5 takeaways from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s first debate

HEMPSTEAD, NY - SEPTEMBER 26: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (R) and Moderator Lester Holt (C) listen during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. The first of four debates for the 2016 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by NBC's Lester Holt. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Round one between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is in the books.

The two presidential candidates held the first of their three planned debates on Monday night, an event that was expected to be one of the most-watched in presidential history. Moderator Lester Holt left most of the speaking to the candidates, so viewers got a good look at where they stand on free trade, taxes, race relations, temperament, and other major topics.

Here are five takeaways from the debate, including the candidates’ arguments over “law and order,” Trump’s surprisingly light attacks on Clinton’s private email investigation, and the debate’s (comparative) civility.


Clinton hammered Trump on the birther conspiracy and his unreleased tax returns.

Clinton put Trump on the defensive with criticisms of his promotion of the false claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and his refusal to produce his tax returns.

“He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” Clinton said. “There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted.”

She also said that Trump was sued by the Justice Department back in 1973 for discriminating against blacks who tried to rent from an apartment complex owned by his real estate company.

“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior,” she said, “and the birther lie was a very hurtful one.”

Trump, for his part, tried to blame Clinton for starting the birther conspiracy, and he claimed success for getting Obama to produce his birth certificate.

“I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate,” he said. “I think I did a great job and a great service, not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate.”


Similarly, Clinton speculated about why Trump has refused to release his tax returns, breaking with a 40-year tradition of transparency among presidential candidates.

Perhaps, she suggested, he wouldn’t release them because the returns showed that he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

But rather than deny that speculation, Trump seemed to agree with it in a short interjection.

“That makes me smart,” he said.

Trump went light on Clinton’s email saga.

While Clinton pushed to talk about Trump’s tax returns and the birther conspiracy, Trump talked very little about the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State. When asked by Holt about the use of the server, Clinton said flatly that it was a “mistake.”

“I’m not going to make any excuses,” she said. “It was a mistake and I take responsibility for that.”

Trump responded with a short criticism, saying it was “more than a mistake” and was “done purposely.”

But he then returned to talking about his tax returns and his business experience, leaving Clinton’s email issue—a potential weak spot for her—alone for the rest of the night.

Clinton laughed, while Trump interjected.

When hit with a criticism or perceived falsehood, the two candidates had starkly different reactions. Clinton repeatedly smiled widely and laughed toward the audience when Trump said something she disagreed with.

At one point, Trump said that his “strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.”

When Holt turned to Clinton for a response, she paused and exhaled, looking toward the audience. “Whew! OK,” she said, before starting into a rebuttal.


Trump, on the other hand, used a more verbal strategy by interrupting and cutting off Clinton to make short points and show his disagreement.

He repeatedly interjected into her statements with a “wrong” or “lie,” such as when Clinton referred to his statements in favor of the Iraq War in 2002.

Trump called to bring back stop and frisk, law and order.

In one segment of the debate, Holt asked both candidates how they would “heal the divide” of race relations. Trump said he would restore “law and order” and painted a dramatic picture of dangerous and hellish cities.

“We have a situation where we have our inner cities—African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot,” Trump said.

To solve that issue, Trump said he would bring back the “stop and frisk” policy used in New York City.

Holt asked how he would do that given that stop and frisk was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 for singling out African-American and Hispanic men. Trump then falsely denied that it was ruled unconstitutional, and said it would have been overturned if it had been appealed.

“The argument is that we have to take the guns away from these people that have them and are bad people and shouldn’t have them,” Trump said. “These are felons.”

The two candidates passed a minimum level of civility

They shook hands. They smiled. Trump referred to Clinton by her title, “Secretary Clinton.” They agreed on a few issues, such as the need for better police-community relations and that those on the no-fly list should not have access to guns.

“Donald, it’s good to be with you,” Clinton said to start the debate.

Compared to the many vicious attacks in the primary season, the two candidates were relatively civil during the debate. Trump did not use the harsh tactics of the Republican primary, such as when he mocked Ted Cruz’s wife or name-called “Little Marco” or “Low-energy Jeb.”

In fact, Trump did not once refer to Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” his oft-repeated nickname for her. And he did not, as he had previously suggested he might, bring up President Bill Clinton’s past marital issues or misconduct.

“I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it,’” Trump said toward the end of the debate. “I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate. It’s not nice.”

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