You could tell Donald Trump knew the debate went badly by the way he barreled into the “spin room” and immediately began disavowing things he’d said in front of more than 80 million people just moments before.
When Clinton suggested during Monday’s debate that Trump has evaded paying taxes, Trump confirmed, rather than challenged, the assertion. “That makes me smart,” he said. When she brought the subject up a second time, suggesting part of the reason there isn’t enough money for infrastructure spending is “because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years,” he shot back, “It would be squandered too, believe me.”
In the spin room Trump denied admitting that he doesn’t pay federal taxes. “No, I didn’t say that at all. I mean, if they say I didn’t [pay any taxes] … I mean, it doesn’t matter. I will say this: I hate the way our government spends our taxes.” He then added, “Of course I pay federal taxes.”
It’s rare to the point of unprecedented for a candidate to take part in the debate post-game. Typically, campaign surrogates are the ones peddling talking points to reporters anxious for an angle. One of the reasons that unwritten rule might exist is because it’s smart to spend a little time getting your narrative straight. Trump learned that lesson firsthand. Asked Monday night about moderator Lester Holt’s performance, Trump said, “I thought Lester did a great job. I thought – honestly? I thought he did a great job.” The reporter even double checked: You thought the questions were fair? “Yeah, I thought it was great,” Trump told him.
The Republican nominee was singing a different tune some six hours later on Fox & Friends. (By that time, he might have picked up on the fact that conservative pundits, and even his own advisors, were meticulously crafting a narrative that Holt had been biased toward Clinton.) Holt, Trump said Tuesday morning, “gave me very unfair questions at the end — the last three, four questions.” And he revised his assessment of Holt’s performance downward: “I give him a C, C+ — I thought he was OK,” he said.
To his credit, at least Trump’s instinct to spring immediately into damage control was the correct one. Almost every credible instant poll after the debate showed that Trump lost the debate by large margins. A CNN/ORC poll found 62 percent thought Clinton won, compared to just 27 percent who thought Trump did, while a CNN focus group of 20 undecided Florida voters found 18 of them believed Clinton came out on top. In a Public Policy Polling post-debate survey, 51 percent thought Clinton won, compared to 40 percent for Trump. And a focus group of 31 undecided Pennsylvania voters conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found 16 believed Clinton won, while six thought Trump did.
On Twitter and Fox & Friends (the cable news equivalent of the GOP nominee’s Twitter feed), Trump the unlicensed spin doctor boasted about the polls he “won,” citing a CBS poll among them. One problem, according to CBS Chief White House Correspondent, Major Garrett: The network did not conduct a poll. Slate and Time, which Trump also cited, did post reader polls on their respective websites, each with disclaimers that they were “totally unscientific,” “not statistically representative of likely voters” and “not predictive of how the debate outcome will affect the election.”
The most outlandish of Trump’s claims about the debate, though, was about the persistent sniffle that distracted so many viewers – including Howard Dean – that #sniffles trended on Twitter. According to Trump, those never happened. “No, no sniffles,” he told Fox & Friends Tuesday. “You know, the mic was very bad, but maybe it was good enough to hear breathing. But no sniffles. No cold.”
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s go to the tape.
But for all his furious attempts to rewrite the narrative about the debate, there was one line of attack that Trump didn’t even try to defend himself from: When Clinton noted that he insulted former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, calling her “Miss Piggy” after she gained weight and “Miss Housekeeping” because she’s Latina. On Tuesday morning, Trump, somewhat mystifyingly, doubled down on both criticisms, which the Clinton camp clearly believes will hurt him with women and Hispanic voters.
Trump told Fox & Friends that Machado – who has spoken about the eating disorder she developed after Trump berated her – “was the worst we have had. The worst, the absolute worst …. She was the winner and, you know, she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem. We had a real problem.”