Everyone who has been to a presidential debate knows that the real show begins after the candidates have said goodnight.
In a stadium-sized spin room on Monday night near the presidential debate hall at Hofstra University, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s faithful allies came out one-by-one to hype their candidates and play promoter for the horde of gathered reporters.
First came Don King, the boxing promoter, clutching an Israeli flag and wearing a button with Donald Trump’s face the size of a sandwich. Then Omarosa, the Apprentice star, arrived in a low-cut dress and took selfies with the fans. Mark Cuban, the businessman, Dallas Mavericks owner and Clinton supporter recounted the joys of sitting in the front row of the debate.
And at the climax of the night, Donald Trump himself came out with his children and his son-in-law and all their Secret Service agents, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and cameras thicker than a termite colony. Mr. Trump! Mr. Trump! What are your thoughts on the debate? “I thought it was a great success,” said the billionaire in a stately voice.
The spin room is the post-debate circus where both candidates’ allies fight to have the last word and define the all-important narrative of the night. Here the characters are so colorful and the spin so exaggerated they would make any layman dizzy. Attention-starved university professors compete for attention with luminaries of the political world. Billionaires and businessman, reality television stars and boxing promoters, senators and battle-hardened politicos are rewarded for boasting, blustering, and maybe even lying a little.
Nearly everyone says the same thing in a different own way: My guy won. “She. Crushed. Him.” tweeted Paul Begala, the CNN commentator and Clinton super-PAC adviser. The other side said Trump nailed it. “He’s been successful in business. And he’s not a racist,” said Don King, whose denim jacket had a picture of Mount Rushmore on it.
During past election cycles and in the primaries, the spin room served as a place for the candidates to have the last word and engage in a strenuous exercise of puffery. The speakers are swarmed by hundreds of eager cub reporters eager for a saucy line. But this year, with a reality television star at the top of the ticket, the spin room has evolved into an affair more elaborate and outrageous than in recent memory.
The temporary chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Donna Brazile along with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill competed for airtime with Trump supporters General Michael Flynn and Rep. Peter King. The Clinton campaign’s press secretary, Brian Fallon sported a plaid green-and-brown jacket, like an English countryman on his day off. “A majority of the American people do not trust him to be commander-in-chief, do not trust him to make decisions in the situation room, do not trust him with the nuclear codes,” Fallon said of Trump. “A lot of his comments were quite frankly deranged.”
Joel Benenson, the Clinton campaign pollster and adviser held forth. “I think to the extent that either candidate reached beyond their base, it was Hillary Clinton,” he told reporters. Asked twice about what the focus groups say, Benenson demurred. We didn’t focus group anything, he claimed. “If we tested everything Donald Trump says, you know, we’d have a whole cottage industry just for that,” Benenson said.
“This woman is a workhorse and they know it,” he added of Clinton. “She’s not a show horse, she’s not a performer.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s most faithful supporter in the Senate, spoke with reporters in a soft southern twang on the other side of the room. He disagreed with Benenson’s assessment about Clinton’s abilities. “She’s a lawyer. She knows how to talk,” said Sessions.
Sessions was ambushed by a Fox News reporter who demanded to know why Trump did not talk about The Wall. On this point, Sessions conceded Trump may have felt short. “I think it could have been a bigger issue,” Sessions said. “I was surprised it wasn’t brought up tonight.”
Close by, Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign manager unreeled a succinct and predictable line: Trump screwed the pooch. “We assumed he would prepare. He did not. We assumed we would maintain his composure. He could not,” Mook said. “He became unhinged.”
Sarah Huckabee, the daughter of the presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, tried to defend Trump. The Republican nominee claimed during the debate that he never said that climate change was a “hoax” invented by the Chinese. (He did.) “I’m sorry I stepped out a couple times. I didn’t hear that,” said Huckabee.
The only surrogate who was off-message was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “This debate was not @realDonaldTrump‘s best, but there are still two more,” he said on Twitter. So then Reince Priebus, the polite Republican Party chairman who has been forced to rebuke his party’s nominee and support him, was again put in the awkward position of defending a Republican who had veered off-script.
“Rudy Giuliani just said that this was not Donald Trump’s best night! Do you agree with that?” a reporter shouted at the chairman. “I don’t agree with him,” Priebus said. “I think he went toe-to-toe with Secretary Clinton.”
The spin room is also a place where nothing gets resolved and no battles are won. Most quotes disappear as soon as they meet the air. But sometimes there is no spin in the spin room. Like when Mark Cuban was asked whether he’d run for president as a Democrat or a Republican.
“I’m not running for president,” Cuban said as he power-walked toward a television interview. “You think I would go through this bullsh*t?”