First Of 3 Presidential Debates Had Lots Of Fireworks And Clashes

Sep 27, 2016
Originally published on September 27, 2016 11:33 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Atlanta in Georgia, one of the divided states from which we are observing this fall's presidential debates and also listening to voters. Last night, we listened to the candidates. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent 90 minutes on stage. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is in our studios after listening to all that. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: As you've seen a lot of debates over the years, how's this compare?

HORSLEY: One thing I have learned, Steve, is that I am a poor judge of how these debates play with the general public. And I think part of the reason for that is you and I and all of our journalistic colleagues, we spend a lot of time watching these candidates. It's hard for them to surprise us, but there are a whole lot of Americans who are only just now tuning in to this contest.

And then there are many who have been following it for a lot of - a long time but who haven't really had an opportunity like they had last night to see these two candidates side by side in a relatively unscripted environment. And I thought the debate moderator, Lester Holt, did a good job of setting out some boundaries, keeping the conversation moving, but for the most part, getting out of the way and letting these two candidates speak their piece.

INSKEEP: Helpful reminder there from NPR's Scott Horsley that even in this presidential election season, we're in the middle of an election that's received an incredible amount of attention from the earliest days. Even in this season, there are many people who are only now tuning in or they're tuning in in a more serious way than in the past. So let's listen to the candidates. We have a report now from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Last night in their first debate, Hillary Clinton tried to put Donald Trump on the defensive, and many times she succeeded.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HILLARY CLINTON: Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said back in 2006, gee, I hope it does collapse because then I can go in and buy some and make some money. Well, it did collapse.

DONALD TRUMP: That's called business, by the way.

LIASSON: Trump repeated the arguments - that he's made to great effect at his big rallies - the trade deals supported by Clinton had decimated the economy and that she's had 30 years in public life to fix the country's problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

LESTER HOLT: The next segment will continue on the subject of...

CLINTON: Well, at least I have plan to fight ISIS.

HOLT: ...Achieving prosperity.

TRUMP: No, no, you're telling the enemy everything you want to do.

CLINTON: No, we're not.

TRUMP: See, you're telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you've been fighting - no wonder you've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.

LIASSON: At that one, Clinton appealed to the fact-checkers to get to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

CLINTON: I have a feeling that by the end of this evening I'm going to be blamed for everything that's ever happened.

TRUMP: Why not?

CLINTON: Why not? Yeah, why not?

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: You know, just join the - join the debate by saying more crazy things. Now, let me say this...

TRUMP: There's nothing crazy...

CLINTON: ...It is absolutely the case.

TRUMP: ...About not letting our companies bring their money back into the country.

LIASSON: Trump was aggressive, but he also let himself be lured into some traps, including this discussion about his tax returns. Trump first said he'd release them after his IRS audit was completed. Then he said he'd release them if Clinton released the 33,000 emails she deleted.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

CLINTON: So you've got to ask yourself - why won't he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he's not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he's not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don't know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes because the only years that anybody has 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. So if he's paid...

TRUMP: That makes me smart.

LIASSON: That makes me smart, Trump said. Trump also acknowledged that he might not win the election, a stunning admission from someone whose whole persona is about winning. He said this while defending himself against Clinton's charges that he had refused to pay hundreds of small businesses that did work on his hotels and casinos.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

TRUMP: But what she doesn't say is the tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me. I'll give you an example. We're just opening up on Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the White House. So if I don't get there one way, I'm going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another.

LIASSON: Trump was talking about the new hotel he's opening in Washington, D.C.. Clinton came prepared to defend herself against Trump's barbs about her stamina. Here's an exchange in the section of the debate about race relations.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

TRUMP: You look at the inner cities, and I just left Detroit, and I just left Philadelphia and I just - you know, you've seen me. I've been all over the place. You decided to stay home, and that's OK. But I will tell you I've been all over and I've met some of the greatest people I'll ever meet within these communities. And they are very, very upset with what their politicians have told them and what their politicians have done.

HOLT: Mr. Trump...

CLINTON: I think - I think that - I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing.

(APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: When the debate turned to racial healing, Trump was asked by moderator Lester Holt about birtherism, the false accusation that President Obama was not born in the United States that launched Trump into the presidential race.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HOLT: The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You continued to tell the story and questioned the president's legitimacy in 2012, '13, '14, '15...

TRUMP: Yeah.

HOLT: ...As recently as January. So the question is what changed your mind?

TRUMP: Well, nobody was pressing it. Nobody was caring much about it. I figured you'd asked the question tonight of course, but nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate, and I think I did a good job. Secretary Clinton also fought it. I mean, you know, now everybody in mainstream's going to say, oh, that's not true. Look, it's true. Sidney Blumenthal sent the reporter. You just have to take a look at CNN the last week the interview with your former campaign manager, and she was involved. But just like she can't bring back jobs, she can't produce.

HOLT: I'm sorry. I'm just going to follow up and I will let you respond to that because there's a lot there, but we're talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans...

TRUMP: Well, it was very - I say nothing. I say nothing because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing.

LIASSON: The debate also covered temperament. Clinton has made this the centerpiece of her argument against Trump. He took the bait.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

TRUMP: I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know? I have a much better...

LIASSON: Trump got a laugh from the audience when he didn't mean to be funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

TRUMP: I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not know how to win...

HOLT: Secretary Clinton...

TRUMP: Wait - the AFL-CIO, the other day behind the blue screen - I don't know who you were talking to, Secretary Clinton, but you were totally out of control. I said there's a person with a temperament that's got a problem.

HOLT: Secretary Clinton.

CLINTON: Woo (ph) OK.

LIASSON: That could have been a little whoop of victory. By then, Clinton was smiling broadly and looked like she was satisfied she had accomplished what she came to do. Trump was the one that looked off balance. He gulped water and sniffed audibly throughout the debate. And if there were two Trumps, the insult comic stream of consciousness campaigner and the new more disciplined teleprompter Trump, at times last night, it looked like the two Trumps were at war with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

TRUMP: I was going to say something extremely...

HOLT: Please very quick...

TRUMP: ...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. But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue. They're untrue, and they're misrepresentations. And I will tell you this, Lester, it's not nice. And I don't - I don't deserve that.

LIASSON: I've spent nothing, Trump said proudly, pointing to new polls that showed the race tied. This debate may not have changed many minds, but Clinton managed to stay calm and on offense without looking aggressive, a trap for female candidates she was determined to avoid. Trump was unable to put Clinton on the defensive, even though he had a strong argument that at a time voters want change, he is the outsider and Clinton is the status quo. The next debate is on October 9 in St. Louis. Mara Liasson, NPR News at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Scott Horsley is still with us. Scott, beyond the fireworks we just listened to, did you come away with two different visions of the country?

HORSLEY: Oh, yes. These candidates presented very different visions of the country. And if Hillary Clinton is the status quo candidate, there was a fierce debate over just what that status quo is like. When Donald Trump looks out the window of his gilded airplane, he sees this dystopian nation of crime-ridden cities and failing factories and jobs being taken away by other countries. He paints the United States as sort of the skinny kid on the beach getting sand kicked in its face by the Chinese and Mexico and - and adversaries around the world.

Hillary Clinton paints a much brighter, although not perfect, picture of the country where crime is down, wages are on the way up, new jobs have been created, the United States has the capacity to provide security to allies around the globe. She says there are flaws, to be sure, things that we need to do to improve the economy, make it work better for everyone. But these are two very different visions that these candidates are presenting, and it'll be interesting to see which - which one voters side with.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Scott, they were both recycling some lines they'd used before, but I got the impression that perhaps Clinton's lines would feel fresher to many voters simply because Trump has been live on television so much more often.

HORSLEY: (Laughter) She did have the benefit of not having been on wall-to-wall cable coverage for the last nine months.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Scott, thanks very much, always a pleasure talking with you. And we'll be back with you in other parts of this program today.

HORSLEY: Look forward to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Our coverage of the presidential debate throughout this edition of MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.