Donald Trump’s freewheeling approach spun wildly out of control in the first presidential debate as he was forced on the defensive during a chaotic clash with Hillary Clinton.
Goaded by Clinton and pressed hard by moderator Lester Holt, the Republican nominee angrily defended his record against charges of racism, sexism and tax avoidance for much of the 90-minute clash at Hofstra University, outside New York.
Trump hit Clinton on trade and her political record – issues that have helped him draw level in recent polls and may yet dominate the election – but the property tycoon appeared thin-skinned and under-prepared as he sniffled his way through the debate.
“It’s all words, it’s all soundbites,” he retorted after a particularly one-sided exchange, adding that Clinton was a “typical politician: all talk, no action”.
But the Democratic nominee seized on Trump’s meandering responses and apparent loss of focus as their long-anticipated clash wore on.
“Words matter when you run for president, and they really do matter when you are president,” said Clinton.
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. You know what else I did? I prepared to be president,” she added.
In her sharpest exchanges, the former secretary of state accused Trump of racism for questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship.
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior. And the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” said Clinton.
She also accused him of “stiffing thousands” of contractors by declaring bankruptcy as a businessman. And in a powerful closing argument she highlighted Trump’s record of sexism, noted that he had called women pigs and slobs and, in one case, called a beauty contest Miss Housekeeping “because she was Latina”.
In turn, Trump attacked Clinton’s suitability as president in blunt terms. “She doesn’t have the look and she doesn’t have the stamina,” he said. “I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home,” he added.
But after rattling off her record of visiting 112 countries in four years as secretary of state, Clinton shot back: “When Donald Trump spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”
Questions of stamina and temperament were levelled instead at Trump as he appeared to lose concentration during the uninterrupted appearance – his first one-on-one appearance on a political debate stage.
Some of his responses seemed little more than free-associative non-sequiturs. “I have a son who’s 10, he’s so good with computers,” said Trump when asked about US cybersecurity weaknesses.
Trump took to the media spin room immediately after his debate to defend his performance. Boris Epsheteyn, a Trump campaign spokesman, criticized the moderator: “Lester Holt interrupted Mr Trump more. He followed up with Mr Trump more. He was much harder on Mr Trump.” However, Trump himself said that he thought Holt did “a great job”.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s campaign basked in a victory lap – declaring that the debate had underscored Trump was both “unhinged and unfit to be president” – but was cautious not to bolster expectations on its impact.
“He came in unprepared and what we saw was kind of a meltdown,” said Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“We’ll have to see how the voters judge this,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters.
“But I think the consensus of this entire debate was that Secretary Clinton was the only one on that stage prepared to be president, and I think the totality of the debate proved how deeply unfit he was.”
Aides to Clinton said they had expected Trump to showcase a more subdued demeanor, citing his efforts in recent weeks to stick to a teleprompter on the campaign trail and tone down his bombast.
”We thought we’d see a more disciplined Trump tonight – maybe someone who’d try to steal an early headline with a gesture of grace and show some magnanimity,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon.
“Instead, this was the same Donald Trump in the primary. Which, of course, is the true Trump.”
Trump had participated in a pre-debate walk-through of the venue at Hofstra University, 20 miles outside New York City in the densely populated suburbs of Nassau County, while Clinton spent the afternoon preparing with aides at the nearby Garden City Hotel.
Afterwards, while Trump was filmed hastily disappearing in his car, Clinton told supporters at a debate watch party to keep fighting, telling them: “You saw tonight how high the stakes are.”
Inside the hall, a small live audience were given strict instructions not to clap or respond to the debate. Though dwarfed by an estimated television audience of up to 100 million people, they included well-known political figures including former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio as well as celebrities such as billionaire Mark Cuban and controversial boxing promoter Don King.
At first Trump appeared to be trying to rein in his more aggressive tendency. “Is that OK? I want you to be happy. It’s very important to me,” he said to Clinton, using her title, Secretary Clinton.
But Trump, who was sniffing and sounded nasally congested, quickly grew agitated, repeatedly interrupting Clinton and often shouting over her as she attempted to respond to questions.
In particular, he aggressively went after her record on trade – interjecting as Clinton spoke, by pointing to her husband Bill Clinton’s signing of Nafta in the 1990s.
Presidential debate fact-check: a review of Trump’s and Clinton’s claims
Clinton immediately jabbed at Trump, making reference to the $14m that the Republican nominee got in a series of loans from his father, Fred, to start his business empire. The older Trump, a successful real estate developer, helped to fund his son’s effort to remodel the Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown Manhattan and also aided his son with his political connections. Trump immediately fired back, insisting that “it was only a small loan” from his father, taking the bait offered by his Democratic rival.
Trump then knocked Clinton for previously supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the landmark 12-nation trade pact brokered under the Obama administration. When Clinton sought to clarify that she no longer backed the agreement, Trump intervened again and began drowning her out with shouts of: “Is it President Obama’s fault? Is it President Obama’s fault?”
Clinton largely kept her cool, eventually offering wryly with a smile: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
Despite Trump’s uneven performance, where he repeatedly contradicted himself –sometimes in the course of the same sentence, the Republican nominee has already persevered through a multitude of controversies and missteps in the course of his campaign.
On this momentous night in a long campaign, he didn’t change his tactics or approach. The question as polls have tightened in recent days is whether voters will end up supporting the uncouth demagogue who has confounded pundits in the past 15 months.