Trump and Clinton go head to head: Highlights of the first presidential debate

Photograph: 'Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. ' / Gage Skidmore
Photograph: 'Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. ' / Gage Skidmore

The first U.S presidential debate has taken place and the clear winner seems to be Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Even though she had a hard time during the first half hour, she was able to maintain her cool and give well-measured answers to whatever Donald Trump tried to throw her way. However, just because she won the first debate doesn’t mean her lead over Trump will increase substantially or that it’s a given that she’ll win the presidency. History has shown that even those that have lost the first debate can go on to become president, as was the case with Bush in 2000 and Obama in 2012. For now, Clinton’s leads only by an average of 2.4 percentage points. 

Trump started off the debate in a very calm manner, looking unusually serious and focused. The first segment was about American prosperity and what the candidates would do to create new jobs in America. Trump emphasised the importance of bringing back jobs that have gone abroad. He promised to cut taxes and to give companies incentives to stay and hire American workers. He also spoke about how America was losing on trade and that he would renegotiate trade deals. He criticized Clinton for calling NAFTA the “gold standard” of trade deals, which  she did, in her book Hard Choices,) as he believes it was one of the worst trade deals ever made by the U.S. He spoke about how he believed current politicians were incompetent and that Obama managed to put the country in a far worse state than before he became president. He blamed Clinton for not having done enough for the economy and accused her of being in part responsible for the huge debt crisis. He said she was an “all talk, no action” politician and that she wouldn’t be able to get the job done properly. He pointed to his success as a businessman and how he feels that the country needs someone with his skills to bring the economy back on track.

Clinton doesn’t agree with Trump’s proposed plans for the economy and has even come up with the term “trumped-up trickle down” because she believes his policies will end up giving the richest people the biggest tax cuts and thus making them the biggest beneficiaries of his economic policies.


Even though it’s true that most people only watch the first twenty to thirty minutes of a debate, which, in this case, was when Trump was doing better, there were several topics later in the debate that put him in a bit of an uncomfortable position.

Clinton’s first strong jab at Trump came after he criticised her for staying home instead of being on the campaign trail. Trump was talking about how much time he had been spending travelling around the country recently and how bad he thought the infrastructure looked and how it should be fixed. He then pointed to how, while he was out meeting with people, Clinton was at home. One of her strongest comebacks of the entire debate came seemingly out of nowhere. She replied: “I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.” Clinton 1, Trump 0.

Then, Clinton started raising issues that put Trump in a tough spot. First of all, his tax returns. Trump has continuously been urged to publish his tax returns but has so far refused to do so.  Clinton took the opportunity to hypothesise why he might have decided not to. She accused him of not paying any federal income taxes, to which he made the somewhat shocking remark: “that makes me smart.” By saying this, did he actually mean that he had not paid any income taxes or that were he not to have paid them that this would mean he made a smart move? It’s a very sensitive issue to be up for interpretation. Trump went on to say that he would release his tax returns if Clinton released her deleted emails, a comment that made the crowd laugh and cheer, thus breaking the promise they made before the debate to keep quiet. Trump also accused Clinton of using a private email server on purpose and said that her handling of the entire situation was “disgraceful.”

Second, racial disparities and the birther issue. Trump had been questioning the real birthplace of president Obama for years up until he finally admitted on September 16 that he believed Obama was indeed born in the U.S. However, he blamed the Clinton campaign of 2008 for raising the question of Obama’s place of birth, but this turned out to be false. In a recognisable Trump fashion, he went on to say that “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.” Clinton accused Trump of being racist far before the birther issue. She called him out for having been sued in 1973 for allegedly not wanting to rent apartments in one of his buildings to African Americans, a statement that has now proven to be true. She also accused him of supporting systemic racism when he expressed his support for the stop-and-frisk policing method. Clinton, correctly, stated that African Americans are disproportionately stopped and frisked more often than white Americans and it turns out that crime rates in New York City actually continued to go down even after stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional. She called for a plan to divert people from the criminal justice system and to deal with mandatory minimum sentences. She also advocated the ideas of second chance programs and to end the private prisons system on the state level. 


Third, issues with women. This one made Trump look really bad. Clinton decided to raise this issue towards the end of the debate, which may or may not have left people with an especially bad impression of Trump after watching. She brought up some things he had said about women before, such as calling them “slobs” and “dogs” but she made her strongest point when she started talking about comments Trump had made about former Miss Universe winner, Alicia Machado. After having won the prestigious contest, the newly crowned Miss Universe suddenly gained 42lbs in a year. Trump, who was a partner in the company who owned the pageant at the time, started calling her “Miss Piggy” and pushed her to go to the gym and even invited the press to watch her workout! He also called her “Miss Housekeeping” apparently because of her Latin-American background. Even Trump supporters must agree that such past actions simply don’t look good on anyone’s resumé, especially not if you’re running for president of the United States of America.

Trump was dealt another strong blow when he started saying that he doesn’t believe Clinton has the “stamina” to be president. Her answer might as well have been a punch in the face: “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.” Ouch, she couldn’t have come up with a better answer. Many undecided voters wanted Trump to take the opportunity at the debate stage to try and act more presidential and calm, which at first he did, but he was getting increasingly flustered as the time went by. By the end of the debate, he had interrupted Clinton 51 times, compared to her 17 interruptions. It’s also interesting to note that Clinton didn’t take a sip of water a single time during the debate, while Trump reached for his glass several times (this is ironic because of the fuss he made when he accused Marco Rubio of reaching for his bottle too often during his televised response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech).


The candidates were also asked questions relating to foreign policy and national security. When talking about how best to combat ISIS, Clinton believed it was important for the U.S to conduct more air strikes, to help the Kurds who are fighting ISIS, and to capture the leader of the terrorist organisation Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On the other hand, Trump took the opportunity to blame the rise of ISIS on Obama and Clinton by saying that they shouldn’t have taken out American troops from Iraq as early as they did and that because of this they created an authority vacuum which allowed ISIS to be formed. He also criticised the current government for not taking control of the oil fields in Iraq when they had the chance and argued that this too would have prevented ISIS from becoming the force it is today. To say that ISIS was formed because the U.S withdrew too early or because they didn’t seize the oil fields is to severely oversimplify an extremely complex issue. One must note that Obama wouldn’t have had to withdraw troops from Iraq if Bush hadn’t sent them there in the first place. Also, to seize oil fields would have meant taking control of the natural resources of another, sovereign country, which would have had all kinds of legal implications and would eventually have made the U.S a long-term occupying presence. However, these issues are far beyond the scope of this article.

One of the biggest mistakes Trump made during the debate was when Clinton accused him of supporting the war in Iraq. He used up his entire answer time to frantically try to explain how he never supported the war and that allegations that he did are all “mainstream media nonsense.” The reason why his critics say he supported the war was because of what he said during an interview with Howard Stern in 2002. When asked if he supported the idea of invading Iraq, Trump replied: “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” It wasn’t a firm yes, and Trump supporters argue that he didn’t know much about the context of Iraq when he made that comment and that after that he never publicly expressed support for the war and instead started opposing it, which is true.

All in all, Clinton performed better and won the first debate. Trump’s inexperience showed and he wasn’t able to keep his temperament under control. Clinton successfully pushed him to say thinks he probably shouldn’t have and she was able to come up with some very original comebacks. However, it’s still not clear if she did enough to convince undecided voters to pick her over Trump, Johnson, or Stein. Also, even though Trump didn’t win the debate and maybe didn’t gain much new support, this doesn’t mean his numbers will fall or that his campaign has lost its momentum. For now, Clinton has to try and win over Bernie supporters and work on expressing her personal motivations for running for president in order to resonate more with those who still don’t fully trust her. On the other hand, Trump needs to put in more practice for the next debate as that one could really make or break his chances of winning the election. It’s still a tight race but with time running out, both candidates need to do everything in their power to make their case a plausible one in the eyes of the American people.


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Gabriela Bernal 24 Articles
Gabriela Bernal is interested in politics, international relations, and terrorism. She is pursuing a degree in political science and plans on pursuing her postgraduate studies in the U.K. She likes to write, read, play tennis, travel, and learn new languages.

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