What worked for Trump in the pri­maries failed him against Clin­ton

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank Colum­nist Fol­low Dana Mil­bank on Twit­ter, @Mil­bank.

Don­ald Trump was try­ing very hard to be on his best be­hav­ior.

In the open­ing min­utes of the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate Mon­day night, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee be­gan an an­swer by say­ing, “In all fair­ness to Sec­re­tary Clin­ton” — then turned to his op­po­nent with ex­ag­ger­ated cor­dial­ity. “Yes? Is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very im­por­tant to me.”

But even Trump’s best be­hav­ior was not quite good enough. Within min­utes, he was hec­tor­ing and in­ter­rupt­ing Clin­ton when she spoke, glow­er­ing, purs­ing his lips, shak­ing his head and in­ter­ject­ing one-word re­torts.

But it was Trump who was wrong — on the facts, but also in his ap­proach to the de­bate.

Trump had done well in the pri­mary de­bates with his in­sults, in­ter­rup­tions and one-lin­ers. Mon­day’s 90-minute, one-on-one de­bate, how­ever, was a for­mat that did not work well for him.

Clin­ton had crammed for the en­counter, prac­tic­ing heav­ily. Trump os­ten­ta­tiously avoided prepa­ra­tion — play­ing the prover­bial high school slacker drink­ing beer be­hind the bleach­ers while the teacher’s pet was in the li­brary.

But Mon­day night was the re­venge of the nerd.

Trump was louder and nas­tier. But Clin­ton was cool and mea­sured, con­tin­u­ing to make her case while Trump tried to talk over her. Again and again, she put him on the de­fen­sive, and his one-line re­torts did not serve him well.

Clin­ton spec­u­lated that he wasn’t re­leas­ing his tax re­turns be­cause he hadn’t paid in­come tax for sev­eral years.

Clin­ton noted that Trump hadn’t paid fed­eral in­come taxes for sev­eral years pre­vi­ously.

Clin­ton ac­cused Trump of root­ing for the hous­ing mar­ket to col­lapse in 2006.

At one point, Trump took a dig at Clin­ton be­cause she “de­cided to stay home,” pre­sum­ably to prac­tice for the de­bate. Clin­ton was ready: “I think Don­ald just crit­i­cized me for pre­par­ing for this de­bate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I pre­pared for? I pre­pared to be pres­i­dent.”

Trump was pre­pared to do what he has done for 18 months: spout false­hoods. But while that works on Twit­ter and at cam­paign ral­lies, it didn’t go well in the 90-minute de­bate. Clin­ton, with an oc­ca­sional as­sist from Holt, was able to take some 100 mil­lion view­ers on a tour of what she called Trump’s “own re­al­ity.”

He did say so, on Nov. 6, 2012, at 2:15 p.m., on Twit­ter.

Clin­ton noted that Trump “sup­ported the in­va­sion of Iraq.”

He did, on Sept. 11, 2002, on Howard Stern’s ra­dio show.

Clin­ton noted that mur­ders have con­tin­ued to de­cline in New York. Clin­ton was cor­rect. Trump re­peated the oft-de­bunked ca­nard that Clin­ton aides were the first to ques­tion Barack Obama’s Amer­i­can birth in 2008. And he dis­missed the widely held view among cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­perts that Rus­sia was be­hind the re­cent hack of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. “It could be some­body sit­ting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

This was the shot at Trump that Low-En­ergy Jeb, Lit­tle Marco and Lyin’ Ted never had: an ex­tended, one-on-one en­counter to test the bil­ious bil­lion­aire. Trump’s play­ground taunts sounded ju­ve­nile.

Trump, ig­nor­ing Holt’s ad­mo­ni­tions, kept up his in­ter­rup­tions: “You didn’t read it! .?.?. Who gave it that name? .?.?. Lester, how much?”

When Clin­ton at one point joked that “I’m go­ing to be blamed for ev­ery­thing that’s ever hap­pened,” Trump in­ter­rupted again: “Why not?”

That he did. He jus­ti­fied his misog­y­nis­tic words about Rosie O’Don­nell by say­ing that “no­body feels sorry for her.”

Ul­ti­mately, in­sults were not enough.

When Clin­ton said Trump’s eco­nomic plan would add $5 tril­lion to the debt, Trump in­ter­rupted.

And that was about all Trump could do.

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