Even before Donald Trump’s epic twitter meltdown in the early morning hours today—where he tripled-down on his misogynistic comments about former beauty queen Alicia Machado, and in doing so created the first-ever news reports with the words “presidential nominee” and “sex tape” in the same sentence—it was very clear that the GOP standard-bearer had absolutely no impulse control. Whether it was leaning into fights with a federal judge over his Mexican heritage or a Gold Star family over their religion, or repeatedly defending his retweeting of an anti-Semitic meme, Trump has shown that he cannot resist regaining the perceived upper hand, no matter how great the political damage or how shameful the behavior necessary to do so. This pattern is what Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall called “the fever inside,” explaining: “Trump lives in a psychic economy of aggression and domination. There are dominators and the dominated. No in between. Every attack he receives, every ego injury must be answered, rebalanced with some new aggression to reassert dominance. These efforts are often wildly self-destructive. We’ve seen the pattern again and again.” It’s the character defect Hillary Clinton highlighted in her convention speech when she proclaimed: “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
But as damaging as each of Trump’s self-inflicted controversies have been, nothing has been as harmful to his presidential campaign than the first presidential debate. More than 80 million people tuned in on Monday—many of whom were focusing on the candidates in a meaningful way for the first time—and what they saw was one candidate of presidential mettle and another ill-suited to managing even his own twitter account. As we approach the final month of the presidential campaign, it’s worth examining Trump’s inability to resist taking the bait during the first debate. And it’s also worth considering how when faced with similar temptations, Clinton chose to absorb the smaller attacks rather than lash back and risk greater injury. The transcript is telling.
Tomorrow, five times Clinton exercised discretion. Today, five times Trump’s impulsiveness was his undoing. [Note: the excerpts below occasionally omit interjections and connect consecutive answers to the same prompt]
Prompt #1 (Debate Moderator Lester Holt): The IRS says an audit…. of your taxes — you’re perfectly free to release your taxes during an audit. And so the question, does the public’s right to know outweigh your personal…
Pitfall: This was an obvious question Trump should have been well prepared to address. Trump is the first candidate in over forty years not to release his tax returns, and there has been extensive reporting that the decision likely conceals the fact that he’s lied about the extent of his charitable giving, the extent of his wealth, and the legal troubles of his business enterprises. If he’s made the calculation that disclosure would cause greater political damage than the negative press from breaking this political norm, then he needed to stay on message and take the short term shots from Clinton and the press.
Actual Response: Well, I told you, I will release them as soon as the audit…We have a situation in this country that has to be taken care of. I will release my tax returns — against my lawyer’s wishes — when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release. I will release my tax returns. And that’s against — my lawyers, they say, “Don’t do it.” I will tell you this. No — in fact, watching shows, they’re reading the papers. Almost every lawyer says, you don’t release your returns until the audit’s complete. When the audit’s complete, I’ll do it. But I would go against them if she releases her e-mails.
Verdict: At first he just gave his standard issue dodge about being under audit. But when Holt called out his excuse, he couldn’t help getting nasty. Instead of deflecting again and absorbing the hit, Trump basically admits that his excuse is a ruse.
Prompt #2 (Clinton): …if your main claim to be president of the United States is your business, then I think we should talk about that. You know, your campaign manager said that you built a lot of businesses on the backs of little guys. And, indeed, I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald. I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers, like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do. We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do… Do the thousands of people that you have stiffed over the course of your business not deserve some kind of apology from someone who has taken their labor, taken the goods that they produced, and then refused to pay them?… you’ve taken business bankruptcy six times. There are a lot of great businesspeople that have never taken bankruptcy once.
Pitfall: Trump’s business record is atrocious. His companies have filed for bankruptcy multiple times, and he has a long record of using the costs of litigation to avoid making even indisputable contractual payments. These facts undercut his argument that he’s a great businessman and demonstrate a lack of compassion for regular people, respectively. A good response would be to ignore these attacks, cite a positive statistic about the success of his companies, quickly provide an example of how his businesses have helped regular people, and then turn the tables against Clinton and argue that her financial dealings and government experience have been at the expense of the little guy.
Actual Response: Look, it’s all words, it’s all sound bites. I built an unbelievable company. Some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world, real estate assets anywhere in the world, beyond the United States, in Europe, lots of different places. It’s an unbelievable company. But on occasion, four times, we used certain laws that are there. And when Secretary Clinton talks about people that didn’t get paid, first of all, they did get paid a lot, but taken advantage of the laws of the nation. Now, if you want to change the laws, you’ve been there a long time, change the laws. But I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company. My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do. But what she doesn’t say is that tens of thousands of people that are unbelievably happy and that love me. I’ll give you an example. We’re just opening up on Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the White House, so if I don’t get there one way, I’m going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another.
Verdict: Utter failure. He ran headlong into Clinton’s charges and essentially corroborated them before concluding with expressions of narcissism and indifference about becoming president.
Prompt #3 (Holt): But I just want to get the answer here. The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You’ve continued to tell the story and question the president’s legitimacy in 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15… I’m sorry. I’m just going to follow up — and I will let you respond to that, because there’s a lot there. But we’re talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans, people of color who…
Pitfall: Trump was not just a birther; he was the face of the birther movement for five years. Given that his movement was filled with made-up innuendo and outrageous lies and was a transparent attempt to build political capital based on cheap racism towards our first black president, there’s no real way to avoid massive damage other than to apologize. He telegraphed his approach a week earlier, however, when he made up two new lies to excuse his past disgrace (he claimed that Clinton “started” the birther movement and that he “finished it”). He tried those lies again at the debate, but when pressed with Holt’s obvious follow-up, he needed to retreat.
Actual Response: Well, nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it. I figured you’d ask the question tonight, of course. But nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job. Secretary Clinton also fought it. I mean, you know — now, everybody in mainstream is going to say, oh, that’s not true. Look, it’s true. Sidney Blumenthal sent a reporter — you just have to take a look at CNN, the last week, the interview with your former campaign manager. And she was involved. But just like she can’t bring back jobs, she can’t produce…I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing.
Verdict: Instead he claimed credit for making the president show his papers and then added insult to injury to every non-white voter. Not nice!
Prompt #4 (Clinton): Remember, Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans, and he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy. He actually was sued twice by the Justice Department. So he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.
Pitfall: This is true and deeply damaging to Trump’s attempts to woo college-educated Republicans unnerved by his temperament and racist comments. The best response would have been to resist defending himself and instead argue that Clinton herself is racially compromised (by exaggerating earlier criticisms of Bill Clinton’s crime bill and her “super predator” remark).
Actual Response: Now, as far as the lawsuit, yes, when I was very young, I went into my father’s company, had a real estate company in Brooklyn and Queens, and we, along with many, many other companies throughout the country — it was a federal lawsuit — were sued. We settled the suit with zero — with no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do…I notice you bring that up a lot. And, you know, I also notice the very nasty commercials that you do on me in so many different ways, which I don’t do on you. Maybe I’m trying to save the money. But, frankly, I look — I look at that, and I say, isn’t that amazing? Because I settled that lawsuit with no admission of guilt, but that was a lawsuit brought against many real estate firms, and it’s just one of those things.
Verdict: No pivot or counterpunch, only a full-throated defense proving he got the upper hand. His boast? That he wasn’t the only one discriminating against black people but that he was smart enough to get away with it with no admission of guilt.
Prompt #5 (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…. women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men…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.
Pitfall: Trump has a long record of misogyny. But Clinton’s Machado attack here was forced and only tangentially related to question. In other words, Trump had no need to respond. An effective response here would instead be that he supports women, that his criticisms of Clinton have nothing to do with her being a woman, and that her use of gender as a defense proves she has no legitimate response. Instead…
Actual Response: You know, Hillary is hitting me with tremendous commercials. Some of it’s said in entertainment. Some of it’s said — somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her. But you want to know the truth? 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.”
Verdict: …he took the bait hook, line, and sinker. He veered right into the criticism and projected a new level of misogyny.
Trump will self-destruct when baited because he simply cannot help himself. These examples stand in sharp contrast to the many times Clinton was insulted and challenged yet demurred for the greater good. More on that tomorrow.