Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walk away from their podiums at the conclusion of their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. on Sept. 26, 2016.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Pool/Reuters

Debate shows Donald Trump still isn’t ready for prime time

Shortly before the first presidential debate of 2016 got underway, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent Donald Trump ally, insisted that the Republican candidate would “pass the test of being adequately competent” during the showdown with Hillary Clinton. The message drew swift mockery for setting the bar for Trump success at such a woefully low level.

But by the time the dust settled on the debate, Gingrich’s prediction looked even worse – because Trump didn’t come close to demonstrating “adequate competence.”

After the event, Trump told reporters that debate organizers gave him “a defective mic.” He quickly added, “I wonder, was that on purpose? Was that on purpose?” Of course, there was no conspiracy involving Trump’s microphone, though all things considered, the GOP nominee might have been better off if his mic hadn’t worked and the audience didn’t hear what he had to say.

When Trump needed to be honest, he lied. When he needed to be poised, he came unglued. When he needed to appear knowledgeable, he rambled incoherently. When he needed to prove that he’d prepared for the debate, he made clear he hadn’t done his homework.

When Trump needed to change the trajectory of the presidential race, he offered fresh proof that he’s just not ready for prime time.

At one point, towards the end, Trump pointed at Hillary Clinton and proudly declared, “I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?” The audience laughed, which wouldn’t have been especially notable, except for the fact that he wasn’t trying to be funny.

It’s difficult to pick out the most damaging moment of the night – there are just so many missteps to choose from – but from where I sat, Trump’s entire performance went off the rails when moderator Lester Holt asked the Republican about his “birther” conspiracy theory.

Trump, predictably, tried to blame the racist theory on Clinton aides. So, Holt followed up, noting that Trump continued to push the conspiracy for years after the president released his long-form birth certificate, before asking what led the GOP candidate to change his mind. Trump wouldn’t answer directly, instead saying he did a “good job” in his handling of the matter.

It led to this exchange:
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, people of color who…

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.
Clinton quickly lowered the boom, slamming Trump not only for peddling racist nonsense for years, but also for starting his career in real estate with Justice Department lawsuits for racial discrimination.

She was prepared for this. He wasn’t. The result wasn’t pretty.

In fact, the closer one looked, the worse Trump appeared, with a series of moments that are likely to find their way into campaign ads very soon. Did you notice when the Republican bragged about profiting from economic ruin and not paying federal income taxes? How about his conspiracy theory about the Federal Reserve? His obvious falsehoods about New York’s murder rate? His inability to answer questions about his tax returns? His meltdown over his tacit support for the war in Iraq before the 2003 invasion?

At one point, Clinton noted, “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real.” Trump quickly denied the claim, insisting, “I did not. I did not. I do not say that.” It was right around this time a 2012 tweet from Trump started making the rounds in which he said, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

This isn’t to say Clinton was perfect. There were some missed opportunities, and “trumped up trickle down” proved to be a clumsy canned phrase, but this doesn’t change the fact that she was obviously the only candidate on the stage who prepared for the debate – and the presidency.

The former Secretary of State had a strategy: demonstrate her fluency on matters of policy, while baiting Trump into losing his cool. For Clinton, everything went according to plan last night. It was as lopsided a debate victory as any in modern American history.

About a year ago, during the Republican primaries, Trump boasted that defeating Clinton in a debate “would be one of the easiest challenges of my life.”


Debates, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Presidential Debates

Debate shows Donald Trump still isn't ready for prime time