The first rule of debating Donald Trump is to not try to play his game, because you will lose. You cannot win a shouting match with Trump. You cannot force him to back down and admit that, actually, you’re right. Confront him with the worst parts of his record, and he’ll deny it in the face of evidence. He might not come out of the exchange looking good, but neither will you.
So Hillary Clinton, at the first presidential debate on Monday night, didn’t try. Instead, she came armed with invisible barbs that were likely to get under Trump’s skin.
The second rule of debating Donald Trump is that his reputation as a loose cannon is dramatically overstated. His reactions to provocations are as instinctive, and as predictable, as a knee jerking when a doctor hits it with a rubber hammer.
Clinton came with an arsenal of such provocations — and they worked just as intended. She called him “Donald.” She accused him of being much less rich than he claimed to be. She hit nearly all of his sore spots except for the size of his hands.
Some of Trump’s worst moments weren’t in response to Clinton at all, such as when moderator Lester Holt drew him out on his nonsensical answer about why he’d publicly doubted President Obama’s birthplace for so long. But Clinton successfully, and constantly, needled him, enough that Trump, who started the debate in a toned-down mode that could pass for presidential at a squint, got increasingly irritable. He interrupted; she calmly kept talking. He fulminated; she laughed.
By the time he tried to declare that he had a superior temperament near the end of the debate, the contrast was obvious: He had fulfilled her description of him at the Democratic National Convention as a “man you can bait with a tweet.”
Clinton’s tactics allowed her to set off a controlled explosion of Trump’s worst features without bringing herself down in the process, a delicate mission that none of his primary opponents managed to carry out successfully.
1) “Donald”: How Clinton disrespected Trump by calling him by his first name
The very first time Clinton opened her mouth to speak onstage, she hinted at what she might do for the rest of the night: “How are you, Donald?”
The freewheeling primary debates included plenty of times when candidates referred to each other by first name, but the norm at presidential debates is to use titles: secretary, governor, senator. Trump, of course, has no title, but Clinton’s refusal to call him “Mr. Trump” was a deliberate show of disrespect.
The move might irritate anyone — except perhaps Clinton, who has been on first-name terms with the American public for a long time — but it was especially potent against Trump. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out Monday morning, Trump has a near obsession with everyone around him referring to him with an honorific. Anyone working with or for him invariably calls him “Mr. Trump.”
Clinton’s refusal to do so was a show of dominance against a man obsessed with machismo and domination. And he tried to point it out, making a show of asking her what she’d like to be called. By the end of the night, he’d slipped and gone back to “Hillary,” but she stuck to “Donald,” and the two dozen times she used his first name clearly rankled.
2) “Borrowed from his father”: Clinton undermined Trump’s business success and made him sound like an out-of-touch plutocrat
Once she’d irritated Trump with her use of his first name, Clinton moved on to reliable sensitive spots — topics on which Trump is nearly guaranteed not only to react but react in nearly always the same way.
One of them is his business prowess. “Donald was very fortunate in his life, and that's all to his benefit,” Clinton said. “He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we'll be.”
Clinton could have made the point she seemed to be making — that Trump is a typical rich Republican who only wants to help the wealthy — without mentioning the loan from his father. But her real goal was to undermine Trump’s portrayal of himself as a self-made man.
And rather than acknowledging that, yes, he’d been very fortunate, and he wanted all Americans to be able to rise like he had, Trump shot back: “My father gave me a very small loan in 1975, and I built it into a company that's worth many, many billions of dollars.”
This is not true. So Clinton pulled off a hat trick: She demonstrated how easy it is to bait Trump; she drew him into a lie; and, even for those not familiar with his backstory, she has tape of him appearing to dismiss $14 million as pocket change.
3) “I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened”: Clinton kept her cool — and Trump just kept boiling
Trump can bait people too. Drawing his opponents into one-on-one shouting matches was a common tactic for him during the primary debates. It’s impossible to win those fights — Trump won’t back down, and everyone just comes out of it looking worse.
Early Monday night, he tried this on Clinton, and it worked, when their heated exchange on NAFTA ended with Clinton saying, “Well, that’s your opinion.” That’s a familiar line to anyone who’s ever lost an argument.
But as the debate went on, Clinton regained her equilibrium. Instead of shouting back, she adopted a “can you believe this guy?” attitude. And Trump, used to opponents who take the bait and get drawn into his games, didn’t know how to handle it. The more Clinton calmed down and started to laugh, as when she responded to his accusation that she’d been “fighting ISIS your entire adult life” with a flabbergasted, “Please, fact-checkers, get to work,” the angrier he got.
The dynamic was clear in the next exchange, when Clinton wryly observed that “by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” And Trump, rather than dial it down a notch, shot back, “Why not?”
This was Clinton’s turning point. From that moment on, she was more relaxed, and Trump was increasingly wound up, as if he didn’t know what to do with someone who simply laughed him off.
4) “Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is”: Clinton led Trump into a trap on his taxes
Trump doesn’t like attacks on his business abilities. And so that’s what Clinton led with when she criticized him for not releasing his taxes: “First, maybe he's not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he's not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don't know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks.”
Then she went on: “Or maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes.”
Trump interrupted to defend himself — but he did it from a business perspective. “That makes me smart,” he said.
It sounded to many like Trump had conceded he hadn’t paid taxes, and he didn’t deny Clinton’s claim. (His taxes “would be squandered, too, believe me,” he said later.) When he responded, he devoted a lot of time to defending his debt load but didn’t touch the tax accusation at all.
If you attack Trump on his business acumen, he’ll respond by defending his abilities, and the result is a devastating sound bite. Clinton drew him into a similar trap when she talked about how he was on record rooting for a housing crisis in 2006, and Trump curtly responded, “That's called business, by the way.” With that on record, the attack ad writes itself.
A similar dynamic was at play when Clinton brought up the lawsuit against Trump, early in his career, for racial discrimination, and rather than refuting the accusations or explaining them in a way that regular people could understand, Trump defends them in business terms: He never admitted guilt, and lots of companies faced the same thing. “A lot of people were doing it” is not a compelling excuse for racial discrimination.
5) “You wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid”: Clinton used Trump’s predictability against him
Clinton acquitted herself well in the debate, but she’s not a strategic mastermind. Trump is just predictable. He’s been confronted before with his failure to pay contractors, and he’s always given the same defense: Their work wasn’t up to snuff, and they didn’t deserve it.
So Clinton invited one of them, an architect, to the debate, pointing out that the clubhouse he’d designed for Trump was “a beautiful facility” that was “immediately put to use.”
“And you wouldn't pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do,” she said.
“Maybe he didn't do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work,” Trump, predictably, answered.
Like the loan and the attack on Trump’s taxes, this is part of Clinton’s attempt to portray Trump as Mitt Romney 2.0 — copying Obama’s strategy of portraying a Republican opponent as an out-of-touch plutocrat who doesn’t care about working people. Trump played into her hands.
6) “That is not the right temperament to be commander in chief”: Clinton got Trump to make her argument for her
Trump’s lack of self-awareness was on display after his heated back and forth over whether he’d supported the Iraq War, when, asked about his judgment, he started instead defending his temperament.
At this point, Trump was so wound up that he was even less coherent than usual, struggling to form a complete sentence about a topic that he chose to bring up:
TRUMP: Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There's no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?
I have a much better — she spent — let me tell you, she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising, you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names. ... Oh, temperament, let's go after — I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not have a...
HOLT: Secretary Clinton?
TRUMP: Wait. The AFL-CIO the other day, behind the blue screen, I don't know who you were talking to, Secretary Clinton, but you were totally out of control. I said, there's a person with a temperament that's got a problem.
Clinton recognizes that there’s nothing she can add that will be more effective than the spectacle of an enraged man facing a calm woman and bloviating about his superior temperament: “Whew, okay,” she says, and simply transitions into making a point about NATO.
Then she demonstrated exactly how easy it was to draw Trump into a confrontation:
CLINTON: The other day, I saw Donald saying that there were some Iranian sailors on a ship in the waters off of Iran, and they were taunting American sailors who were on a nearby ship. He said, you know, if they taunted our sailors, I'd blow them out of the water and start another war. That's not good judgment.
TRUMP: That would not start a war.
CLINTON: That is not the right temperament to be commander in chief, to be taunted. And the worst part...
TRUMP: No, they were taunting us.
The worst thing that Trump could have done here was interrupt and prove her point. But he doesn’t seem able to help himself.
7) “Her name is Alicia Machado”: Clinton’s pièce de résistance
The exchange over Trump’s temperament could have been the pinnacle of Clinton’s strategy. But she had one thing left up her sleeve. One of Trump’s worst moments in the primary debates was when he was confronted with his remarks about Carly Fiorina — in part because while Trump can defend racist remarks by saying he’s not “politically correct,” there’s no similar excuse for insulting a woman’s looks — and Holt and Clinton attempted to duplicate this.
First, Holt asked him about his comments that Clinton didn’t look presidential. Then Clinton brought up what he’d said about other women:
CLINTON: You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina. But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said...
TRUMP: I never said that.
This was one of several times that Clinton played to Trump’s tendency, when confronted with his own words, to deny that he ever said them. (Yes, Trump did say pregnancy was an inconvenience, just as he said, as he’d tried to deny earlier in the night, that climate change was a Chinese hoax.) Those denials are easy to disprove after the fact, even without the moderator playing fact-checker.
But it was Clinton’s next lines that drew Trump into the final trap: “And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”
This is a stiletto to the ribs, a multilayered attack:
- Clinton is calling Trump a creep. There’s a big difference between saying that Trump loves beautiful women and that he loves “hanging around” beauty contests. In the first scenario, he’s a stud; in the second, he’s a pathetic voyeur. All women know the guy who hangs around.
- She’s reminding viewers of his attitude toward immigrants and Americans of Hispanic origin; the “Miss Housekeeping” reference is one of the rare mentions of Trump’s animosities on this front.
- And finally, she’s trying to draw Trump into asymmetric warfare against a private citizen. And not just anyone, but an immigrant beauty queen who just became an American citizen, no less. It’s hard to think of a more likable protagonist than that, except for maybe the Khans, the immigrant parents of a fallen US Army hero who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Trump’s attacks on the Khan family after Khizr Khan spoke at the convention were the lowest point of his campaign.
And Trump — the ultimate reality star — reacted as if this were the last-minute reveal during a crucial episode. Which, in a way, it was:
TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?
CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.
TRUMP: Where did you find this?
Tuesday morning, he was already on the attack against Machado. “She gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem,” he told Fox News. The Clinton campaign, of course, was ready, hosting a press call with Machado the day after the debate so reporters could get her side.
Clinton’s strategy worked so well that she didn’t just lure Trump into a trap during the debate — she ensured he was still flailing around in it the morning after.