Editorial: Trump takes Clinton’s bait in the first debate

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26.
(Joe Raedle/Pool via Associated Press)

In the early minutes of Monday’s first general election presidential debate, it was possible that tens of millions of viewers who hadn’t followed the election until that point might have gotten the impression that this was a conventional election. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton disagreed about tax and trade policy in civil terms, and it was possible to imagine that — even if the Republican’s nominee’s positions seemed simplistic — this was a contest between two serious candidates.

But as the debate progressed, Trump — sometimes walking into traps laid by his exquisitely prepared opponent — displayed precisely the character traits that make him an unacceptable option even for many members of his own party: a hypersensitivity to criticism, a streak of viciousness, an inability to confess error and a willful ignorance about the issues he would have to deal with as president.

Those shortcomings may not matter to many of his supporters, who no doubt rallied to familiar themes such as his lament for American jobs “stolen” by inequitable trade agreements or his call for a return to “law and order” as a remedy for urban crime. But for undecided voters looking to be persuaded that Trump was a plausible potential president, his increasingly rattled and defensive performance Monday evening couldn’t have been reassuring.


By contrast, Hillary Clinton was — as expected — not only in command of myriad details of foreign and domestic policy but assertive in challenging both Trump’s policy positions, such as his suggestions that the United States might not come to the support of its NATO allies if they were attacked, and his claims to achievements in business.

Clinton was especially effective in calling Trump out on his failure to release his income tax returns and his (only recently abandoned) questioning of President Obama’s citizenship, an issue initially raised by debate moderator Lester Holt. Trump’s sputtering response was to accuse the Clinton campaign of starting the rumor that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, an irrelevant attempt at deflection that his surrogates have been making for several days. It made him look small.

In her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton said of Trump that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” On Monday Trump showed that he could also be baited by an opponent on the debate stage. The result reconfirmed our view that he is unfit for the job.