If Donald Trump was concerned or contrite after his widely panned debate performance, there was no sign of it Tuesday as he resumed his attack on a former Miss Universe and blamed the moderator and a faulty microphone for repeatedly throwing him on the defensive.
While Hillary Clinton took a victory lap of sorts, hammering her opponent over his unreleased tax returns, Trump went on Twitter and the friendly confines of Fox News to declare himself the winner and threaten an escalation of attacks in the next face-to-face encounter.
The GOP nominee also redoubled his criticism of former beauty queen Alicia Machado, spotlighting one of the odder digressions in recent campaign history and signaling he has no plans to modify his strategy or tame his pugnacious personality — even as some Republicans called for a new approach.
Clinton rattled Trump in Monday night’s debate by citing his criticism of Machado in the 1990s, when he was executive producer of the Miss Universe pageant.
“She was the winner and she gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem,” Trump said Tuesday on Fox News. Clinton “found the girl and talked about her like she was Mother Teresa, and it wasn’t quite that way.”
He may not be as restrained the next time, Trump said; he and Clinton are due to square off in a town-hall style session Oct. 9 in St. Louis. “I may hit her harder in certain ways,” he said.
Good or bad, a presidential debate performance is never taken in isolation. Critical reviews and unflattering news coverage like Trump received can alter the arc of a campaign and, with it, the momentum for or against a candidate.
The actions Tuesday of Trump allies were telling.
Supporters cited his relatively strong performance in the debate’s opening segment, on the theory that most viewers tuned out soon afterward. (In fact, the Nielsen rating service found that about 84 million people watched the matchup throughout, a record.)
“Everyone is in agreement that he had a great 30 minutes,” said David Tamasi, a lobbyist who chairs Trump’s Washington finance committee and attended the debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University.
Others were less impressed.
Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist in Pennsylvania, said people both inside and outside the Trump campaign criticized his lack of preparation — a point of pride for Trump heading into the debate.
“In the ‘spin rooms’ they’re saying what they had to say, but quietly they were not thrilled,” said Gerow, whose state is vital to Trump’s electoral strategy.
She was the winner and she gained a massive amount of weight and it was a real problem.
Some Republicans were privately furious with Trump.
“The lack of preparation was evident,” said one high-ranking Republican, who spoke on the condition that he not be named to avoid alienating the party’s standard-bearer. The GOP insider pointed to other elements of Trump’s campaign, including its scattershot work to organize get-out-the-vote efforts and deploy resources to key states.
“If there’s a larger piece here, I think it’s looking at how seriously he prepares for the job of president,” the insider said.
Offbeat as it may seem, Machado’s insertion into the presidential contest exemplified the candidates’ contrasting approaches to the debate: Clinton calculated and scrupulously prepared; Trump essentially winged it.
The Democratic nominee clearly intended to make Trump’s comments on the sensitive issues of weight and personal dignity an issue with two groups she is targeting, women and Latino voters. Trump was caught unawares, asking three times during the debate, “Where did you find this?” when Clinton brought up Machado.
Before the debate even ended, the Clinton campaign had produced a bilingual video recounting Machado’s experience with Trump, including a description of an eating disorder Machado said resulted from her humiliation.
Reversing his initial assessment of the moderator, Trump on Tuesday also criticized NBC’s Lester Holt, suggesting he unfairly asked too many harsh questions while leaving Clinton unscathed. And Trump claimed there was something wrong with his microphone, which amplified his frequent sniffles.
“My microphone was terrible,” Trump said in the Fox telephone interview. “I wonder: Was it set up that way on purpose?”
“Let’s play two!” she said, quoting the famously exuberant baseball legend Ernie Banks, as she expressed her eagerness for the next scheduled meeting with Trump.
Grinning for much of the brief question-and-answer session, Clinton couldn’t resist getting in a dig as she walked away. She turned and addressed Trump’s claim that technical issues hampered his performance.
“Anybody who complains about the microphone,” she gibed, “is not having a good night.”
Later, at a community college rally in Raleigh, Clinton picked up on Trump’s remark in the debate that he was “smart” to avoid paying federal income taxes in years he could.
“He actually bragged about gaming the system,” Clinton said. “And this is a man who goes around calling our military a disaster. Who goes around criticizing every institution, from healthcare to education, our vets. But he probably hasn’t paid a penny to support our troops, or our vets, or our schools, or our healthcare systems.”
Trump has not released his tax returns, breaking with decades of tradition for major party candidates, so Clinton’s assertions amounted to speculation on her part.
Soon after the debate, there were rumblings Trump might duck the final two sessions. After the town-hall meeting, the major-party candidates are scheduled to debate a third time in Las Vegas on Oct. 19.
But on Tuesday, Trump quickly scotched the suggestion.
Leaving a lunch at Versailles, a Cuban restaurant and political hot spot in Miami’s Little Havana, Trump was asked whether he would commit to the next two debates. He mouthed, “Sure.” When the reporter followed up, asking, “Sure?” Trump nodded.
Barabak reported from San Francisco, Bierman from Washington and Finnegan from Miami. Times staff writer Chris Megerian in White Plains, N.Y., and Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.