Buzzing flies, no handshake and threats of jail: Nine (mostly dubious) firsts in Sunday’s presidential debate

It was called an “unprecedented” political encounter, a bone-chilling journey into “uncharted territory” and the “ugliest in American history.” It was all that and more, for Sunday’s presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Trump breached many norms and gentilities that have been standard procedure not only in the history of televised debates — but in the whole 227 year scope of the presidency.

First time a U.S. presidential nominee has threatened to jail his opponent
Even the 1860 presidential election, which directly led to the Civil War, didn’t have candidates threatening to jail each other. , on Sunday Trump said that if he were president Clinton would “be in jail.” Ari , the former White House press secretary for George W. Bush, summed up his views on , “winning candidates don’t threaten to put opponents in jail.” As commentators noted, however, imprisoning enemies is standard procedure in the world’s various failed and Banana Republics. In June, for instance, Congolese presidential contender Moise Katumbi was sentenced to three years in jail in absentia, a move that critics derided as an blatant attempt by incumbent Joseph Kabila to silence his opposition. Following the debate, former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder noted that when Richard Nixon tried using the Department of Justice to hunt down political enemies, his own attorney general “courageously resigned.”

First televised debate to dispense with the opening handshake
Debates always open the same way: Two candidates walk onto a stage, shake hands and then smile at the crowd. This time, the two candidates could only be seen walking slowly towards one another, awkwardly nodding and then moving to their respective seats.

JOE RAEDLE/AFP/Getty ImagesThe vice presidential debate, by contrast, had this half hug.

First televised debate in which a has asked a candidate if they understand a basic tenet of U.S. law
“You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault … Do you understand that?” moderator Anderson Cooper asked Trump at the debate’s opening. The question was referencing an explosive 2005 in which the Republican nominee can be heard bragging that his fame allows him to grab women ““by the pussy.” As Cooper noted, the United States Department of Justice does indeed define sexual assault as “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”

PBS/YouTubeModerator Anderson Cooper queries Donald Trump on his understanding of the legality of sexual assault.

First televised debate in which a candidate has openly disagreed with his mate
Even when his running Sarah Palin began famously “going rogue” in 2008, Republican nominee John McCain never publicly said that she was wrong or held differing views on the presidency. On Sunday, Trump broke with his running mate Mike Pence on a pretty large piece of foreign policy. Pence has said that if Russia continues to carry out air strikes in supports of Syria’s Assad regime, then U.S. warplanes should be used against Assad. “He and I haven’t spoken, and he and I disagree,” Trump said Sunday when asked about the comments.

First televised debate in which an opponent was accused of being a liar
Prior to this election cycle, the word “lied” had been used precisely once in a presidential debate. In 1976 — with Watergate and Vietnam still fresh in American memories — Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter said “for a long time our American citizens … sometimes have been lied to.” In the years since, America has seen the Iran-Contra scandal, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Nevertheless, the words “liar,” “lying,” “lies,” “lie” or “lying” have been omitted from presidential debates. “Until recently candidates have been reluctant to call each other liars,” said Alan Schroeder, author of the book Presidential Debates, in an email to the National Post. The L-word resurfaced at the first 2016 presidential debate, when Clinton said that Trump should apologize for the “racist birther lie” asserting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. On Sunday, Trump not only repeatedly accused Clinton of telling lies, but of being a liar. “At the last debate, she lied … but she’s lied about a lot of things,” he said.

Win McNamee / Getty Images
Win McNamee / Getty ImagesHillary Clinton (left) speaks as Donald Trump listens during the second U.S. presidential debate on Oct. 9.

First televised debate in which an opponent was referred to as “the devil”
Another first that’s usually only reserved for countries with median incomes less than $10,000. Trump expressed his disappointment that Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s Democratic rival for the nomination, had signed on “with the devil.” Trump’s been calling Clinton “the devil” since at least August, but it’s the first time the supernatural insult has been uttered in a sanctioned presidential debate.

First televised debate to be broadcast on Iranian state TV
In 1960, the first — which famously pitted a bronzed John F. Kennedy against a feverish Richard Nixon — was also a remarkably dull affair focusing largely on domestic affairs. But now, with the United States facing radically different futures for its foreign policy, the world has taken much more notice than usual. The Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, for one, broadcast the Sunday debate, and also included post-debate commentary.

First televised debate to feature buzzing insects
United States democracy was forged in ever-present clouds of mosquitoes, and bugs from humid Washington, D.C. often invade the Oval Office. But they have thus far failed to penetrate the sanctified space of a televised presidential debate. “Let me just start by saying that so much of what (Trump has) said is not right, but he gets to run his campaign anyway he chooses,” was what Clinton was saying when a house fly landed right between her eyes. In a testament to the rigid, scripted existences of most modern politicians, Clinton didn’t flinch — lest a momentary swat become an election-defining YouTube clip.

Debate with the most empirical falsehoods
Presidential debates, by nature, are filled with exaggerations and inaccuracies. At a 2004 debate, for instance, Democratic nominee John Kerry said that the Iraq War had cost $200 billion. The actual figure at the time was $120 billion — but Kerry had conveniently tacked on $80 billion in allocated funding that hadn’t been spent yet. debate, by contrast, was jammed with statements that simply didn’t carry any shred of truth. \ Trump said the U.S. economy had the “slowest growth since 1929” — which ignores the four times since 1929 that growth has actually shrunk. Clinton said that after the post-2008 economic recovery, “the gains have all gone to the top,” a claim that ignores recent figures showing significant income gains among median income earners. Trump mentioned “hundreds of thousands of people coming in from Syria,” while only 13,000 Syrian refugees came to the U.S. in 2016. Most egregious, however, was when Trump flatly denied sending out a Tweet instructing followers to check out the “sex tape” of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.

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About Tristin Hopper