Presidential debate: Clinton, Trump open debate with personal jabs, clash over policies

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Monday.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Monday. Associated Press

The first presidential debate of the general election began with Donald Trump bemoaning the state of the country and Hillary Clinton bemoaning Donald Trump.

Trump, the GOP nominee, answered the first economics-focused questions of Monday night’s debate by saying that the U.S. was being hoodwinked and taken advantage of by Mexico, China and other countries. He talked about manufacturing jobs leaving the U.S. and promised — as he had in the primary — to impose penalties on companies that take jobs offshore.

“Our country’s in very deep trouble. We don’t know what we’re doing,” Trump said. Of countries like China, he said, “What they’re doing to us is a very, very sad thing.”

Clinton began her first answers with an appeal to common purpose, talking about her 2-year-old granddaughter. But she quickly turned to attacks on Trump, saying that he had rooted for the housing-market collapse a little less than a decade ago (“That’s called business, by the way,” Trump interjected), and saying that Trump would raise the debt by offering huge tax cuts to high earners.

“I call it Trumped-up trickle down, because that’s what it would be,” Clinton said, referring back to the trickle-down economics model of the 1980s.

In its early going, the presidential debate featured some interjections from Trump, who tried to interrupt Clinton when she said (correctly) that Trump had called climate change a hoax.

The debate began shortly after 9 p.m. Eastern time. It was scheduled to last 90 minutes.

Clinton and Trump came into Monday virtually tied in national polls. Both candidates have been relying on negative messaging, in which the best selling point for each has been that the other candidate is worse.

For both, this debate will offer a chance to build a positive image of their own.

A roiling disagreement over the role of the debate moderator flared up ahead of the face-off, with Democrats arguing that a more activist fact-checker role is needed to rein in Trump’s well-established pattern of factual misstatements.

But Janet H. Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, seemed to side with the Republican nominee, saying in a television interview that “it’s not a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

She added, however, that ultimately it will be up to Monday’s moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, to do the job as he sees fit.

Underscoring the unique nature of the combatants, Clinton’s debate preparations included a focus on Trump’s personality as well as the substance of what will be discussed onstage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., according to several Democrats with knowledge of her campaign’s approach.

Clinton’s team convened a meeting last month at which longtime aide Philippe Reines, the stand-in for Trump in her mock sessions, deeply studied Trump’s personality to be able to parry with her as Trump might.

The meeting was one of several during which Clinton aides conferred for hours with outsiders who had been asked to offer advice about Trump’s temperament, according to people familiar with the gathering. The objective was to understand how a man who has spent most of his life in the business world and prides himself on being a dealmaker might behave in a debate setting.

After days of preparing for the debate at a hotel near her home in Westchester County, Hillary Clinton departed for Long Island early Monday afternoon to continue her preparations, according to a campaign aide. She was joined by former president Bill Clinton on the ride over. The campaign planned for the former president to be in the debate hall Monday night.

At Trump Tower in Manhattan, a steady stream of GOP bigwigs and prominent supporters entered the building, where Trump was gathered with his inner circle, according to a person familiar with his activities.

The stakes Monday could hardly be higher for both candidates. A new Washington Post-poll released Sunday shows likely voters split nationally 46 percent for Clinton and 44 percent for Trump, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson at 5 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein at 1 percent.

With barely six weeks remaining until Election Day, Clinton’s camp — after a prolonged focus on trashing Trump — sees the debate as a chance for her to present what she actually hopes to accomplish as president and to ease voters’ deep concerns about her likability and trustworthiness.

For Trump, his first one-on-one presidential debate offers an opportunity to demonstrate a command of the issues and to persuade voters clamoring for change that he is a credible alternative, his advisers say.

One of the biggest unknowns remains which Donald Trump will show up. While Clinton has a lengthy record of meticulous preparation and formidable performances, Trump has been more unpredictable. Sometimes, he is the freewheeling showman prone to controversial utterances; other times, with help from his campaign team’s repackaging, he is a more sober and scripted candidate.

The first of three scheduled debates between Clinton and Trump is likely to have a full agenda. It comes amid heightened fears of terrorism, unrest over police shootings of African-American men and a slew of long-standing issues that sharply divide the major-party candidates, including immigration, trade, tax policy and foreign affairs.

One Trump ally, on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak, said the campaign has not held any mock debates in recent weeks because of the candidate’s private insistence that he prefers to prepare through wide-ranging conversations with his advisers and friends. Still, the ally said, Trump’s team has conducted extensive research on Clinton, including details on her tendencies and arguments.

Supporters of Clinton and Trump, including their running mates and campaign managers, fanned out across the Sunday television shows to put their spin on the tasks ahead and seek some psychological advantage.

Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, seemingly acknowledged on CNN’s “State of the Union” that her candidate was trying “to get into the head of Hillary Clinton” when he suggested Saturday on Twitter that he had invited Gennifer Flowers, who has claimed to have conducted a long-running affair with Bill Clinton, to attend the debate.

Trump’s tweet followed news that rival billionaire Mark Cuban, who supports Clinton, would be sitting in the front row.

Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, later said categorically on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Flowers would not be there.

In their TV appearances, Clinton partisans said she has multiple goals Monday. Those include reminding voters of her long record of championing the interests of children and families and touting her agenda for helping the middle class — but also holding Trump accountable for assertions that independent fact-checkers have labeled false.

“She has a challenge because Donald Trump inveterately says things that aren’t true,” Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “She’s got to be able to make that positive case but also not let Donald Trump get away with what he’s likely to do, which is to make stuff up.”