The debate stage was set for maximum tension. Ahead of Monday's face-off, the candidates were virtually tied in the polls: The Real Clear Politics average showed Clinton hanging on to a wisp of a lead, just 1.5 percent, in a four-way race. For a period the same day, one polling model suggested that if the election were held that day, Trump had a better chance of winning than Clinton – the first time that's happened since the conventions in July.
Historically, debates change the margin by an average 2.6 percentage points, per FiveThirtyEight, meaning that if Trump "won," he could easily vault into the lead. The asymmetrical expectations were especially foreboding: Clinton had by all accounts been hunkered down every spare moment for weeks practicing and studying for this moment. Trump, his aides insisted, practically refused to do any kind of preparation at all.
And it showed. While Clinton got across complex ideas and policy proposals and seemed ready for whatever Trump threw her way, the GOP nominee was unpolished, had little of substance to say and lied repeatedly. (And in an ironic twist, given that Clinton's health had been the subject of so much Republican speculation in recent weeks, Trump could not stop sniffling.)
NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt had the dubious honor of trying to hold the whole thing together, and he largely succeeded – especially when compared with his colleague Matt Lauer's recent performance.
Holt ostensibly asked questions relating to the three themes of the evening, as set forth by the Commission on Presidential Debates – "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity," and "Securing America" – but the real themes of the first presidential debate were [LOUD NOISES] and [CROSS TALK].
Here were the most memorable and bizarre moments of the evening.
On the housing crash
Clinton: "Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, 'Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money.' Well, it did collapse —"
Trump: "That's called business, by the way."
Clinton: "Nine million people — nine million people lost their jobs. Five million people lost their homes. And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out."
On climate change
Clinton: "Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it's real."
Trump: "I did not. I did not. I do not say that." (He did.)
On the TPP
Trump: "You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it's the finest deal you've ever seen, and then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it."
Clinton: "Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are: I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn't. I wrote about that in my book —"
Trump: "So, is it President Obama's fault?"
Clinton: "—before you even announced."
Trump: "Is it President Obama's fault?"
On Clinton's plan for the economy
Trump: "Secretary, you have no plan."
Clinton: "In fact, I have written a book about it. It's called Stronger Together. You can pick it up tomorrow at a bookstore or at an airport near you."
On Clinton’s plan to fight ISIS
Trump: "Just go to her website. She tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don't think General Douglas MacArthur would like that too much."
Clinton: "Well, at least I have a plan to fight ISIS."
Trump: "You're telling the enemy everything you want to do."
Clinton: "No, we're not. No, we're not."
Trump: "See, you're telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you've been fighting — no wonder you've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life."
Clinton: "That's a — that's — go to the — please, fact checkers, get to work."
Clinton, stating the obvious
Clinton: "I have a feeling that by, the end of this evening, I'm going to be blamed for everything that's ever happened."
Trump: "Why not? Why not?"
Clinton: "Yeah, 'Why not?' You know, just join the debate by saying more crazy things."
On the economy
Clinton: "Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top—"
Trump: "Typical. Politician. All talk. No action. Sounds good. Doesn't work. Never gonna happen."
On whether Trump will release his tax returns
Trump: "I will release my tax returns, against my lawyer's wishes, when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release…"
Lester Holt: "So it's negotiable?”
Trump: "It's not negotiable, no. Let her release the emails. Why did she delete 33,000?"
On the contents Trump’s tax returns
Clinton: "You've got to ask yourself, why won't he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he's not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he's not as charitable as he claims to be.Third, we don't know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. Or maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody's ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn't pay any federal income tax."
Trump: "That makes me smart."
Clinton: "So if he's paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health. And I think probably he's not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are, because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he's trying to hide.”
On the country’s problems
Trump: "Our country has tremendous problems. We're a debtor nation. We're a serious debtor nation. And we have a country that needs new roads, new tunnels, new bridges, new airports, new schools, new hospitals. And we don't have the money, because it's been squandered on so many of your ideas."
Clinton: "And maybe because you haven't paid any federal income tax for a lot of years."
Trump: "It would be squandered, too, believe me."
On their websites
Clinton: "I kind of assumed that there would be a lot of these charges and claims, and so..."
Clinton: "So we have taken the home page of my website, HillaryClinton.com, and we've turned it into a fact-checker. So if you want to see in real-time what the facts are, please go and take a look. Because what I have proposed..."
Trump: "And take a look at mine, also, and you'll see."
Clinton: "...would not add a penny to the debt, and your plans would add $5 trillion to the debt."
On Trump’s assertion that he would negotiate down the national debt
Clinton: "You call yourself the King of Debt. You talk about leverage. You even at one time suggested that you would try to negotiate down the national debt of the United States."
Trump: “Wrong. Wrong.” (He did.)
Clinton: "Well, sometimes there's not a direct transfer of skills from business to government, but sometimes what happened in business would be really bad for government."
Holt: "Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men."
Trump: "No, you're wrong. It went before a judge, who was a very against-police judge. It was taken away from her. And our mayor, our new mayor, refused to go forward with the case. They would have won an appeal. If you look at it, throughout the country, there are many places where it's allowed." [Trump is wrong; it was ruled unconstitutional.]
Holt: "The argument is that it's a form of racial profiling."
Trump: "No, the argument is that we have to take the guns away from these people that have them and they are bad people that shouldn't have them. These are felons. These are people that are bad people that shouldn't be — when you have 3,000 shootings in Chicago from January 1st, when you have 4,000 people killed in Chicago by guns, from the beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama, his hometown, you have to have stop-and-frisk."
On "the cyber"
Trump: "As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we're not. I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don't – maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?"
On Obama’s birth certificate
Holt: "The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You've continued to tell the story and question the president's legitimacy in 2012, '13, '14, '15 — as recently as January."
Holt: "So the question is, what changed your mind?"
Trump: "Well, nobody was pressing it — nobody was caring much about it. I figured you'd ask the question tonight, of course. But nobody was caring much about it. But I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job."
On who Trump's "birther" crusade benefitted
Trump: "I feel that [the African-American community] really wanted me to come to that conclusion. And I think I did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate."
On the Iraq War
Clinton: "I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard. Donald supported the invasion of Iraq."
Trump: "Wrong." [He did.]
Clinton: "That is absolutely proved over and over again."
Trump: "Wrong. Wrong."
Trumpian word salad, invoking the Hannity defense
Trump: "The record shows that I'm right. When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone's asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don't know, maybe, who knows? Essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto. We talked about the economy is more important. I then spoke to Sean Hannity, which everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity. I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox. And Sean Hannity said – and he called me the other day – and I spoke to him about it – he said you were totally against the war, because he was for the war."
Holt: "Why is your judgment better than..."
Trump: "And when he – excuse me. And that was before the war started. Sean Hannity said very strongly to me and other people – he's willing to say it, but nobody wants to call him. I was against the war. He said, you used to have fights with me, because Sean was in favor of the war.
"And I understand that side, also, not very much, because we should have never been there. But nobody called Sean Hannity. And then they did an article in a major magazine, shortly after the war started. I think in '04. But they did an article which had me totally against the war in Iraq.
"And one of your compatriots said, you know, whether it was before or right after, Trump was definitely – because if you read this article, there's no doubt. But if somebody – and I'll ask the press – if somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said, it's a terrible and a stupid thing. It's going to destabilize the Middle East. And that's exactly what it's done. It's been a disaster."
On whether Clinton looks "presidential"
Trump: "She doesn’t have the look; she doesn’t have the stamina. I said she doesn’t have the stamina. And I don't believe she has the stamina. To be president of this country you need tremendous stamina."
Holt: "The quote was: 'I just don't think she has a presidential look —'"
Trump: "Wait a minute, Lester, you asked me a question — did you ask me a question? You have to be able to negotiate our trade deals, you have to be able to negotiate. That's right. With Japan, with Saudi Arabia. I mean can you imagine, we're defending Saudi Arabia — with all the money they have, we're defending them, and they're not paying? All you have to do is speak to 'em — wait. You have so many things you have to do, and I don't believe that Hillary has the stamina.
Holt: "Let's let her respond."
Clinton: "Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries, and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world — or even spends 11 hours testifying before a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina."
Donald Trump admitted that he's "paid nothing in federal taxes" during the first presidential debate. Watch here.