Donald Trump was only a few seconds into his first answer in last night’s presidential debate when it became apparent that days of unsourced reports out of his campaign about lackadaisical preparation by the Republican nominee weren’t just some exercise in expectations management. They were the truth.
Asked to speak about his plan to create new jobs, he used his first speaking opportunity of the evening to repeat his debunked claim that China is still manipulating its currency in order to keep the price of its exports low. Then he recycled a dog-eared story about a nameless friend who builds unspecified kinds of industrial plants in Mexico and who says he likes it better there than in the US.
Supposedly the consummate entertainer, Trump showed up on stage at Hofstra University on Long Island with no new material, even though he knew in advance that he wouldn’t be facing an audience content to listen to him reprise his greatest hits from the campaign trail. Worse still, he was utterly unprepared to answer questions that -- as he admitted himself in one case -- he had known were coming.
He stumbled badly when moderator Lester Holt of NBC News pressed him on his support for the invasion of Iraq, which he has vehemently insisted that he actually opposed. His defense devolved into a demand that somebody call up Sean Hannity -- the Trump-friendly Fox News host -- to vouch for him.
“Everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity,” he complained. He added, “He’s willing to say it, but nobody wants to call him.”
When Holt asked him why he continued to fuel the false rumor that President Obama, the nation’s first black president, was born in Africa for years after it was definitively proven false, Trump again showed a complete lack of preparation, responding with the non-sequitur, “Nobody was pressing it. Nobody was caring much about it,” even as he acknowledged, “I figured you’d ask that question.”
When Holt began what appeared to be a follow-up question, asking Trump how he responds to complaints from the African American community about his years of his efforts to de-legitimize the Obama presidency, Trump abruptly cut him off.
“I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it,” he said, referring to the president’s birth certificate proving he was born in Hawaii. “He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing.”
Trump must also have known that his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, would try to goad him into angry or defensive reactions on various topics, but again and again, Trump rose to the bait.
When Clinton needled him about how he got his start in business, with millions of dollars from his wealthy father, Trump couldn’t let it pass, and instead gave the issue more oxygen by addressing it in his response to a different question, insisting that it was a “very small loan.”
When she jabbed at him by mentioning a 40-year-old Justice Department that accused his company of denying housing to African Americans, bragged that he had gotten away without having to admit to discrimination.
“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,” he said.
When she poked him for claiming that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to harm American businesses, he blurted out, “I did not. I did not. I did not say that,” despite the fact that his own Twitter account still hosts the bogus claim.
By the end of the 90-minute session, the man whose entire campaign has been characterized by his gleeful hurling of personal insults was reduced to complaining that his opponent wasn’t treating him kindly in her advertisements.
“I will tell you this, Lester” Trump said to moderator Lester Holt of NBC News, “It's not nice. And I don't deserve that.”
Clinton, by contrast, was well-prepared and tactically savvy. When the issue of her use of a private email system while serving as secretary of state arose, she dealt with it quickly and without bluster or hand-waving, even as Trump tried to talk over her.
“You know, I made a mistake using a private e- mail --” she began.
“That's for sure,” Trump blurted out in one of the dozens of times he attempted to interrupt her throughout the event.
She continued, “And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently. But I'm not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake, and I take responsibility for that.”
Given the chance to respond, Trump chose to quibble with her use of the word “mistake” calling Clinton’s move “intentional” before voluntarily turning the discussion back to his own refusal to turn over his tax returns -- another topic on which Clinton relentlessly baited him.
In what could have been a stumble, Clinton was the only person on the stage all night who made reference to the Benghazi attacks that have been the focus of so much right-wing criticism of her term as secretary of state. She did it with an off-hand reference to the 11 hours of testimony she endured in front of Congressional investigators looking into the attack.
Trump, surprisingly, let the opportunity to bring up Benghazi pass him by. And for Trump, that could serve as a metaphor for the debate as a whole: He had an opportunity, and he squandered it.