Monday night was Donald Trump's introduction to the general-election debate stage. On display was the Republican presidential nominee as a dichotomy; there was the, albeit briefly, measured Trump who forwent his usual “Crooked Hillary” for “Secretary Clinton” as he addressed his Democratic rival. And, defying expectations, he did not address her husband's marital indiscretions, later saying he abstained out of respect for Chelsea Clinton, who was in the room. In his second form, the businessman displayed his usual bombast and penchant for attacks, showcasing style perhaps over substance.
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Members of his campaign team were trying to lower debate expectations of Trump, leaking to reporters that he was shunning policy briefings and not standing at faux lecterns for 90 minutes at a time in preparation. They instead praised his freewheeling style and confidence and criticized Hillary Clinton for being overly prepared.
"I thought my prep was very good. I think my prep was very good. And I really enjoyed it," Trump told ABC News' Tom Llamas last night.
Trump, while forceful in his attacks, appeared to miss key opportunities to contrast himself with his opponent. During the 90-minute debate, Trump never mentioned the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, even after Clinton invoked Libya and his comments about her private email server were sparse. Such attacks on key issues are typically practiced during debate prep sessions; according to his advisers, Trump never participated in a mock debate.
During a phone interview this morning on "Fox & Friends," the hosts asked Trump if he had any regrets about his performance.
"Do you regret not bringing up the emails as much? You brought it up at one point," host Ainsley Earhardt asked. She followed up by asking why he did not expand his attacks on Clinton's email server or the Clinton Foundation.
"I would have liked to have done that," Trump responded. "But the question weren't — I mean, don't forget you are asked a question as to progress or something, and it's hard to get off to Benghazi sometimes the way the questions were framed. You know, you start off open a totally — the opposite of Benghazi, and so Benghazi can't get brought up, but it was a very interesting evening. I thought it was good."
He landed blistering attacks on Clinton on trade, one of his signature issues, effectively highlighting her weaknesses in supporting, then denouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But he seemed to falter when questioned about his past actions. When asked what took him so long to accept the fact that President Barack Obama was born in the country, Trump reverted to the lie that the Clinton campaign pushed the birther issue before the Democratic primaries eight years ago.
Trump's answer to the question caused some voters to lower their approval rating of him, according to a focus group hosted by veteran pollster Frank Luntz.
"I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate, and I think I did a good job," Trump said during the debate. In another misstep, he admitted during a heated exchange with Clinton on tax returns that he did not pay federal taxes.
"Maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes," Clinton said. "Because the only years that anybody has ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn't pay any federal income tax."
"That makes me smart," he retorted.
But Trump, ever the showman, delivered several quick-witted exchanges that elicited laughter from the audience.
"Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton, yes, is that OK?" he asked, looking her for approval. As she nodded, he added, "Good. I want you to be very happy. It's very important to me."