0 minutes. This is what you get, America. No one is exactly sure why. But it happened: Nine percent of the U.S. population cast ballots for the two major-party nominees. Now only a third of voters describe either as honest and trustworthy. Democracy is strange and unpredictable in exactly the way NBC anchor Lester Holt is not. He is order. Calm. Decorum. A perfectly folded pocket square in a kingdom of fools. “I want to welcome you to the first presidential debate,” he says. If only he were the only one who had to come.
1 minute. Hillary Clinton comes out wearing Republican red. Donald Trump’s tie is the exact blue that Barack Obama used in his 2012 bumper stickers. If these are mind games, they cancel each other out. So Clinton ups her ante. “How are you, Donald?” she asks. She does not really want to know, but it sounds friendly in exactly the way it is not meant to be.
2 minutes. The first question to Clinton is as straight as the pocket-square crease. Why are you a better choice to create jobs? Clinton has been rehearsing the answer for weeks. She mentions her granddaughter’s birthday in the second sentence. Then come the buzzwords, like buttons to press in voter brains, roughly arranged to make grammatical sense: “advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business.” If debate answers were Scrabble words, she’d get 23 points.
3 minutes. “Donald, it’s good to be with you,” she concludes. “We’re going to have a debate where we are talking about the important issues of the country.” Fact checkers will have a field day with those whoppers.
4 minutes. Trump watches as Clinton speaks with funereal restraint — respectful, distant, chin up. When his time comes, he fills the Scrabble board with the buttons that light up his supporters’ brains: “Our jobs are fleeing this country.” Then he mentions Mexico and China, and China and Mexico, and Mexico one more time. Strong start for both.
6 minutes. Which means it’s time for Clinton to finally drops the pretense. She has zingers, digs and research to unleash. After Trump boasts of his massive tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthy, she uses the word extreme. “I call it trumped-up trickle down,” she says, before pivoting to painting Trump as a spoiled rich kid. “He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father,” Clinton says. “My father was a small-businessman. He worked really hard.”
7 minutes. Trump is clearly trying to contain himself, to keep coloring inside the lines. He has been told not to fall for her bait. He has been advised to resist his instincts. But you can see the frustration building. He addresses her as “Secretary Clinton,” and then pauses to ask her to recognize his graciousness in his using her title. “I want you to be very happy,” he tells her. “That’s very important to me.” This is an early crack, the beginning of something. He is built to fight fire with volcanic eruptions.
8 minutes. For now, the eruption is contained. He reels it back in to his talking points, about trade, about Mexico, about the NAFTA trade agreement. He tries to paint her as an old politician. That’s smart. “She’s been doing this for 30 years,” he says. “And why hasn’t she made the agreements better?” Thirty years ago, Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas and a Walmart board member. But at least Trump is keeping a lid on it.
9 minutes. Clinton saw the flinch, knows his defenses are weakening. She will light the fuse. She will not relent. She pokes and prods. And pokes some more. She mentions that time Trump said in 2006 that he could make money on a housing-market crash. The economic analysis that shows his economic plan would lose jobs. The tweet in which Trump blamed climate change on a Chinese hoax.
10 minutes. He can’t take it anymore. “I did not. I did not,” he interrupts. “I do not say that. I do not say that.” In a house? With a mouse? He is talking about the climate-change tweet, and he is wrong. He did.
13 minutes. Clinton wins the mud fight she always wanted. The candidates start talking over each other. Trump asks Clinton why she is just starting now to think up solutions after 30 years in office. Clinton tries to explain that 30 is the wrong number, but Trump keeps going. “Excuse me. I will bring back jobs,” he says. “You can’t bring back jobs.” I know you are, but what am I.
15 minutes. This goes on for a while. She rattles off her economic policy accomplishments and those of her husband. He blames the country’s problems on NAFTA. She boasts of her economic record. He notes that she called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard.”
16 minutes. “Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” says Clinton. “The facts are I did say I hoped it would be a good deal when it was negotiated.” It is ironic that she chooses this point to evoke the facts, because the facts do not support her. Trump is right. She did call the trade deal the “gold standard,” without qualification.
17 minutes. But Clinton is having her way, and Trump is clearly riled. He raises his voice, can’t do anything but interrupt her. “So it is President Obama’s fault?” he asks her about the trade deal she now claims to oppose. Then he blurts, “You have no plan.” Clinton looks delighted. “Oh, but I do,” she says. “In fact I have written a book about it.” She directs people to her website. He interrupts, “And take a look at mine, also.”
19 minutes. Trump now attacks Clinton for having exactly the sort of plans that he just accused her of not having. “Just go to her website,” he says. “She tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don’t think General Douglas MacArthur would like that too much.”
20 minutes. “Well, at least I have a plan,” she shoots back. He responds with the best insult he can think of: “No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” Clinton became an adult in the 1960s. The Islamic State was officially announced in 2013, after Clinton had left office as Secretary of State. It was the successor to a radical Sunni group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, that had been founded after the 2002 U.S. invasion.
22 minutes. Trump keeps taking sips of water from a glass. Clinton powers on without refreshment. Maybe that is a metaphor. Maybe he is just thirsty.
25 minutes. Trump has officially lost the ability to not interrupt. At the start of an answer, Clinton muses that by the end of the evening, “I am going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” Trump reacts instinctively. “Why not?” he says, even though that doesn’t make sense.
26 minutes. Holt tries to step in to stop the interruptions. But he can’t. Trump starts asking Holt questions about the things Clinton is saying about the effect of the Trump tax cut on his family. “Lester, how much?” Trump asks. Holt won’t help. So Trump calms himself down by predicting U.S. markets will crash. “We are in a big, fat, ugly bubble,” he says.
27 minutes. Holt asks Trump why he has not released his tax returns, and then follows up by pointing out that Trump’s excuse for not releasing them — that he is under an audit — makes no sense. “I will release my tax returns, against my lawyer’s wishes, when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted,” Trump finally says. The crowd erupts in applause.
28 minutes. “So it’s negotiable?” Holt asks. “It’s not negotiable, no,” Trump responds. “Let her release the emails.” Grammar and logic would indicate that Trump just said two contradictory things. But no one really knows.
30 minutes. Clinton knows how to hit a softball. She speculates that Trump is not releasing his tax returns because he doesn’t pay any federal income tax. Trump can’t help but interrupt again. “That makes me smart,” he says, which is either an admission of not paying taxes, or just another schoolyard comeback.
31 minutes. As to the private email server, Clinton says she made a mistake, and moves on. “That was more than a mistake,” Trump responds. “That was done purposely. O.K.? That was not a mistake. That was done purposely.”
34 minutes. Clinton prefers offense. She is an overflowing font of embarrassing things that Trump once said. That time he suggested he would try to negotiate down the national debt. The bankruptcies. The former employees and contractors on Trump properties who were never paid. Through it all Trump keeps interrupting, as if he is live-Tweeting his own debate. “Maybe he didn’t do a good job,” he says of a hypothetical unpaid employee. Or, more simply, “Wrong, wrong.”
39 minutes. Holt retakes control, shifts to a new topic: race. Clinton’s answer comes in familiar paragraphs, with sentences like, “I’ve laid out a platform that I think would begin to remedy some of the problems we have in the criminal-justice system.”
41 minutes. Trump is asked how he would heal the racial divide. “Well, first of all, Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words,” he says. “And that’s law and order. And we need law and order.” He says Hispanics and African Americans are living in hell in inner cities. “You walk down the street, you get shot,” he says. Then he endorses stop-and-frisk policing methods, which often target minority neighborhoods. The question was how he would heal the racial divide.
50 minutes. Trump announces that he agrees with Clinton on something. It’s like the eye of a hurricane, when the wind stops and the sun shines. They both want to bar people on terrorist watch lists from being able to buy a gun. Savor it.
54 minutes. Trump talks about all the places he has traveled around the country. “You decided to stay home, and that’s O.K.,” he tells Clinton. “But I will tell you, I’ve been all over.” Clinton is ready for this one. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did,” she says. “And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be President. And I think that’s a good thing.” Applause.
56 minutes. Holt starts asking Trump about his longtime obsession with the falsehood that President Obama was not born in the U.S. Trump tries to blame Clinton for starting the rumor, which is false, and does not explain the years Trump spent spreading it. “But we’re talking about racial healing in this segment,” Holt presses, before asking how Trump responds to people of color who were offended by the birther nonsense. “I say nothing,” Trump responds. “I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country.”
58 minutes. This gives Clinton a chance to use the word racist twice to describe the birther claim, and to bring up the housing-discrimination lawsuits by the Justice Department against Trump and his father that were settled in the 1970s. “We settled the suit with zero, with no admission of guilt,” Trump responds.
61 minutes. Holt throws up a question about hacking from Russia. Clinton gives her practiced answer. Then Trump loses his way. In a few sentences he name-checks Bernie Sanders, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, China, Russia, Obama, an anonymous 400-lb. hacker and his youngest son. Lots of partial thoughts strung together like this: “So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyberwarfare. It is — it is a huge problem. I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.”
70 minutes. Now we get to the part of the debate where Trump argues that he opposed the Iraq War before the invasion, even though there is no public record of him doing so. “I was against the war in Iraq,” Trump says. “The record shows otherwise,” says Holt. “The record does not show that,” says Trump. But the record does show that. Trump adds a twist by saying the record should include private conversations he had at the time with Fox News host Sean Hannity, which were not recorded.
78 minutes. When Holt finally turns back to Clinton, she smiles, says “Whoo” and does a little shoulder shimmy on the stage. She is feeling good.
85 minutes. The candidates debate Iran, nuclear war and some other things that Trump has said in the past that have caused international concern. The pattern has pretty much been set at this point. Clinton and Holt will throw past statements at Trump. Trump will deny them and then accuse Clinton of failing to fix things.
88 minutes. The coup de grâce is another tough question from Holt for Trump. “Earlier this month, you said she doesn’t have, quote, ‘a presidential look.’ She’s standing here right now. What did you mean by that?” Trump says he was talking about her stamina, not her appearance. But that’s not what he said.
89 minutes. Clinton has a response to this too. “As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she says. The crowd applauds.
90 minutes. Then she does what she does, listing off a bunch of awful things Trump has said in the past about women. Trump is baffled by the fact that he once criticized the weight of a beauty-pageant winner. “Where did you find this? Where did you find this?” he repeats. It was reported months ago, when the model gave an interview with Inside Edition.
93 minutes. Holt tries to bring us all home, to restore the sense of order, the clean crease in the pocket square. He asks each candidate if they will respect the outcome of the election in November. That there is suspense over that question is telling and concerning. Both candidates agree to abide by the will of the people. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Clinton says. “If she wins, I will absolutely support her,” Trump says.
94 minutes. For one last time, the crowd applauds and the debate ends. There is hope, it seems, that when this is over we will not be broken by the trauma. Let us unite around that, at least.