launch his real estate and casino empire. Trump bit, dismissing the gifts as "a very small loan."

Clinton: Trump's Plan Is Trumped-Up Trickle-Down

That gave way to an angry exchange over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump noted was signed under President Bill Clinton. The Republican dismissed it as “the worst trade deal signed, maybe anywhere.”

He also launched a blistering attack on the Democratic nominee over the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, accusing Clinton of changing her position on the trade deal after seeing that Trump’s opposition was gaining traction. He also attempted to force Clinton to denounce Obama, who supports the deal.

Trump: NAFTA Agreement Is Defective

"Donald I know you live in your reality, but that is not the facts," Clinton said, drawing chuckles in the debate auditorium. She also referred skeptics to her website to read her economic plan.

That prompted Trump to shout that Clinton also revealed her plan to fight Islamic State, also known as ISIS, on her website, in a way that would disadvantage U.S. interests.

“No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life," Trump said. In fact, the terrorist group was founded in 1999.

Trump to Clinton: You're Telling the Enemy Everything

“By the end of the evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that has ever happened,” Clinton retorted.

E-Mails, Tax Returns

Trump wants to make a deal on releasing his tax returns.

The Republican nominee, who has repeatedly refused to hand them over, said he’s willing to make them public if Clinton releases thousands of deleted e-mails from her private server.

Clinton dismissed the offer as "another example of bait-and-switch," while acknowledging she had made a "mistake" by relying on the private e-mail system.

Trump: I Will Release Taxes When Clinton Releases Emails

After a year-long federal investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said in July that Clinton and her top aides were "extremely careless" in handling classified information but there wasn’t sufficient evidence of intentional wrongdoing to prosecute them. While the Justice Department closed the case, Trump said in the debate that it was “disgraceful” that some of Clinton’s aides “took the Fifth so they’re not prosecuted.”

But Clinton was able to land blows over the tax returns, suggesting Trump is hiding the documents because he isn’t as wealthy as he claims, not as charitable as he claims, or isn’t paying taxes.

Trump’s campaign has said that he’s “provided millions of dollars” to his own foundation and to other charitable causes. But tax records suggest he hasn’t donated to his foundation since 2008, and reports by the Washington Post have questioned his use of the foundation to settle lawsuits against his company, contribute to a political committee and buy a $10,000 portrait of himself at a charity auction.

Clinton on Trump's Taxes: There's Something He's Hiding

Trump said his taxes wouldn’t have been used well by the government.

"It would be squandered too, believe me," he said.

Race and Criminal Justice

A discussion of criminal justice drew a sharp exchange, with Trump describing increased crime rates in black neighborhoods and calling for "law-and-order" and an expansion of stop-and-frisk policing.

Clinton said it’s "unfortunate" Trump painted "a dire, negative picture of black communities" and said he needs to present a plan for repairing race relations. Clinton said she wants to do more to keep people from going to jail in the first place, such as diversion programs and an end to some mandatory sentences that require jail time. 

The number of violent crimes in the U.S. increased 3.9 percent in 2015 from a year earlier, driven by a 10.8 percent jump in murders and non-negligent manslaughter, according to annual crime statistics released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday. Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted that 2015 "still represented the third-lowest year for violent crime in the past two decades."

While credited by many for reducing crime, New York’s stop-and-frisk program was ended by current Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, who said the frequent stops of minority youths caused a loss of trust in black and Hispanic communities.

Trump defended the policy, saying the effort was "to take the guns away" from criminals rather than target minorities. He also disputed the policy was unconstitutional, as was ruled by a U.S. district judge.

Trump made a veiled reference to Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia, saying that, unlike Clinton, he had visited black communities in Philadelphia and Michigan.

"You decided to stay home, and that’s OK," Trump said.

Clinton fired back by questioning Trump’s readiness.

"I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate," she said. "And you know what else: I’m prepared to be president."

Hacking, Putin and Allies

Trump and Clinton clashed repeatedly over foreign policy conflicts such as who to blame for hacking attacks in the U.S. -- Clinton pointed the finger at Russia -- and the U.S. commitment to international alliances.

Clinton blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government for a breach of the Democratic National Committee, exposed after WikiLeaks published about 20,000 private e-mails just before the Democratic convention in July.

“We are not going to sit idly by and let state actors go after our information,” Clinton said.

Trump responded by saying he doesn’t know whether Russia hacked the DNC but that voters learned a lot from the e-mails. In an interview with Bloomberg his month, Putin denied that Russia was behind the hacking while describing the release of documents as a public service.

On U.S. alliances abroad, Trump said the U.S. can’t afford to support other countries unless they pay their “fair share.” He criticized U.S. military support for countries such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, which he says are wealthy enough to pay more for their defense.

"I want to help all of our allies,” Trump said. “We are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policeman of the world.”

Clinton warned that Trump’s policies would unwind key alliances. She vowed that when she’s president America will continue to meet its commitments under mutual defense agreements and reassured U.S. allies that "our word is good."

She also sought to raise questions about Trump’s temperament and the dangers of him having the nuclear codes. That was a reference to Trump’s comment on the possibility of nuclear war between Japan and North Korea, about which he had said, “It would be terrible thing, but if they do, they do."

Clinton’s ‘Stamina’

The closing minutes of the debate saw some of the fiercest mudslinging, with Trump repeatedly saying he didn’t believe Clinton had "the stamina" to be president.

"She doesn’t have the look," Trump said. "She doesn’t have the stamina."

Clinton fired back, noting her experience as secretary of state and her testimony before a congressional committee about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

"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 across the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying before a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina," she retorted.

Trump: Clinton Doesn't Have Stamina for President

Clinton also exploited the exchange to bring up Trump’s prior statements about women, noting he had called a Latina participant in a beauty pageant "Miss Piggy" and then "Miss Housekeeping."

"She has become a U.S. citizen, you can bet she’s going to vote," Clinton said.

Trump again took the bait, offering a meandering defense referring to TV personality Rosie O’Donnell -- a frequent Trump foe -- and insinuating he could have made "nasty" comments about the Clinton family, but chose not to. He closed by criticizing Clinton for spending heavily on attack ads in swing states.

"It’s certainly not a nice thing," Trump said.

For all of the barbs and bile, both candidates said at the end that they would respect the outcome of the election, although Trump had to be pinned down on that by moderator Lester Holt.

"If she wins,” Trump said, “I will absolutely support her.”

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