At times it felt like a comedy act, except, with the stakes now apparent and tens of millions of Americans tuned in, the act no longer seems funny.
On Monday evening at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton met for the first time on the debate stage for a surreal 90 minutes of nonstop bickering, mocking, and shaming one another.
The routine went something like this:
Clinton would begin to speak, and she would inevitably—and gleefully—criticize Trump. He would interject a comment, often for comedic effect.
“By the end of this evening I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened,” Clinton said, smiling, at one point.
Trump leaned into his microphone. “Why not?” he said.
Clinton laughed. “Just join the debate by saying more crazy things!”
She would continue, and he would talk over her again, moderator Lester Holt would remind him who had the floor while Trump talked over him.
Rinse and repeat.
The night began with Clinton crossing the midway of the stage into Trump territory, dressed in a cherry red pantsuit, to shake his hand. “How are you, Donald?” she said.
It would be the last cordial word of the evening.
She dismissively called Trump “Donald” while he sarcastically referred to her as “Secretary Clinton.”
“In all fairness to Secretary Clinton—is that OK?” he asked her when he spoke to her for the first time. “Good,” he said, “I want you to be very happy.”
And she was.
Because Trump supporters that were hoping for a cool, calm, collected leader had to be pouring themselves stiff drinks about 15 minutes in.
There was ample evidence before Monday night that Trump does not take criticism well, but the debate stage—and the absence of an audience to play off—underscored his lack of self-restraint in devastating fashion.
The Trump who performed was a haphazard mix of rally Trump, primary debate Trump, and Twitter Trump—with a few minor guest appearances early in the night from Teleprompter Trump, the version of the Republican nominee who’s been semi-trained by his professional strategists and handlers.
One of his most measured moments came early in the debate when he challenged Clinton on her record on trade and the economy. “Hillary, I’d just ask you this. You've been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?” he said.
“For 30 years, you’ve been doing it, and now you’re just starting to think of solutions.”
When she started to defend her record, Trump needled her for her support of the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
“You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation where manufacturing is down 30, 40, sometimes 50 percent,” he said, echoing the message that has been so effective for him on the campaign trail. “NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.”
He then hit her for flip-flopping on the Trans Pacific Partnership—which Clinton supported as a member of the Obama administration, once calling it the “gold standard” of trade deals and then deciding against it entirely as she ran for president.
But, then, Teleprompter Trump took a breather… for the rest of the debate.
Over and over again—on cybersecurity, on ISIS, on race—Trump seemed to get lost in his own explanations, coincidentally a judgment often lobbed at Clinton as proof of her inherent dishonesty and untrustworthiness.
When Trump was asked by Holt to explain why he refused to release his tax returns, Trump first said he was being audited, then said he would release them if Clinton released “her 33,000 emails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release.”
Clinton offered her own theories for why he’s kept them under wraps: He’s not that rich, he’s not very charitable, he’s got something to hide.
Trump responded, in an exasperated tone, by bragging about his income, which remains impossible to verify without those returns.
But it was during his explanation of his early support for the Iraq War that he came unglued altogether.
“I did not support the war in Iraq,” he said, falsely. “That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her because she frankly I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.”
“And then they did an article in a major magazine, shortly after the war started, I think in ’04, but they did an article which had me totally against the war in Iraq. And one of your compatriots said, you know, whether it was before or right after, Trump was definitely—because if you read this article, there’s no doubt,” Trump said, referring to an Esquire feature that came out in August 2004. The Iraq War began in March 2003.
Holt interjected, referring to Trump’s statement in 2002, on Howard Stern’s radio show.
“Are you for invading Iraq?” Stern asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish the first time it was done correctly,” Trump said.
Trump suggested last night that statement wasn’t legitimate, but didn’t explain why not. “I said,” he recalled, shrugging his arms wildly, “I don’t know! Who knows?’”
It never really got better for Trump.
Clinton started the debate with a look on her face that suggested she was slightly aggravated to be on the same stage as a former reality-television star with no government experience, and whose closest experience to an event like this was, before last year, Wrestlemania.
But by halfway through, Clinton couldn’t have appeared more satisfied. As he fumbled through his answers, she smirked and beamed. After his Iraq rant concluded, she did a little celebration dance with her shoulders that was quickly turned into a GIF on social media.
And you could hardly blame her for her glee.
He bungled attacks on her record as secretary of State, her emails, the Clinton Foundation, and her use of the words “super predator” to describe criminals among young black men in the 1990s—a mistake for which she’s apologized. He never mentioned the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, despite having a survivor of it in the audience as his guest.
Instead, during a conversation about racial issues in the U.S., he bragged about successfully getting President Obama to release his birth certificate—which many people considered to be motivated by race.
“I’ve done a great job and a great service not only for the country, and for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate,” he said.
Near the end of the night, Clinton calmly but menacingly broached the subject of Trump’s impolite words about women. “This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs,” she said. “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.”
Trump couldn’t resist the bait, and responded at length—making things much worse.
“Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her,” Trump replied.
In the “spin room” after the debate, a designated area where the candidate’s surrogates “spin,” or lie, to the media in an attempt to persuade them that their side won as soon as the debate is over, Trump made an unusual appearance.
It’s common practice for candidates to attend the spin room during the primary, but virtually unheard of during the general election. A generous interpretation of this decision is that Trump is not the kind of politician to turn down a roomful of cameras, or an opportunity to call his opponent a loser. A more realistic one may be that Trump knew he lost, and needed to save face.
With an entourage of his wife Melania, his children, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and his press secretary Hope Hicks, Trump walked into a large pen formed by metal barriers and did a loop, talking to the cameras before disappearing out a side entrance.
He had actually been very restrained on stage, Trump said of himself, because he had planned to mention Monica Lewinsky as a way of humiliating Clinton, but chose not to out of respect for Bill and Hillary’s daughter, Chelsea, who was in the room.
Teleprompter Trump, in other words, is officially dead.