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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

The First Presidential Debate, Decoded

We translated the most important moments of a contentious 90-minute debate into plain English.
Trump and Clinton onstage during the debate. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

No one really "wins" or "loses" a presidential debate. These arguments take place onstage, but also in the minds of the millions of voters watching, and there's no expert on any cable news panel anywhere who can say what will stick. On Monday, did Donald Trump come off as a rambling moron with a bad case of hay fever, or a bold alternative to decades of lousy leadership in DC? Was Hillary Clinton a model of composure, or smug and overly rehearsed? And what in God's name are undecided voters undecided about, after all this?


In the aftermath, the media scrambles to answer these questions, because we've got TV channels and websites to fill with speculation, and debating the debate is a tradition as time-honored as any in American politics. But definitive judgements on debates are only made in hindsight—once we know who wins an election, we'll go back and cherry-pick the worst Clinton or Trump gaffes as signs the loser was losing. For now, however, we're lost in the fog of electioneering.

All we can do is look back on a night of hectic back-and-forthing and try to decipher what went on. So here are some of the most important moments of the debate translated into plain English (quotes are taken from the Washington Post transcript):

Moderator Lester Holt: "At the start of each segment, I will ask the same lead-off question to both candidates, and they will each have up to two minutes to respond. From that point until the end of the segment, we'll have an open discussion."

Translation: "I am going to ask a question, one or both of the candidates will ignore it, and then they will get into a heated argument that will go way over the allotted time. But we will get to see them talk to each other, at least."

Trump: "Our jobs are fleeing the country. They're going to Mexico. They're going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They're devaluing their currency, and there's nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they're using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing."


Translation: "This is my whole campaign right here: Other countries are screwing us over, and our government is letting them—they're ganging up on you, the (white) American worker. I don't have anything else to tell you, even if this debate is going to go on for another 80 minutes."

Clinton: "You know, Donald was very fortunate in his life, and that's all to his benefit.He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we'll be and that everything will work out from there."

Translation: "It always makes Trump so, so mad when people bring up his father's wealth, and even angrier when people use hard numbers. Ha ha."

Trump: "Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton—yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It's very important to me."

Translation: "Fuck you."

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."

Translation: "I want this tweet to become very popular:

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)November 6, 2012

Trump:"And by the way, my tax cut is the biggest since Ronald Reagan. I'm very proud of it. It will create tremendous numbers of new jobs. But regulations, you are going to regulate these businesses out of existence."


Translation: "I am a Republican."

Clinton: "What I have proposed would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, because they have made all the gains in the economy. And I think it's time that the wealthy and corporations paid their fair share to support this country."

Translation: "I am a Democrat."

Clinton: "You know, I made a mistake using a private email… And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently. But I'm not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake, and I take responsibility for that."

Translation: "Is this, finally, the right answer to any question about my email? Is this what you vultures want to hear? Fine. Whatever gets us through to the next thing."

Trump: [In response to a question about his tax returns] "The other thing, I'm extremely underleveraged. The report that said $650—which, by the way, a lot of friends of mine that know my business say, boy, that's really not a lot of money. It's not a lot of money relative to what I had.

"The buildings that were in question, they said in the same report, which was—actually, it wasn't even a bad story, to be honest with you, but the buildings are worth $3.9 billion. And the $650 isn't even on that. But it's not $650. It's much less than that."

Translation: "I am annoyed that I have to explain my real estate dealings to you plebs, but I'm also sort of bad at judging what people even understand about my business or have read, so my answer is pretty opaque and confusing. I'm also maybe getting tired, and I have this cold, but look—the point is that I am rich and not about to go bankrupt again, OK?"


Trump: "We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot."

Translation: "Do I know how racist this sort of talk is?"

Trump: "We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they're illegally here, illegal immigrants. And they have guns. And they shoot people. And we have to be very strong. And we have to be very vigilant."

Translation: "I guess I do know how racist this is, but I don't care. I'm talking to white people right now."

Trump: [After bragging about birtherism for a while] "But let me just tell you. When you talk about healing, I think that I've developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African American community. I think you can see that."

Translation: "I may have lost the few black votes I had, so here I go at trying to convince white people I'm not too racist to vote for."

Clinton: "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. And I think that's a good thing."

Translation: "This is, in context, actually a total non-sequitur, but it doesn't matter—I needed to get this transparently pre-written line out there, so it can get replayed a few hundred times in the next 24 hours."

Clinton: "Our military is assisting in Iraq. And we're hoping that within the year we'll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria. But we have to be cognizant of the fact that they've had foreign fighters coming to volunteer for them, foreign money, foreign weapons, so we have to make this the top priority."


Translation: "I just really want to emphasize that I know what I'm talking about at this late stage in the debate. No one is listening super-duper hard, I just have to stand here and look presidential."

Trump: "But what did we learn with DNC? We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. That's what we learned."

Translation: "Shoutout to the stubborn band of angry Sanders supporters who are looking for a way they can vote for me over Clinton."

Trump: "We came in with the internet, we came up with the internet, and I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what ISIS is doing with the internet, they're beating us at our own game. ISIS.

"So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is—it is a huge problem. I have a son. He's ten 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."

Translation: "We're wrapping up soon, right? We're about at the 90-minute mark, right?"

Trump: "Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There's no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?"

Audience: [loud laughter]

Translation: This one is pretty self-evident.

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