In Trump and Clinton's First Debate, Moderator Lester Holt Was the Loser

The first debate, historic and exasperating.EXPAND
The first debate, historic and exasperating.
Screengrab from NBC

Last night history was made.

Donald Trump lied on stage. A lot. But that wasn't the big deal. Hillary Clinton smiled, baited Trump, and then smiled again. She also took the stage as the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major party in the history of the United States.

But even that didn't rank compared to this shock of shocks.

A presidential candidate not only admitted that he hasn't paid federal taxes, but called himself smart for avoiding those taxes all these years. That's never happened onstage before. 

Moderator Lester Holt exasperated us all by allowing Trump to ride roughshod over him. While Holt interjected every so often to try and get the two candidates to move on to the next topic, Trump and Clinton ignored Holt's admonitions to follow the rules laid out for this first debate, which lasted more than 90 minutes Monday night at Hofstra University. Trump spouted off inaccurate statements, lied about things he's previously said and uttered a number of alarming statements.

Over the course of the evening Trump assured the public he doesn't want to be the one to fire off nuclear weapons first (he made no such reassurances about being the second to fire though). He insisted that somehow the United States could have prevented the rise of ISIS by going in and taking the oil the group now uses to fund its terrorist activities, though Trump didn't tell us how he proposed to go in, take a country's oil and not be at war with said country.

When Clinton pointed out he hasn't actually paid federal taxes, Trump nodded eagerly. "That makes me smart," he retorted.  Trump insisted he wasn't being "braggadocios" and then proceeded to brag about his success and really just all of the money he has.

In other words, Clinton would coolly bait the verbal traps and Trump would stomp right into them. Repeatedly. He started out on message but by the end of the night his voice — which seemed like he'd worked to keep at low, even tones when the debate began — was growing strident and he was interrupting as often as he could.

Clinton mostly kept her cool over the course of the debate. She ended up talking over Trump's efforts to interrupt her, and interrupted him, but she seemed to make a point of smiling as she did it. She too kept her voice evenly pitched in certain dulcet tones, as if she wanted to avoid appearing harsh. But behind the determinedly pleasant, politely bemused expression, her face bore the look of someone playing chess against a dinosaur, surprised at such an absurd match-up but going with it, since this is how the game must be played.

"I have a feeling that by the end of this evening I'm going to be blamed for everything," Clinton said at one point.

"Why not?" Trump shot back.

She knew how Trump wanted to paint her and she did her best to avoid giving him the chance. 

"Words matter. Words matter when you run for president, and they really matter when you are president," Clinton said, explaining that she will not be the kind of president who tosses words around carelessly. Her face was tautly tolerant when Trump brought up more than 30,000 emails she kept on a private server and deleted as secretary of state. Clinton responded that she had made a mistake and there were no excuses for that. 

Meanwhile, Trump did his usual bit of never admitting to any missteps. He stood onstage — at the podiums that were tailored to make the two candidates appear the same height during the debate — and once again, denied being anything but tremendously tremendous.

He did not admit to a single mistake, not to things he's previously said about climate change, not about the Iraq War, not about how he actually got his start in businesses (through repeated loans from his father). And as the debate carried on, the two candidates engaged in verbal combat, trying to keep their respective composure and to win the fight.

Holt trailed along behind them, looking for a chance to get them back on topic every other beat. He didn't really pull it off. 

As to who won the debate, it's a tossup. Clinton fans will say she owned it (by not losing her cool and landing exactly one joke that didn't play as unscripted) and Trump supporters will maintain he easily bested his opponent (since he didn't grab his crotch onstage or start screaming obscenities or throwing feces — you know, because he acted presidential and all). But there was an obvious loser — Holt.


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