HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) — Donald Trump blamed the moderator, a bad microphone and anyone but himself Tuesday after he was forced onto the defense by Hillary Clinton’s cascade of attacks about his taxes, honesty and character in the first presidential debate.
Trump tried aggressively to pin America’s problems on Clinton at Monday night’s debate. But Clinton, showing her intensive preparations, went after him as hard or harder, including sharp criticism of his business practices and crude comments about women.
She also attacked his false assertions about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, calling it part of a pattern of “racist behavior.” And she repeatedly criticized Trump for breaking tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, declaring, “There’s something he’s hiding.”
Still, Trump insisted on Tuesday he’d gotten the better of Clinton, awarding her a C-plus while declining to assign himself a grade. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s aides and running mate took to television to argue she’d accomplished precisely what she’d set out to do.
Both campaigns knew the highly anticipated first debate could mark a turning point six weeks before Election Day, but it was unclear if either candidate would reap significant gains. Trump and Clinton are locked in an exceedingly close race and competing vigorously to win over undecided voters.
Clinton’s preferred tactic — provoking Trump with jabs aimed at rattling him — continued to pay dividends the day after the debate. After brushing off Clinton’s claim that he’d once shamed a former Miss Universe winner for her weight, Trump on Tuesday dug deeper.
“She gained a massive amount of weight. It was a real problem. We had a real problem,” Trump told “Fox and Friends” about the 1996 winner of the pageant he once owned.
Though he said on Twitter he had “really enjoyed” the debate, he accused moderator Lester Holt of a left-leaning performance and going harder on him than Clinton. He insisted he had “no sniffles” and no allergies despite the #snifflegate speculation that had exploded on social media.
And in one of the more bizarre moments in presidential debate history, he floated the possibility that organizers had intentionally set his “terrible” microphone to a lower volume than Clinton’s. Trump said he “didn’t want to believe in conspiracy theories” but pushed the theory anyway that it was “set up that way on purpose.”
“Anybody who’s about the microphone is not having a good night,” a sardonic Clinton told reporters on her plane as she flew midday Tuesday to North Carolina. She accused Trump of making “demonstrably untrue” claims in the debate.
With precious few weeks left to campaign, both candidates returned promptly to the trail. North Carolina and Florida, where Trump was campaigning, are both among a handful of toss-up states whose winners could help determine the outcome of the election. Obama and Trump are slated to face each again on Oct. 9 during the second debate, in St. Louis.
The debate was confrontational from the start, with Trump frequently trying to interrupt Clinton and speaking over her answers. Clinton was more measured and restrained, often smiling through his answers, well-aware of the television cameras capturing her reaction.
“Hillary told the truth and Donald told some whoppers,” Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, told ABC News.
Trump has said he can’t release his tax returns because he is being audited, though tax experts have said an audit is no barrier to making the information public. When Clinton suggested his refusal might be because he possibly paid nothing in federal taxes, he interrupted to say, “That makes me smart.”
Trump’s criticism of Clinton turned personal in the debate’s closing moments. He said, “She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina” to be president. He’s made similar comments in previous events, sparking outrage from Clinton backers who accused him of a sexist attack on the first woman nominated for president by a major U.S. political party.
The centerpiece of Trump’s case against Clinton is that the former senator and secretary of state is little more than a career politician who has squandered opportunities to address the domestic and international problems she’s now pledging to tackle as president.
“She’s got experience,” he said, “but it’s bad experience.”
When Trump made a crack about Clinton taking time off the campaign trail to prepare for the debate, she turned it into a validation of her readiness for the White House.
“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.”
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.