Monday night’s presidential debate was a duel of well-prepared lines and impromptu thrusts, where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican adversary, Donald Trump, sought not only to win arguments but to create unforgettable, campaign-changing moments.
After 90 minutes of verbal sparring, there was no damning gaffe, no irretrievable words set adrift with the power to damn either candidate. But there were a number of well-turned phrases — even a few worthy of commemoration alongside greats like “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Here are the barbs most likely to stick in the collective memory:
#1. Clinton indulged her every speculation on the question of why Trump hasn’t released his tax returns. And as an unexpected bonus, she got Trump to admit that he has no problem with tax avoidance.
Clinton: First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. . . . Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes because the only years that anybody has ever seen were a couple of years when had he to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax. So —
Trump: That makes me smart.
Clinton: He paid zero. That means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.
#2. Trump had a response to this line of attack, and it was rhetorically powerful. He acted as if he had some high-minded reason to withhold his tax returns — but then conceded that he’d gladly make the sacrifice if only Clinton would share her private e-mails.
Trump: 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 my tax returns and that’s against my lawyers say don’t do it.”
#3. This, Trump should have seen coming. If there was any assertion likely to draw a quick fact-check, it was Trump’s much-repeated and widely-discredited claim to have opposed the war in Iraq. Yet, he trotted it out again, picking a two-front fight against both Clinton and the night’s moderator, Lester Holt.
Holt: You supported the war in Iraq.
Trump: That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her [Clinton], because she frankly, I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media. Would you like to hear? I was against the war, wait a minute. I was against the war in Iraq. Just so you put it out.
Clinton: The record shows otherwise, but . . .
Trump: It does not show that. The record shows that I’m right. . . . But if somebody, and I’ll ask the press, if somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that exactly what this’s done.
Holt: My reference is to what you said in 2002.
Trump: You didn’t hear what I said.
#4. When Trump mocked Clinton for having left the campaign trail in recent days, he walked into a trap. She was ready with a reversal suggesting that Trump is unprepared for high office.
Trump: You decided to stay home, and that’s okay. But I will tell you. I’ve been all over . . .
Clinton: I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.
#5. Trump’s strongest retorts were the ones deployed like little pins to pop Clinton’s ideas as if they were light, airy things.
After Clinton gave a long harangue about Trump’s sins in the business world, he waved it away with “Look, it’s all words. It’s all sound bites.”
And earlier, when Clinton spoke at length about the importance of investing in the middle class, Trump replied: “Typical politician, all talk, no action, sounds good, doesn’t work, never going to happen.”
#6. Most surreal was Trump’s closing appeal for comity. This man who has earned his reputation as a bully, who coins disparaging nicknames for every rival, and who once mocked a reporter’s disability said that Clinton’s negative campaign was “not nice.”
Trump: But she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are untrue, and they’re misrepresentations, and I will tell you this, Lester, it’s not nice, and I don’t deserve that, but it’s certainly not a nice thing that she’s done. Hundreds of millions of ads.