Clinton, Trump Dive Directly Into Attacks in First Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leveled sharp and personal charges and counter-charges over trade, the U.S. economy, race and foreign policy in their first face-to-face debate, an event that put on display their starkly different personalities and visions of the nation’s future.

Almost from the first question posed by moderator Lester Holt, the debate devolved into an exchange of accusations and blame as Trump and Clinton reached into each others’ past statements and records. On most policy issues they fell back on their standard campaign stances, offering no new proposals for how they would deal with the country’s challenges.

The debate Monday night at Hofstra University ended as it began with testy exchanges — and a few odd moments — between the candidates when Holt asked Trump about a comment he made that Clinton doesn’t have the look of a president.

“She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina,’’ Trump said, repeatedly questioning her vigor and endurance.

“Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” Clinton responded.

The former secretary of state also made sure to highlight Trump’s past statements about women, a key demographic group in her campaign for the White House.

“This a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men,’’ Clinton said.

After Clinton chided him for his statements about women — though she never named anyone — Trump brought up television personality Rosie O’Donnell, who he once called “a real loser” and “fat.”

“Somebody who has been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her,” Trump said. “And I think everybody would agree that she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her.”

As they probed each others weaknesses, Trump raised the issue of Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state, and Clinton questioned why the Republican candidate won’t release his tax returns.

After Clinton repeated her calls for Trump to release his tax returns, as has been tradition for the past four decades among presidential nominees, Trump said he would, although with conditions connected to the e-mails that are missing from Clinton’s personal server when she was secretary of state.

“I will release my tax returns against my lawyer’s wishes when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted,” Trump said. “As soon as she releases them, I will release my tax returns.”

Clinton said Trump’s refusal to release the return suggests “there’s something he’s hiding.” Among the possibilities, she said, are he’s got foreign business entanglements that would create a conflict if he were in office or that he’s paid no federal income tax for years, which meant he’s contributed nothing to support U.S. troops or veterans.

The two candidates made clear their disdain for each other as the debate wore on. Often when Clinton was speaking, Trump could be heard off-camera making a skeptical sigh.

The event marked the first time that voters got to see the major-party nominees on the same stage for a widely anticipated debate that promised to be a pivotal moment in a close and bitterly fought contest.

Holt struggled at times to maintain control and stay on schedule during the more than 90-minute session. What viewers saw was a combative Clinton who went on attack over Trump’s main bonafides for president — his business record — and Trump, supposedly preparing a more subdued approach, return quickly to his fiery ways.

Clinton presented Trump as both unprepared for the debate and for the presidency, as she sought to contrast her decades of experience in government. “I prepared to be president and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Later, Trump responded: “Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience.”

The Democrat also went on the offense when the topic of President Barack Obama’s citizenship was introduced. For the past five years, Trump had raised questions and made insinuations about Obama’s birthplace and the authenticity of his birth certificate, before declaring in a 10-word statement on Sept. 16 that the president was born in the U.S. Democrats have sought to keep the issue front and center as a way to rally support for Clinton among minority voters.

“It can’t be dismissed that easily. He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president wasn’t an American citizen,” Clinton said.

She also charged that he had discriminated against blacks as a landlord in New York in the 1970s. “He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior,” she said.

Trump responded by casting Clinton as a hypocrite. “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work,” he said.

As he has on numerous occasions before, Trump targeted the Federal Reserve and warned that the central bank’s policy of keeping interest rates low was politically motivated and sustaining artificial highs in the stock market. It’s a claim Fed Chair Janet Yellen has repeatedly denied.

“The Fed is being more political as Secretary Clinton,” Trump said.

“We are in a big fat ugly bubble and we better be awfully careful,” he added. “And we have a Fed that’s doing political things. Janet Yellen of the Fed, the Fed is doing political things by keeping interest rates at this level.”

Trump lashed out at trade with China and Mexico as he has throughout the campaign. He said the U.S. was being put at a disadvantage. China, he said, is “using our country as a piggy bank.’’

Clinton responded that Trump’s economic plan is the “most extreme version’’ of standard Republican rhetoric. “I call it trumped up trickle-down.’’

For his part, Trump went after Clinton for her past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “You called it the gold standard of trade deals,” he said, recalling Clinton’s initial analysis of the TPP accord.

“Donald, I know you live in your own reality,” Clinton responded.

“You are going to drive business out,” Trump said. “I will bring back jobs. You can’t bring back jobs.”

At one point, Clinton said, “I have a feeling that by the end of the debate I’m going to be blamed for everything.”

“Why not?” Trump shot back.

On national security, Trump accused Clinton and President Obama for creating a vacuum in Iraq that helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State by the way U.S. forces were withdrawn.

“I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard,’’ Clinton said. She said Trump supported the war in Iraq when he said he didn’t.

“Wrong, wrong,’’ Trump said, talking over her.

Holt suggested the record shows Trump was wrong, and Trump recited his media interviews on the topic.

“I have much better judgment that she has,’’ Trump said. “I also have much better temperament.’’

Among those in the audience were the spouses of the candidates, former President Bill Clinton and Melania Trump, who shook hands before they were seated. After the debate, Trump told Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin that he was going to raise Bill Clinton’s personal infidelities, but didn’t because he saw their daughter, Chelsea, in the audience.

Heading into the debate, staged 43 days from the Nov. 8 election, Trump and Clinton are tied at 46 percent in a head-to-head contest among likely voters, according to the latest Bloomberg Politics national poll. Trump, the Republican nominee, gets 43 percent to Democrat Clinton’s 41 percent when third-party candidates are included.

Absent from Monday night’s debate were Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Neither reached the threshold of 15 percent average support in recognized polls to qualify under the debate commission’s rules.