The First Presidential Debate: Of Deleted Tweets and Being Blamed for Everything That’s Ever Happened

Last night Hillary Clinton debated Donald Trump in the first of three planned presidential debates. Hosted by Lester Holt at Hofstra University, debate questions ranged from economic prosperity to race relations to whether Trump is familiar with what the internet is (he is not, seemingly choosing to instead refer to it as “cyber”). You can read an annotated WaPo transcript, and a truly sobering fact-check at NPR.

Many are calling this debate for Hillary; CNN’s poll said that “Hillary Clinton was deemed the winner of Monday night’s debate by 62% of voters who tuned in to watch, while just 27% said they thought Donald Trump had the better night.” It seems Trump himself likely believes he lost, given that this morning he’s claiming he was given a defective mike. Clinton’s strategy, one that many women have had to rely on when dealing with powerful men who use anger and insults to try to control a narrative, was to remain calm and sometimes wryly dismissive, to repeat the facts and to indulge his tantrums with the air of an adult dealing with a small child. The tactic of making eye contact with the audience like they were other patrons at a grocery store, sharing a rueful shrug about the toddler having a meltdown in the aisle, acknowledging that we’re all in this together.

And Trump had plenty of meltdowns! As well, of course, as many rude interruptions and blatant lies. In one of the most chilling moments of the debate, moderator Lester Holt brought up Trump’s recent, bizarre proposal to make stop-and-frisk official policy (either in the city of Chicago or nationwide, he’s waffled). Holt brought up that stop-and-frisk has already been ruled unconstitutional; Trump fully told him “No, you’re wrong,” which is pretty incredible even for someone who lies and gaslights like a shark that can’t stop swimming or it will die. It may not be a moment that matters much to Trump supporters; many likely agree with him that stop-and-frisk is a great idea, even though precedent in NY shows that crime actually dropped when it was ended, and they likely also agree with his take that what really happened was “It went before a judge who was a very against police judge.” It is instructive, though, at least for me, in terms of how unconcerned Trump is with adhering to the faintest resemblance of reality, to deny that a decisive public legal ruling that has very recently taken place is even real.

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In many ways Hillary’s actual policy proposals were overshadowed by the question of whether she could navigate Trump’s outbursts effectively, but there are two moments I wanted to talk about. When Trump tried to redirect questions about his tax returns onto the subject of Hillary’s emails, she responded:

“You know, I made my mistake using a private e-mail. And if I had to do it over again I would obviously do it differently. But I’m not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake and I take responsibility for that.”

The written transcript unfortunately obscures what was a really crucial moment in the live debate; after Clinton said this, Trump was silent for a beat, looking visibly confused. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was because the idea that anyone, ever, might respond to something by taking responsibility for it and apologizing, and he had no response ready for it. He’s so used to constant, unyielding denial that it never occurred to him that there are other tacks. For this reason, it was a brilliant response; the party line Trump has been feeding himself and his supporters is that Hillary is committed to lies and coverup and that her emails are at the center of it, and treating it as a matter for a small, simple moment of accountability makes that narrative more difficult to push.

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Another moment that felt major in terms of Clinton’s policy was her answer to Holt’s question about race and policing. She acknowledged that race “determines how people are treated in the criminal justice system,” and that there have been “tragic examples” in Tulsa and Charlotte; that “I’ve laid out a platform that I think would begin to remedy some of the problems we have in the criminal justice system.” However, she also spent a significant portion of her answer reminding viewers of the “so many good brave police officers,” and redirected the question to suggest that the real issue is “the plague of gun violence which is a big contributor to a lot of the problems that we are seeing today.”

Although Clinton referred to Tulsa and Charlotte, she seemingly couldn’t say the names of Terence Crutcher or Keith Scott, the two men who were killed in those respective cities, or any other people lost to police violence; she didn’t say they were unarmed and killed by police, avoiding specific language naming the problem of extrajudicial police killings and instead calling it “treatment by the criminal justice system” or “problems we have in the criminal justice system.” Her answer suggests to viewers — again, many of whom may not be informed on these topics and many of whom were watching a debate for the first time — that the real issue, and the one she intends to solve, is that of tense interpersonal relationships, not the death of Black people at the hands of police. For someone who has campaigned with the Mothers of the Movement, it’s a shockingly toothless response. Of course, it’s less dangerous than Trump’s response to the same question, which was that “we need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country,” and bragging that he has endorsements from “I think almost every police group,” but it’s an example of how Trump’s unbelievably dangerous beliefs have allowed a great deal of room for Clinton’s policies to drift rightwards from where they seemed to be four months ago. There are seemingly endless ways that Trump’s candidacy is dangerous, and one of them is that he sets the bar so low there is little incentive for other politicians to try to clear it by very much.

In doing so, Hillary managed to bring up several of Trump’s biggest lies and inconsistencies, ones that will hopefully matter to his base — the fact that rather than being “self-made,” he got started with a $14 million loan from his father; that he celebrated the housing crisis that gutted many Americans as a business opportunity; the fact that he claimed climate change was a Chinese conspiracy to economically weaken America (a tweet of his from 2012 which was later deleted). Trump, of course, disputed all of these things, but it means something to have them said out loud — for many Americans, this is the first debate they’ve watched, and given our deeply polarized (and often unreliable) media climate, it may genuinely be the first time they’ve heard anyone say them. Hillary was careful not to directly accuse Trump of lying about his wealth; she said that he still hadn’t released his tax returns, and that it’s possible it’s because he’s “not as rich as he says he is,” “not as charitable as he says he is,” or “maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” In another of the moves that would be a game-ender for anyone else but is just another day in the life for Trump, he responded with “That makes me smart,” seemingly bragging about tax evasion on live national television. It’s possible, or we can at least hope, that that’s a self-interested enough move to turn off at least a few former Trump voters, or to definitively lose some undecided voters.

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In many ways, that’s the big question of the night. Trump behaved very poorly, yelling, cutting off the moderator, interrupted his opponent 51 times, and more. Is that enough to sway undecided voters? It’s not clear, in part because it’s not clear in this election who is undecided, or what they’re waiting on to make a decision. Are the “undecideds” people who truly think Trump and Clinton are equally un/appealing? Are they the people who haven’t decided whether they’re going to vote at all, whether their vote counts? Are they the people who want a different candidate — Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders — and who could potentially be courted to the Dem or GOP camp? It’s probably all of the above, in some capacity, and they likely all want to hear something different. CNN’s poll found that “independents who watched deemed Clinton the winner, 54% vs. 33% who thought Trump did the best job in the debate.” The truth is that the majority of people watching this are dead set against being swayed by anything; they’ve already chosen what they believe and what the facts are. But for anyone who is still looking to make up their mind, they can watch two more of these on October 9th and October 19th — if Trump shows up, that is.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1073 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. The China tweet was not deleted, it remains in its unaltered glory.

    I tried to explain to the two old white guys I eat lunch with every day how Hillary getting constantly interrupted is a thing all women experience and they were BAFFLED. I don’t think either of them believed me. (Neither of them actually watched the debate or have seen clips).

    • I was just talking about it yesterday!
      It is incredibly hard to keep your train of thought while someone else is constantly interrupting you.

      It’s like talking to a child that’s throwing a tantrum…

  2. Thanks for your analysis, Rachel! I too was struck by the difference between Hillary’s voluntary admission that she made a mistake with the emails, taking full responsibility for her actions, and Trump’s repeated insistence of “wrong, wrong, wrong” every time he was called out for any of his mistakes. The former is the action of a responsible, professional adult, and the latter is the response of an entitled, whiny toddler. Regardless of WHAT the various scandals are, their differing reactions to the revelation of those scandals offers the most glaring proof that one of them is fit to be President, and the other is not.

    In one of the upcoming debates, I would really love to see a moderator ask the candidates what they believe to be their greatest flaw as a presidential candidate, and what is their biggest regret of their professional careers. It’s a typical question that people get asked a job interviews all the time. And I have no idea what Trump would say.

  3. I would be concerned about the negotiating down national debt comment.

    National debt is equal to the assets held by the public, dollar for dollar. Words like “negotiate it down” are code for justifying raising taxes or reducing spending on social programs.

    The words national and debt together always baffles brains in a fiat money monetary system.

  4. rudy said that trump shouldn’t participate in anymore debates until they have a moderator who isn’t an ignorant, incorrect fact checker. i’m truly curious to see how trump will wriggle his way out of the next debates.

  5. Thanks for the recap! I have to say, my favorite part of the debate was watching Hillary’s body language; she is a master of adding a millisecond of time to an eye blink while looking into the middle distance to express her disdain, and I think the way that she just smiled her way through some of Trump’s more ridiculous statements as if she were indulging a petulant child was incredibly effective. Also, she managed to not roll her eyes even once, which must have been incredibly difficult, and which Donald Trump simply failed at. It would be a fun project to watch the next debate on mute and analyze it solely based on body language – maybe I will, since the actual content of the debates has no bearing on my vote!

  6. I got a lot of good knitting in while this was on.
    The most baffling thing to me was that Trump wants to end NATO, and yet doesn’t seem to understand how/why our international system was set up post-WWII/why NATO exists in the first damn place. Yeah, we have military bases in other countries because we are ALSO THERE TO PROTECT THE UNITED STATES, carry out our missions to combat terrorism, etc., not just protect other countries “for free” or w/e. Japan has NO MILITARY thanks to the Constitution WE DREW UP FOR THEM after WWII. I’m sure other countries see our military bases as an annoyance/invasion/etc. more than “oh cool we get free defense $ out of this.” I mean we have so many military bases in places we colonized!!!
    What was my point here? …Trump doesn’t know a goddamn thing about foreign policy and that scares me the most. I do have to agree that NAFTA is horrible, but I think it was a worse deal for other countries-from the articles I read when I took economics.
    Any other foreign policy peeps out there want to share their thoughts?

    • I’m glad that someone brought up the whole NATO / US military bases abroad thing. I agree that his comments showcased his lack of understanding about the history behind why the US has military bases where it does and maintains the mutual defense agreements that it is party to.

      It was especially weird for me to hear Trump highlight the military bases in Japan, since (as you suggested) some commentators in Japan and abroad argue that Japan hasn’t regained true sovereignty post-WWII due to its arrangements with the United States. I see value in closing/consolidating at least some of the US military bases (especially Futenma), so it was unsettling to see Trump propose something similar but for a different, short-sighted reason.

  7. “which is pretty incredible even for someone who lies and gaslights like a shark that can’t stop swimming or it will die. ”

    This imagery is brilliant Rachel. And now I have this image stuck in my brain forever!

  8. Last night I was watching the debate live via YouTube and more than 1 million people were watching at the same time. Well, less than one our later and his “That makes me smart” about not paying enough taxes, we had this:

  9. me and my coworkers wrote a beautiful poem today, hope u enjoy:

    There was a debate on TV
    Between Donald and Hillary
    Trump’s team was deleting
    The things he’s been tweeting
    Because he’s a lying ignorant bigot (tree)

  10. I am pretty sure he’s the only President candidate to insult a celebrity during a presidential debate. Hell, I don’t even think Regan an actual b-list actor insulted a celebrity as he had more class than that. Seriously, Donald, serious talk, why are you dwelling on past beefs(specially one you lost)? It’s amazing how to this day Rosie O’Donnell has affect him. The power of lgbtq women!

  11. This debate was one for the ages. Hillary played him like a fiddle. All she had to do was sit back and wait for Trump to be Trump. It was going to happen, eventually. We all knew it would and we weren’t disappointed.

    She didn’t take his bait while he was interrupting her and just continued to finish her answers the way a mother ignores a toddler during a mind melting temper tantrum.

    A commenter on HuffPo (Trump supporter) complained that Hillary was all smug. I replied, “What you call smug, I call poise.”

  12. I don’t want to support Hillary, but damn he just has no discernible talent as a businessman, a leader or a politician. He is the most arrogant SOB America has ever seen. He is so arrogant, he believes he can run the country. Honestly he would have had a better chance if he had run for mayor of NYC. But no, when a black man becomes president, all bets are off. His racist attitude is such that he has to save America from a Black man and a woman. Cause only a white a guy like him can make America great again.

  13. As someone from a ‘third-world’ country, Trump never ceased to entertain but the possibility of him elected as the next POTUS is both horrifying and terrifying..

    Horrifying because if he wins, that means what he preach and believe has the support of the majority of the people of the US. And that negates all the good-will the US has build in the global stage, except maybe for Putin and Russia. Terrifying because he will definitely start WW III, knowingly or unknowingly, in the form of physical war (with bombs, nukes and real human casualties) or cyber-war (with cyber-espionage and sabotage).

  14. I’m a bit surprised that no one has started comparing Trump with the new President of the Phillipines.

    I suppose he’s more like a jumped up gang leader but still they’re both full blown psychopaths. Neither of them with any polish. Goddess help us all!

  15. I don’t know…

    I’m from Europe but I work for a company based in the US and let me tell you… it’s getting harder and harder to explain to the people around me how Trump is not indicative of the entire US population.

    He just manages to confirm every stereotype Europeans have of US citizens. I remember when Obama first got elected, everyone here was so impressed and proud, he really managed to make a difference in our eyes (especially after the Bush fiasco, people here thought all US people are the Texas cowboy type…) and now there’s Trump… and we’re back to square one.

    I keep making the parallel between countries in the EU with states in the US, just because we’re all together it doesn’t mean we’re the same, granted, we have more autonomy as countries and our culture is significantly different. But still… you can’t compare California with Kansas, the same way you can’t compare Bulgaria with Switzerland.

    • I’d hope your friends aren’t as short-sighted as “those Americans” who judge everyone in another country ignorantly. Putin may rule Russia, but I certainly don’t think poorly of all Russians. That would be exceptionally immature.

  16. Instead of watching the debate, I recommend that people read the transcript of it first. You won’t get visually distracted and you will notice a lot more of Trump’s flaws. The guy reminded me of that one kid in English class who never read the assigned book and tried to bullshit the essay. He rarely gave the answer to the questions that were asked and the things he did say were mainly sentences that served as fluff for an argument. I give him an F for being arrogant enough to believe he didn’t need to prepare for the debate. Donald Trump spare a few brain cells and stop tanning. Maybe you would be percieved as “normal” instead of an extremely stupid version of Adolf. Debates really grind my gears because I didn’t think he would get this far.

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