Clinton strode across the stage to meet Trump on his half of the stage and greet him with a wide smile and a clear, “Hey. How are you, Donald?” Trump’s reply was inaudible.
The fleeting moment when Clinton and Trump grasped hands was hotly anticipated after months of bitter feuding and sometime ruthless name-calling between the two candidates who had not, before Monday night, seen each other in person since Clinton attended Trump’s third wedding in 2005.
For all the smiles at the top, Clinton was first with the punchy soundbite, labeling her opponent’s economic plan “Trumped-up trickle-down economics.”
While Clinton addressed Trump as “Donald,” he went out of his way to call her “Secretary Clinton,” even pausing the first time he addressed her directly to ask, “Is that okay?” When Clinton shrugged and nodded, he continued, “I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.”
On the economy and climate change, Clinton stood fast and held command of her argument despite Trump’s repeated attempts to interrupt her.
“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,’ ” Clinton recalled. “Well, it did collapse –”
“That’s called business by the way,” Trump interjected.
While Clinton went on – “9 million people lost their jobs, 5 million people lost their homes and $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out. We have come back from that abyss,” she said – Trump pursed his lips, shook his head and sipped from his water glass.
Trump went hard on the offensive in the first part of the debate, blaming the former secretary of state for what he called a “lack of leadership” in the Obama administration on jobs and the economy.
Laughing, Clinton replied, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening I’m going to be blamed for everything that ever happened.”
“Why not?” interjected Trump.
“Why not, yeah. Just join the debate by saying more crazy things,” Clinton said.
“Typical politician,” Trump said. “All talk. No action. Sounds good. Doesn’t work. Never gonna happen.”
Meanwhile, NBC’s Lester Holt, the moderator, struggled to get a word in edgewise.
Asked by Holt whether the public had a right to see Trump’s tax returns, which he has yet to release, the GOP nominee said, “I don’t mind releasing, I’m under a routine audit” and promised again to release his returns as soon as the audit was done.
When Holt said Trump was legally allowed to release his returns while under audit, Trump said he would release his tax returns, “against his lawyers’ wishes,” when Clinton releases her “33,000 deleted emails.”
Clinton guessed that Trump, in refusing to release his tax returns, was trying to hide that he’s either not as rich as he claims, not as charitable as he claims, or paying zero in federal taxes. “That makes me smart,” Trump said before Clinton went on: “Zero. That’s zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”
Later, in a segment about racial healing, Holt questioned Trump repeatedly about his birther crusade against President Obama, saying Trump “perpetuated a false claim” for five years that the president was not born in the U.S. The GOP nominee replied, “When you talk about healing, I think that I’ve think I’ve developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African-American community … 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.”
Asked to respond, Clinton replied, to laughter from the crowd: “Well, just listen to what you heard.”
“Clearly, as Donald just admitted, he knew he was going to stand on this debate stage and Lester Holt was going to be asking us questions, so he tried to put the whole racist birther lie to bed. But it can’t be dismissed that easily.”
“He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” Clinton continued. “There was absolutely no evidence for it but he persisted, he persisted year after year because some of his supporters, people that he was trying to bring into his fold, apparently believed it or wanted to believe it.”
WATCH: Donald Trump On Releasing His Tax Returns
At one point, Trump argued that he has “better judgement” and “a much better temperament” than Clinton – a statement that drew laughs from the crowd and a wide smile from Clinton. “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” he insisted, adding, “I have a winning temperament.”
The first of three presidential debates – and Trump’s first ever one-on-one presidential debate – Monday night was widely considered a potentially pivotal moment for both candidates who polls show locked in a dead-heat race.
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The television audience for the debate was expected to reach as high as 100 million, rivaling the Super Bowl. Among those viewers was President Obama, who, according to a spokesman, would have the debate on “in the background” as he worked late Monday night.