Donald Trump lashed out wildly on Tuesday in the aftermath of the first presidential candidate debate with Hillary Clinton, scolding the moderator, criticizing a beauty pageant winner for her physique and raising the prospect of an all-out attack on Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities in the final stretch of the campaign.
Having worked in recent weeks to cultivate a more disciplined demeanor on the campaign trail, Trump decisively cast aside that approach on Tuesday morning. As Hillary Clinton embarked on a campaign swing through North Carolina, Trump vented his grievances in full public view.
On a Fox News program, Trump criticized the debate moderator, NBC News anchor Lester Holt, for asking “unfair questions” during the debate Monday evening, and speculated that someone might have tampered with his microphone. Trump repeated his charge that Clinton lacked the “stamina” to be president, an allegation that critics have described as sexist, and suggested that in the future he might raise former president Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions.
Trump also leveled cutting personal criticism at a beauty pageant winner, Alicia Machado, whom Hillary Clinton held up in Monday night’s debate as an example of Trump’s disrespect for women. Trump insisted on Fox that he had been right to disparage the 1996 Miss Universe, who represented Venezuela, because of her weight.
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“She was the winner, and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem,” said Trump, who was the pageant’s executive producer at the time. “Not only that — her attitude. And we had a real problem with her.”
Trump’s setback in the debate represents a critical test in the final six weeks of the presidential race. Having drawn closer to Clinton in the polls, Trump now faces an intensified clash over his personal temperament and his attitudes toward women and minorities — areas of grave concern for many voters that were at the center of the candidates’ confrontation on Monday.
Against Trump’s brooding, Clinton cut a strikingly different profile on the campaign trail Tuesday, emerging emboldened from her encounter with the Republican nominee. At a rally in Raleigh, N.C., Clinton, brandishing her opponent’s debate stumbles, assailed Trump’s comments suggesting he avoided paying taxes and welcomed the 2008 financial crisis as a buying opportunity.
“What kind of person would want to root for 9 million families losing their homes?” asked Clinton, the Democratic standard bearer. “One who should never be president, is the answer to that question.”
Having shaken at least temporarily the malaise of the past month, Clinton must now seek to gain a durable upper hand over Trump, who has drawn close to her in the polls with a more sharply focused message on trade, immigration and national security.
Trump’s comportment on Tuesday threatened to forfeit his gains of the past month, and recalled his practice during the Republican primaries and much of the general election, of belittling political bystanders in language that alienated voters, like attacking the Muslim parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq and a Hispanic federal judge.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will approach the remainder of the race with the unfiltered abandon of his comments Tuesday morning. The fear among Republicans is that Trump will confront adversity by continuing to swing impulsively at politically inopportune targets, dragging the party again into needless and damaging feuds, as he did for most of the summer.
The notion of raising Bill Clinton’s infidelity is particularly worrisome among Trump’s advisers, who have sent conflicting signals about that line of attack.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said in a CNN interview that he deserved credit for holding back from that particular subject, saying Trump had been “polite and a gentleman.”
But former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close confidant of Trump’s, called for a far harsher approach. Trump, he told a reporter for the website Elite Daily, had been “too reserved” in his confrontation with Hillary Clinton.
Giuliani, who like Trump is on his third marriage, recommended attacking Hillary Clinton for having questioned White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s credibility in claiming an affair with Bill Clinton, and he called Hillary Clinton “too stupid to be president.”
Should Trump follow the path prescribed by Giuliani, it could transform the final six weeks of his candidacy into an onslaught of unrestricted personal vituperation – a risky course that would probably please Trump’s political base at the cost of his broader appeal.
For the moment, Clinton answered Trump’s scattershot attacks with a dismissive shrug, telling reporters that Trump was free to run whatever kind of campaign he preferred. On board her campaign plane, she relished her moment of apparent triumph and poked fun at Trump’s morning lamentations.
“Anybody who complains about the microphone,” she said, “is not having a good night.”
But Democrats also signaled on Tuesday that they would welcome an extended battle with Trump over matters of temperament and personal character. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Clinton, released a television ad highlighting a debate exchange in which Trump said his temperament was his “strongest asset,” along with clips of Trump using obscene and violent language.
And Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, said in television interviews that Trump had appeared “flustered” and “ran out of gas.” During a campaign stop in Orlando, Florida, Kaine said Trump was too unsteady for the White House.
“If you’re that rattled in a debate,” he said, “try being president.”
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also toured the morning TV programs, but with an upbeat message. Appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Pence proclaimed Monday had been a “great night” in which Trump showcased the “kind of energy” and the “kind of leadership” that had animated his campaign.
“Donald Trump took command of the stage, and I think the American people saw his leadership qualities,” Pence said.
But as has become customary for the Republican ticket, Trump’s provocative remarks are likely to overshadow his running mate’s far more cautious and conventional arguments.
And Pence joined Trump in criticizing Holt for his handling of the debate, pointing to the absence of questions for Clinton regarding her family’s foundation and the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state.