New York/Washington: Donald Trump said on Thursday he was in a room full of wonderful people at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York.
“Or as Hillary calls it, her largest crowd of her season," he said with a chuckle, as Democratic rival Hillary Clinton laughed, too. “This is corny stuff."
But as his remarks progressed, Trump’s speech turned more biting.
“Here she is tonight, pretending not to hate Catholics," he said. Several in the crowd booed.
Trump went on: “Everyone knows of course Hillary’s belief that it takes a village, as in Haiti where she’s taken a number of them." That was met with more jeering from the crowd. Clinton’s smile was still on her face, but she didn’t laugh.
Both candidates were, for the most part, good-natured yet tough on each other, but Trump apparently misread this particular audience gathered in his heavily Democratic hometown. Still, despite the booing spells, Trump got strong laughter from throughout the room at his best jokes. The loudest roar of approval came at the expense of his wife.
“The media is even more biased against me than ever before," Trump said. “You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it. It’s fantastic. They think she’s absolutely great. My wife Melania gives the exact same speech! And people get on her case! And I don’t get it! I don’t know why!"
At another point, Trump made light of his assertion that Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state constitutes a punishable crime.
“We’ve proven that we can actually be civil to each other," Trump said. “In fact just before taking the dais Hillary accidentally bumped into me and she very civilly said ‘Pardon me’."
Just 24 hours after engaging in fierce verbal combat in their final debate in Las Vegas and refusing to shake hands, Clinton and Trump were nearly elbow to elbow again, seated at the same table at the ballroom in the Waldorf Astoria, at a charity dinner famous for its humorous speeches.
If Wednesday’s debate raised the question whether the two New Yorkers vying for the nation’s highest office could deliver a knock-out blow or take a punch, Thursday’s encounter tested each’s ability to deliver a punchline and take a joke.
Clinton, who spoke second, began with the self-deprecatory remarks and gracious gestures that have been the hallmarks of previous dinners.
She got big laughs when she told the audience: “I just want to put you all in a basket of adorables."
She told Trump that if he didn’t like what she was saying, “Feel free to stand up and shout ‘wrong!’ while I’m talking." That was a reference to Trump’s habit of interrupting her comments during the three presidential debates.
Clinton also shifted to more biting tone as her speech progressed, and added that after Trump’s speech that she’ll “enjoy listening to Mike Pence deny that you ever gave it".
Trump, with his arms folded, laughed.
“I took a break from my rigorous nap schedule to be here," Clinton quipped. “And it’s a treat for you because usually I charge a lot for speeches like this."
But the Clinton joke that got the biggest laughter targeted Trump’s derogatory remarks about women’s looks. “People look at the Statue of Liberty and they see a proud symbol of our history as a nation of immigrants, a beacon of hope for people around the world. Donald looks at the statue of liberty and sees a four," Clinton said. “Maybe a five, if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair."
Trump didn’t always seem amused.
“Looking back, I’ve had to listen to Donald for three full debates. And he says I don’t have any stamina. That is four-and-a-half hours. I have now stood next to Donald Trump longer than any of his campaign managers," Clinton said as a stone-faced Trump looked on. “Now, look, I have deep respect for people like Kellyanne Conway. She’s working day and night for Donald, and because she’s a contractor, he’s probably not even going to pay her."
During Wednesday’s debate Trump had described Clinton as “such a nasty woman". She called him “the most dangerous presidential candidate" in modern history. A day later, tradition at the 71-year-old dinner called for the two to light-heartedly rib each other. Their place settings were separated only by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop.
Before either candidate spoke on Thursday, they were admonished to be civil toward one another by Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of the state’s 42nd governor. He won laughs when he spun an imaginary scene in which Trump greeted Clinton and asked how she was doing, and she would have said “Fine, now get out of the ladies’ dressing room".
Smith then got more laughs at Trump’s expense. “Even though there’s a man sitting next to you in a robe, please watch your language," he said, referring to his seat next to the Cardinal.
The dinner’s namesake, Smith, was New York’s 42nd governor and the nation’s first Catholic presidential candidate. He was known as “the Happy Warrior" for the good humor with which he railed against political adversaries.
As has been the custom, the audience of 1,500 was dressed in white-tie formal attire. They paid $3,000-15,000 per person, raising about $6 million for Catholic charities that will give services to impoverished New York children, according to Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for New York’s archdiocese.
The room was filled with Wall Street titans. Among them, seated on the dais, were Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, Nasdaq CEO Robert Greifeld, hedge fund manager Roberto Mignone and Mary Erdoes, CEO for Asset Management at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“Hi Chuck," Trump said to New York senator Chuck Schumer. “He used to love me when I was a Democrat."
They dined on a “seafood trio" of king crab salad, lobster cocktail and lobster roll, followed by beef, “cheesy polenta" and red cabbage and desserts that included red velvet cupcakes and dark chocolate praline. Clinton sipped chamomile tea and left a lipstick mark on her cup; Trump had glasses of Coke. Neither ate their desserts.
Thursday night’s dinner programme offered biographies of the two candidates—and each carried a difference in tone that mirrored the two campaigns. Clinton’s matter-of-fact rehashing of her life story presented her as the daughter of a small businessman who went to Wellesley College, Yale Law School where she met Bill Clinton, and her career as first a children’s advocate, then as first lady of Arkansas, then as wife of the president, followed by her stints as US senator and secretary of state. Trump’s described himself in superlatives as “the very definition of the American success story", a “pre-eminent developer of quality real estate" whose “business acumen is unparalleled".
Anxiety about the risk that the confrontation might break with its genteel traditions arose last week when foundation board member Maureen Sherry, a former Bear Stearns Cos. managing director, said “We’re all craving some level of decency." The candidate who wins, she said, “will be the one who can take the higher road".
Trump told the audience that during the debate “I called Hillary a nasty woman, and after listening to her go on and on and on, I don’t dislike Rosie O’Donnell so much any more".
And: “Some people think this would be tough for me but the truth is I’m actually a very modest person, very modest. It’s true. In fact many people tell me that perhaps modesty is my best quality."
Clinton had her own stream of one-liners. “We’ll either have the first female president or the first president who started a Twitter war with Cher," she said.
None of Clinton’s remarks elicited booing.
“Trump got too mean, and got booed. I’d never heard that before. It’s hard to pull off mean and funny," comedian Mo Rocca said. “Hillary got good when she ratcheted bitchy up—like the Statue of Liberty joke."
Still some in the audience thought both candidates had good moments.
“Hillary had a much better diatribe but Trump had the line of the night," accountant Bob Garrett, an undecided Republican voter. “Pardon me" was his best, he said.
After their forays into comedy, the two rivals reached out and shook hands, an occurrence that did not go unnoticed by those in attendance.
“I did see the candidates reach across a great divide and shake hands," Smith IV remarked. BLOOMBERG
Kevin Cirilli, Amanda Gordon, and Jennifer Epstein contributed to this story.