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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face off in the first presidential debate, in New York.

CREDIT: Doug Mills/The New York Times (Trump); AP Photo/Julio Cortez (Clinton)

Clinton and Trump Square Off

In the first of three scheduled debates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump tried to knock each other off balance and win over undecided voters

In a relentlessly antagonistic debate, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton clashed last night over trade, the Iraq war, his refusal to release his tax returns, and her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Trump repeatedly interrupted Clinton and at times talked over her during the 90-minute debate, making slashing attacks about her leadership qualities and her ability to create jobs in the U.S. that surely pleased his Republican base.

For her part, Clinton repeatedly scolded Trump for getting his facts wrong and accused him of hiding information about his debts to Wall Street and foreign banks.

The debate was like no other in television history: the first female presidential nominee of a major party facing off against a billionaire businessman with no political experience, both of them world-famous and both of them deeply unpopular, with a potential record-setting audience of 100 million watching and hoping to see their preferred candidate blow the other to smithereens.

Commentators across the web on Monday night tended to conclude that their favored candidate had come out on top. But on balance, Clinton was seen as having had the better night, based on the contrast between her steady grasp of policy and Trump’s tendency to ramble and occasionally raise his voice.

“Bottom line: Trump was doing pretty well for the first 15 minutes, then Hillary went on the offensive, and Trump choked,” wrote William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican, saw things differently: “The energy that Donald Trump offered tonight is why the enthusiasm is on our side. The American people are ready for solutions, and Donald Trump offers a chance to move in a new direction.”

Trump’s strongest moments came early in the evening, when he put Clinton on the defensive over her support for free-trade agreements that he argues have cost Americans jobs.

Free Trade, Race, and Gender

He tried to pin blame on her for decades of American policy, including the decision by her husband, President Bill Clinton, to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, as well as her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, eliminated trade barriers between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Senate hasn’t yet voted on, would create a similar free-trade zone between the U.S. and 11 Pacific countries, including Japan, Vietnam, and Australia.)

“NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere,” Trump said of the 1994 deal, which is deeply unpopular in several swing states, and then added that the Trans-Pacific Partnership “will be almost as bad.” After Clinton said she opposed the trans-Pacific deal, Trump interjected and, raising his voice, talked over her.

“You called it the gold standard,” he said.

Clinton responded that trade stimulates the economy. “We have to trade with the rest of the world,” she said. “We are 5 percent of the world’s population. We have to trade with the other 95 percent."

On issues of race and gender, Trump was less sure-footed. When he was pressed about what he would say to people offended by his years of questions about whether President Obama was born in the United States (an argument that’s been dubbed “birtherism”), Trump didn’t respond directly, instead claiming credit for the release of Obama’s birth certificate—which did, in fact, show he was born here.

“I say nothing because I was able to get him to produce it,” Trump said of the birth certificate.

Clinton called Trump’s promotion of birtherism a “racist lie,” and accused Trump of having “a long record of engaging in racist behavior.” She singled out his family’s real estate company for being sued by the U.S. Justice Department in 1973 for racial discrimination.

The debate took on a surreal quality at times, with more discussion of insults than of immigration or the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Clinton came off as a classically prepared debater who used Trump’s record and words against him at 19 separate moments, while Trump seemed to be improvising onstage much of the time. And Trump was stunningly personal in his attacks, like when he questioned Clinton’s stamina.

She fired back: “As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, 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.”

Trump also targeted Clinton for not taking a sufficiently hard line on crime. Blacks and Hispanics, he said, “are living in hell because it’s so dangerous.”

Clinton replied that police and black communities need to work together but that the “stop and frisk” policy that Trump supports is unconstitutional because it has been used to single out black and Hispanic men.

Trump hurled so many accusations at Clinton—and with such fervor that he frequently had to sip water—that she found herself saying at one point, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”

“Why not?” Trump shot back.

“Why not? Yeah, why not,” Clinton replied. “You know, just join the debate by saying more crazy things.”

Clinton pressed Trump on his failure to release his tax returns, an issue that polls show is resonating with voters. She suggested that he had not made them public because they would show that “you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.”

Trump did not dispute that, saying instead that the government would waste his money. “It would be squandered, too, believe me,” he said. At another point, he argued that he was “smart” to have avoided paying any federal income tax earlier in his career.

Beyond the frequent policy clashes and vivid personality differences, the hostility between the two candidates was unmistakable. Clinton was all icy stares and pointed rebukes, while avoiding the sort of prickly reactions that hurt Obama in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 and were devastating to Al Gore in his initial debate against George W. Bush in 2000.

Trump looked more irritable and impatient as the night went on and lost his cool when Clinton noted that he had initially supported the war in Iraq.

“Wrong,” Trump said. “Wrong, wrong.”

Trump had in fact signaled support for the American invasion of Iraq early on, but when the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC News, pointed that out, Trump lashed out. “That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her,” Trump said of Clinton. When Holt said that “the record shows otherwise,” Trump went off on a long tangent about various antiwar comments he had made to allies like Sean Hannity of Fox News.

When cornered at times, Trump tried to shift the subject, criticizing Clinton for using a private email server as secretary of state.

“I made a mistake using a private email,” Clinton said.

“That’s for sure,” Trump said.

“And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently,” she added.

Last night’s debate was the first of three scheduled presidential debates. The next will be on October 9 in St. Louis and will use the format of a town hall meeting, with uncommitted voters asking about half of the questions. The third will be on October 19 in Las Vegas and will feature the same format as last night’s.

With reporting by Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin of The New York Times.

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