Trump and Clinton clash in ferocious first debate

Republican candidate’s claims about Barack Obama’s birthplace among contentious exchanges

Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton clashed repeatedly in a ferocious and highly contentious first debate in the US presidential election campaign.

The candidates locked horns in the much-anticipated encounter at Hofstra University in New York over the economy, his failure to release his tax releases and the Islamic State.

The most contentious exchanges came over Mr Trump’s claims about Barack Obama’s birthplace and which candidate had the right temperament to be the next US president.

Mrs Clinton controlled the debate, putting Mr Trump on the back foot much of the time, forcing him to respond to her detailed, policy-driven statements and withering criticisms of his business record and past inflammatory remarks with his characteristic sweeping statements.


In one of the moments of the night for the Democrat, Mrs Clinton responded to the Republican lambasting Clinton for skipping off the campaign trail with a pithy zinger.

“I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And that is a good thing.”

During much of the debate, Mr Trump showed his poor preparation, struggling to address false claims that he made during the campaign and appearing petulant in his defence.

Mrs Clinton several times urged viewers to fact-check Mr Trump’s statements, saying at one point: “I know you live in your own reality.”

Her most brutal take-down of her Republican opponent was her response to Mr Trump's inaccurate claim that Mrs Clinton's aides began the conspiracy theory eight years ago that Mr Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not a legitimate president.

“Just listen to what you heard,” Mrs Clinton said, starting what appeared to be a well-rehearsed response to one of the most incendiary topics of Mr Trump’s campaign.

She accused the Republican of pushing a “racist lie” with his so-called birtherism claims that first brought him into politics, insisting that there was “no absolutely no evidence for it.”

“He has a long record of engaging in racist behaviour,” said Mrs Clinton, referring to 1970s legal claims that accused him of discriminating against black tenants. Mr Trump shook his head.

Iraq war

Mr Trump instead took credit for examining the issue, saying that “nobody was pressing it” and that he was the person who had Mr Obama produce his birth certificate.

The Republican was on the defensive several times in the debate, notably rejecting the suggestion that he supported the invasion in Iraq in 2003.

"I did not support the war in Iraq. That is a mainstream media nonsense," he said before debate moderator Lester Holt pointed out that that he downplayed a interview when he told radio host Howard Stern that he supported the war.

Mr Trump again declined to release his tax returns, repeating that he was under audit but said that he would release them, against the advice of his lawyers, if Mrs Clinton released the 30,000 personal emails that she deleted from her time as US secretary of state.

Mrs Clinton suggested that the reason Mr Trump was not releasing his tax returns was because he may not be as rich or charitable as he claims or that he had not paid anything in taxes.

“That makes me smart,” the Republican nominee responded.

His tax money could have been used to improve the country’s infrastructure, she suggested.

“It would be squandered too, believe me,” he said.

On the question of which candidate had the temperament to be president, Mr Trump revealed his boastful side, claiming that he had better temperament than his rival.

“I think my strongest asset - maybe by far - is my temperament,” he said. He went on to claim that she looked “totally out of control” during a recent campaign event.

Mrs Clinton smiled and delivered a dismissive “Woo! Okay!”


The Democrat criticised the Republican for saying that the US Navy ships should open fire on Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf.

“His cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons is so deeply troubling,” she said. “A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have their finger anywhere near the nuclear codes.”

“That one’s getting a little bit old,” he replied.

“It’s a good one,” she said.

Asked about a comment he made on the campaign that Mrs Clinton did not have a “presidential look,” Mr Trump changed the subject, questioning instead her stamina.

“Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents and 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,” she said.

Mrs Clinton pointed out that Mr Trump “tried to switch from looks to stamina” and noted that the Republican was “a man who’s called women pigs, slobs and dogs.”

The New York businessman appeared tempted to make a deeply personal attack, possibly on Bill Clinton’s past infidelities, in response to her attack but held back, instead criticising the Democrat for attacking him with negative TV ads.

“I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family. And I said to myself, I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate; it’s not nice,” he said.

The next debate takes place in St Louis, Missouri on October 9th.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent