HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of self-dealing and racism and he attacked her long political record as empty and ineffectual as the two rivals bared their deep personal dislike Monday in a slashing and sharply pointed first presidential debate.
The two differed — among many issues — over taxes, the state of the economy and how to mend the country’s fraught race relations.
Mostly they clashed over the virtues of a career spent in public service, as Clinton has done, versus the role of a political neophyte, like Trump, who has devoted himself to building a personal real estate fortune and fame as a reality TV star.
Clinton accused Trump of favoring massive tax cuts for the well-to-do, such as himself, in a return to the kind of trickle-down economics that led to the Great Recession.
“I call it Trumped-up trickle-down,” she said, suggesting it would add trillions of dollars to the national debt and pitch the economy back into recession.
Trump asserted she was wrong and said his plan would have a galvanizing effect, creating millions of good-paying jobs and contrasting that with Clinton’s “all-talk” approach to economic policy.
“Typical politician,” he scoffed.
The 90-minute session on the campus of Long Island’s Hofstra University was testy from the start. Within moments, the candidates began talking over each other as they argued about their histories, their plans and comments each has made over the course of the rancorous campaign.
Trump, in his eagerness to one-up Clinton, made some unforced errors that Democrats were certain to jump on, including a near-concession that he paid no taxes.
Trump, who spent much of the night on the defensive, deflected persistent questions about whether he would release his tax returns by claiming he is under audit, something he has repeatedly said prevented him from disclosure. Lester Holt, the moderator, pointed out that there was no prohibition on releasing them during an audit.
“I think you’ve just seen another example of bait-and-switch here,” Clinton said. “I have no reason to believe he’s ever going to release his tax returns because there’s something he’s hiding.”
She then accused Trump of having something to hide, suggesting a number of possibilities: he is not as wealthy as he says; he is not as charitable as he says; he has financial conflicts of interest he does not want to disclose; or he is not paying any income taxes.
“That makes me smart,” Trump said, interrupting Clinton.
But he said he would violate his attorneys’ advice to keep his returns private — and release them instead — if Clinton would put out the 33,000 emails she deleted from the private server she used when she was secretary of state.
Clinton tersely stated, “I made a mistake using a private email.”
“That’s for sure,” Trump interjected.
“And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently,” she said.
“That was more than a mistake,” Trump said, “that was done purposely.”
He called her conduct disgraceful.
Trump also repeated his assertions that foreign trade has gutted America’s working class, singling out the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, and painting his Democratic opponent as a hapless bureaucrat who watched as China and Mexico stole the country’s jobs.
Clinton suggested Trump would say anything, true or not, to personally get ahead.
“I have a feeling by the end of this debate I am going to be blamed for everything that ever happened,” she said through a broad smile.
“Why not?” Trump responded.
“Join the debate by saying more crazy things,” Clinton fired back.
Clinton, who has spent the better part of four decades in public life, was unquestionably the better-versed in matters of policy and substance, and it showed as she repeatedly offered multi-layered plans that contrasted with Trump’s vagueness.
But he repeatedly sought to turn her many years in public office against her, ticking off repeated problems and suggesting she had done nothing during her long political career to help solve them.
“It’s politicians like Secretary Clinton that have caused this problem,” he said at one point, discussing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Clinton went after Trump’s business record, challenging his main credential, accusing him of filing for bankruptcy multiple times and repeatedly stiffing contractors as he built on the handsome financial stake his father handed him starting out.
She accused him of being “one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis” because it would help his bottom line.
“That’s called business,” he shot back.
Trump repeatedly recounted his business success, including what he said was hundreds of millions of dollars in income last year as he ran for president.
“Not to be braggadocios,” he said. “It’s about time that this country had somebody running it that has an idea about money.”
Trump did not shy away from some of the more colorful and controversial things he has said during the campaign and throughout his history in business.
Asked about race relations, he repeated his depiction of inner-city life as living hell for Latinos and African-Americans. “You walk down the street, you get shot,” Trump said.
Clinton said her rival greatly exaggerated the level of violence and downplayed the success and dignity of minority communities. She faulted Trump for advocating “stop-and-frisk” policies that were seen as racial profiling by critics and ruled unconstitutional.
“We’ve got to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” Clinton said. “We cannot just say ‘law and order.’ We have to come up with a plan.”
Clinton also jabbed at Trump by saying he believed that climate change was a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese government. “I do not say that,” Trump responded sharply, though he has.
Much of the pre-debate focus fell on Holt and whether he would fact-check the candidates in real time or leave the two to point out each other’s falsehoods or hyperbole.
He largely receded to the background, though at one point he corrected Trump during a discussion of the so-called “birther” issue — the falsehood he perpetuated that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump said he solved the problem in 2011 by forcing Obama to release his long-form birth certificate. But Holt pointed out that Trump continued to question Obama as recently as January of this year.
Clinton noted that early in his real estate career Trump was sued for allegedly refusing to rent New York City apartments to black tenants and suggested that was a part of a pattern. “He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior and the birther lie was a very hurtful one,” Clinton said.
Holt interceded again when Trump falsely denied his early support for the Iraq War, which Clinton also backed at the time.
“Donald supported the invasion of Iraq,” Clinton said. “That has been proven.”
“Wrong. Wrong. Wrong,” Trump interrupted. “I did not support the war in Iraq. That is mainstream media nonsense put out by her.”
Holt pushed back, pointing out that Trump was, indeed, on the record with his initial support.
The first debate of the fall general election campaign was preceded by a Super Bowl-level of hype, and the audience for the 90-minute session was expected to approach that of the nation’s biggest annual television gathering, with perhaps as many as 100 million viewers tuning in.
Less certain was how many minds would change based on what the Democratic and Republican rivals said and did during their time on stage.
History shows that debates tend to reinforce pre-existing perceptions rather than move a mass of voters or cause a significant number to change their minds and switch support.
Clinton and Trump are scheduled to debate twice more, on Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.
Their running mates, Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, are set to debate a single time, Oct. 4 in Farmville, Va.