Trump Time Capsule #145: 'Nasty Woman'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

With two and a half weeks to go, the debate phase of the competition is at last at its end. In real time last night I did an endless tweet-storm commentary whose beginning you can find here and that wound up this way:

Most of what I thought, I said at the time. But to summarize:

1) Predictability. To my relief, most of the expert forecasts I quoted in my debate preview piece matched what actually occurred.

The match-up really did turn out to be an extreme contrast at every level—intellectual and rhetorical styles, bearing on stage, what each candidate talked about and didn’t. The things Jane Goodall foresaw about Trump’s primate-dominance moves actually took place, when he was free to roam the stage in debate #2. As his fallen rivals from the Republican primaries had predicted, Trump faced much greater challenges in these head-to-head debates than he had in the crowded-podium prelims. Back then, he could chime in with an insult whenever he wanted and otherwise just stay quiet and roll his eyes. In the head-to-head round, especially the last debate, he struggled to fill his allotted time with details on any topic and fell back on slogans from his stump speech. Also predictably, Hillary Clinton was as prepared as she could be and barely put a foot wrong.

Most impressively of all, Hillary Clinton’s 100-percent-completely-foreseeable “Take the bait, please!!” strategy—foreseeable enough that I said in the article that this is what she would do—worked marvelously well.

From the opening moments of the first debate, she sent out a a nonstop stream of provocations, subtle or obvious, all tailored to wounding Trump’s vanities. The topics ranged from his not really being rich, to being a man of the beauty-pageant world, to not paying taxes, to being a chronic liar, to generally being preposterous. Sooner or later in each debate, usually sooner, it worked! Trump simply could not resist the bait. He would go off on exactly the tirades the Clinton campaign was hoping to evoke from him. You saw it again last night: for the first 30 minutes or so, he was so stately as to seem semi-sedated. Then she began teasing him, and she got him to snap and interrupt.

So from an unprecedented and potentially unpredictable confrontation, we saw the behavior many people anticipated from each candidate. Very carefully prepped Belichick-type execution of a precise plan from one side. On the other side, wild slugging by someone who might as well have had a bucket over his head.


2) Moderator. Given Fox News’s stake in this race—Sean Hannity as unapologetic campaign booster for Trump, Roger Ailes drifting between the organizations—the pre-debate question about moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox, was which part of the now-split Fox consciousness he would represent. The movement-activist part, which has made Fox essentially the only “news” outlet on which Trump will appear in recent weeks? Or the actual-journalist part, as Fox’s Shep Smith and Bret Baier usually illustrate and as Megyn Kelly sometimes does—for instance, when memorably dressing down Karl Rove while the Ohio vote was being counted four years ago?

Joe Raedle / Reuters

Congrats to Wallace, who conducted most of the debate as if it were an actual interview on substance; who reminded candidates of the question he had originally asked, when they drifted afield; who (like Anderson Cooper in round two) was polite in tone while maintaining control of the discussion; and who improvised in a non-gimmicky way by ending the debate with an “unexpected” call for a brief closing statement. Of course this was one of the many contingencies Hillary Clinton had fully prepared for; of course it was one of many developments to which Donald Trump had given no advance thought. So she reeled off a practiced-seeming one-minute wrapup, and he gave what appeared to be random highlights from his rally speeches. Imagine the debate planning that would have Trump use the final few seconds of his final debate appearance thus: “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education.”


3) The tyranny of the “deficit nightmare.” My one criticism of Wallace’s debate-management is the one Paul Krugman lays out in more detail here. I will bet—oh, let’s say, a trillion dollars—that when someone looks back on the 2016 campaign and asks, “What’s a major long-term danger that got shockingly little attention in the campaign?” the answer is not going to be “the federal budget deficit.” But Wallace hammered on this exaggerated threat in two extended discussions. I bet that the answer is going to be climate change and sustainability in all forms. Unless I missed it, no question from any of the moderators was on this theme.

Of course public services must pay their way in the long run. But the hold that deficit-hawkery has on “respectable” discussion these days is quite remarkable.

So, for Chris Wallace: if you’d swapped even one of your deficit questions for a climate one, it would have been an even better job. Still, well done overall.


4) HRC’s worst moment. It occurred an hour in, when Wallace asked her a perfectly straightforward question about “pay for play” criticisms of the Clinton Foundation, and she started talking all around the topic as if she was trying to avoid the question or had something to hide. On the merits as I understand them, most of the “pay for play” with the Clinton Foundation is stuck in the realm of “lingering questions” and “gives rise to questionable appearances,” rather than of anyone having nailed down a quid-pro-quo. Smoke rather than fire. This is quite a contrast to the netherworld of the Trump “Foundation,” as David Fahrenthold of the WaPo has plumbed it. But she sounded as if she were talking around the issue, in the way her critics assume her always to do.

In context, this didn’t “matter,” because so much else was going her way, and because Trump jumped in after a minute with a standard over-the-top accusation that the Clinton Foundation was “a criminal enterprise.” This in turn gave her a chance to start talking about his objectively shady-seeming foundation. So it didn’t change the flow of this debate, but it would be better if she could resist talking this way. (Sample at end of this item, along with the full video.)


5) Trump’s worst moment. I was about to say there’s no contest here, but actually there is. One of his off-hand remarks was abysmal as a matter of substance; the other joins the parade of catastrophic touches of style.

The substance offense was of course Trump’s refusal to say that he would “accept” the results of the election, if he lost. The whole concept of “peaceful transfer of power” depends on the group that loses an election willingly accepting their defeat. Back in installment #143 I laid out the contrasts between Trump’s emerging stance and the previous centuries of our history. You can also read Peter Beinart on our site and The Atlantic’s live-blog team, and practically anything else in print or online today.

And Trump’s stylistic touch? Of course it is “such a nasty woman.” It was much worse in context than in seems on the page, both because of the way he said it (hint: You’ll see it in Democratic ads) and because of what brought it on. It was in response to this from Hillary Clinton, with emphasis added to what was presented as a quick little throwaway dig:

Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund...

Bait offered. Bait taken! As I’ve argued repeatedly, the temperamental demands of the presidency are even more exacting than its intellectual and physical-stamina requirements. One of our candidates repeatedly shows that he has the temperament we expect people to be growing beyond by the time they reach middle school.

And Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the whole tattered supporting cast still say, Make this man president!

Here endeth my 2016 presidential-debate coverage. And not one millisecond too soon.


For reference, here is the way the “pay to play” discussion evolved. Points to note: Wallace’s attempts to get an answer to his question; Clinton’s talking-around the question; Trump’s crude overplay of his hand:

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, during your 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, you promised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with your dealing with the Clinton Foundation. ...

Can you really say that you kept your pledge to that Senate committee? And why isn’t what happened and what went on between you and the Clinton Foundation, why isn’t it what Mr. Trump calls pay to play?

CLINTON: Well, everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values. The State Department has said that. I think that's been proven.

But I am happy, in fact I’m thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation, because it is a world-renowned charity and I am so proud of the work that it does. You know, I could talk for the rest of the debate—I know I don’t have the time to do that.

But just briefly, the Clinton Foundation made it possible for 11 million people around the world with HIV-AIDS to afford treatment, and that's about half all the people in the world who are getting treatment. In partnership with the American Health Association ...

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton ...

CLINTON: ... we have made environments in schools healthier for kids, including healthier lunches ...

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, respectfully, this is—this is an open discussion.

CLINTON: Well, it is an open discussion. And you ...

WALLACE: And the specific question went to pay for play. Do you want to talk about that?

CLINTON: Well, but there is no—but there is no evidence—but there is ...


TRUMP: I think that it’s been very well ...

WALLACE: Let’s ask Mr. Trump.

CLINTON: There is a lot of evidence about the very good work ...

TRUMP: It’s been very well studied.

CLINTON: ... and the high rankings ...


WALLACE: Please let Mr. Trump speak.

TRUMP: ... and it’s a criminal enterprise, and so many people know it.