HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, speaking to each other with undisguised disdain, sharply disagreed on how to boost the American economy and uplift minority communities in a debate Monday night while hammering each other on matters of ethics, character, and veracity.
Clinton launched into lacerating attacks — targeting Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, his business record of not paying contractors, and his demeaning comments toward women — as Trump dismissed the criticism as sound bites delivered by a typical politician.
Even as he appeared to flail at times in contrast to her smoother performance, Trump tried to drive home the message that he is an outsider unafraid to take on elites. He repeatedly blamed Clinton for failing to solve problems over three decades in government roles.
“I have a feeling by the end of this debate I’ll be blamed for everything,” Clinton said.
“Why not?” Trump responded.
Trump was feisty but at times bordered on rude, frequently interrupting Clinton and speaking over the moderator, or leaning over into the microphone and shouting, “Wrong!”
The former secretary of state was more patient, letting him speak for long stretches without jumping in, then coming back to correct his statements with a smile. It seemed part of a strategy to let Trump hang himself on his own words.
“Just listen to what you heard,” she said at one point.
She seemed more prepared with zingers designed to make an impact, while Trump often riffed without a planned response.
In one of the most biting exchanges, Clinton accused Trump of spreading a “racist lie” that President Obama was not born in the United States. Trump — who claimed credit for Obama releasing his birth certificate in 2011 but didn’t explain why he continued raising questions about his birth origin for five more years — later referred to Obama as “your president.”
‘‘It can’t be dismissed that easily. He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” Clinton said. “There was no absolutely no evidence for it. But he persisted, he persisted, year after year.’’
She also pointed to 1970s lawsuits in which Trump was accused of discriminating against blacks in his family real estate business, saying, ‘‘He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.”
Toward the end of the debate, Trump was asked what he meant by an earlier comment he’d made that Clinton doesn’t have the look of a president.
The Republican nominee deflected the question, saying that he meant she didn’t have the “stamina” to serve as the country’s commander in chief.
Clinton seemed ready for the jab.
“As soon as he’s traveled to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire . . . he can talk to me about stamina,” she said.
“Hillary has experience,” Trump said. “But it is bad experience.”
Clinton then broadened her attack to say that he disregarded not only her, but many other women.
“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs,” said Clinton. “He loves beauty contests. Supporting them and hanging around them.”
Trump seemed to be caught off guard for a moment, and defended himself by saying that the “pig” remark was directed at TV personality Rosie O’Donnell.
“I think everyone would agree that she deserves it,” Trump said, referring to O’Donnell.
The debate was one of the most highly anticipated political events in decades, expected to reach Super Bowl-worthy ratings. It marked the first time in history that a woman stood on a presidential debate stage as a major party nominee, and the first time in decades — since Ross Perot in 1992 — for a person who has never held elected office.
But the historic forum at times took on a brawling tone, as the candidates jumped in and sought to score points in the early going.
“Donald, I know you live in your own reality,’’ Clinton declared, as Trump interrupted her on a question about foreign trade.
“Typical politician. All talk. No action. Sounds good. Never gonna work,’’ Trump said later, dismissing Clinton.
Trump continued his previous stance that he opposed the Iraq war before it started, which is false. Trump also insisted he never said climate change was a myth pushed by China, which is false.
Clinton was incredulous. “Fact-checkers — please — get to work,” she said.
The 90-minute debate, moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, was held at the Hofstra University campus on Long Island.
Clinton started needling Trump early, accusing him of pushing for a tax plan that would benefit the wealthy. “I call it ‘trumped-up, trickle-down’ because that’s exactly what it would be,” Clinton said, referring to the idea of “trickle-down economics.”
One of the sharpest early exchanges came over trade, with Trump saying that Clinton would continue the general philosophy on free trade that her husband pioneered by negotiating the North American Fair Trade Agreement.
“I think my husband did a pretty good job in the ’90s,” Clinton said, with former president Clinton sitting nearby in the audience.
“She’s been doing this for 30 years. And why hasn’t she made the agreements better? The NAFTA agreement is defective,” Trump said.
Trump was also pressed about his unwillingness to release his tax returns, as all presidential candidates have done for four decades.
“I will release my tax returns — against my lawyer’s wishes — when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted,” Trump said, citing an ongoing audit that doesn’t legally restrict him from releasing his taxes.
“You’ve got to ask yourself, why won’t he release his tax returns?” Clinton said. “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.”
Trump leaned into his microphone and said, referring to his not paying taxes, “That makes me smart.”
Clinton took responsibility for her use of a private e-mail server, saying, “I’m not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake.”
“That was more than a mistake,” he said. “That was done purposely.”
On crime the two candidates laid out sharply different strategies. “We have to restore trust between communities and the police,” Clinton said.
“Everyone should respect the law, and everyone should be respected by the law. And that is not always the case,” Clinton said.
Trump outlined a grim picture of American cities.
“Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words and that’s ‘law’ and ‘order,’ ” Trump said. “We need law and order and we don’t have it.”
He said that many minorities in the cities are living in hell and he defended a controversial police policy called “stop and frisk.”
Clinton walked on stage with experience on her side: she’d already participated in 13 one-on-one debates going back to her 2000 Senate race, according to a tally by The Atlantic. Trump, who has never before run for office, was on a stage with numerous opponents during the GOP primary, allowing him to fade into the background during long portions of the debates.
Clinton spent much of the day preparing for the debate, leaving her home in Westchester County and headed to Long Island around 1 p.m. — a full eight hours before the debate was set to start. For weeks she held mock debates and practiced exchanges with longtime adviser Philippe Reines, who, with a reputation for combativeness of his own, played the role of Trump.
Trump referred to the amount of campaigning he was doing while Clinton “decided to stay at home.”
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” Clinton said. “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.”
Trump, who arrived at the debate site a few hours before it began, largely avoided formal practice sessions, instead relying on group discussions to discuss potential lines of attack.
Nearly 75 percent of registered voters were expected to watch the debate, according to a Morning Consult survey.
At the end of the debate, both candidates said they would abide by the verdict that voters render in November.
“I will certainly support the outcome of this election,” Clinton said.
“If she wins,” Trump said, “I will absolutely support her.”