Inside debate camp: How Hillary Clinton prepared to turn Trump's attacks back on him

Story highlights

  • Clinton's team planned rebuttals for Trump's arguments, including lines on her debate prep taking her off the trail
  • Clinton's aides were giddy about how the debate played out, using words like "unhinged" to describe Trump

White Plains, New York (CNN)When Donald Trump tried to score points by saying that Hillary Clinton had spent days off the campaign trail to prepare for Monday night's debate, Clinton -- having spent days off the trail to prepare -- had a ready reply.

"I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate," Clinton said wryly after Trump hit Clinton for taking time off the trail. "And, yes, I did. You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing."
    The line was not spontaneous.
    According to sources inside Clinton's debate prep, Trump and his surrogates telegraphed his line of attack as they were hitting Clinton for the time off before the debate. So they looked for a way to flip the line on the Republican nominee and urged Clinton to use it.
    But it wasn't the only pre-planned moment in a debate that became a prolonged opposition research dump on the Republican nominee.
    The most damaging may be when Clinton used the story of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who says Donald Trump called her "Miss Housekeeping" as a way to counter sexism on Trump's part.
    Near the end of the debate, when Trump didn't back away from saying Clinton didn't look like a president, the former secretary of state pounced.
    "He called this woman 'Miss Piggy,' then he called her 'Miss Housekeeping' because she was Latina," Clinton said. "Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado. And she has become a US citizen and you can bet she is going to vote this November."
    Trump didn't back away from the line, interrupting Clinton as she spoke with "Where did you find her?"
    Quickly, the Clinton campaign blasted out a video about Machado's story. On Tuesday, they held a press call with the former Miss Universe, who said that cried when she heard her name mentioned on Monday.
    When asked how the back-and-forth has played with Spanish speaking media, a Clinton aide had a one-word response: "H-U-G-E."
    Afterward, Clinton's aides were giddy about how the debate played out, using words like "unhinged" to describe Trump. That glee was compounded when they heard Trump went to the spin room and complained about the microphone, claiming that his was defective.
    "Anybody who complains about the microphone is not having a good night," Clinton said.
    Aides acknowledged that they felt Trump effectively hit Clinton on trade, especially in attacking her support of the North American Free Trade agreement, a deal her husband -- who was sitting in the audience -- approved as president. Clinton tried to distance herself from the Trans Pacific Partnership on the debate stage, and Trump correctly said that she called it the "gold standard" as secretary of state.
    And one aide also said that while Clinton's email answer was shorter and more succinct than past answers, no one inside the campaign likes it when Clinton spends any time explaining her decision to use a private email server as secretary of state.
    But for the most part, there was no hiding the enthusiasm on Clinton's side. She received a loud ovation from staff and crew boarding her campaign plane Tuesday morning.
    Clinton poured herself into debate prep for days before the Monday contest. The former first lady conducted two-a-day debate sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, not leaving the Doral Arrowwood hotel and spa until past 11 p.m. ET to return to her nearby home.
    Ron Klain, who advised President Barack Obama and ran part of Hillary Clinton's debate prep, played moderator Lester Holt during he session, according to a Clinton aide. Klain played only one version of Holt, aides said, believing that the NBC anchor would fact check Trump when confronted with a blatant falsehood but also leave it to Clinton to do some fact checking, too.
    Aides who were in on the debate preparations said Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser who played Trump in the sessions, poured himself into the role, sporting a red tie and large cufflinks to look like the businessman.
    Reines, who spent hours studying Trump's policies and debate performances, acted out some of the Republican nominee's mannerism during the prep, including a hand gesture that the campaign called "the cobra" -- where Trump brings his fingers together like a snake ready to pounce.
    While Reines didn't try to mimic Trump's voice, aides said the longtime adviser's rendition of the Republican nominee was so on point that even Clinton was surprised. As she came off the stage Monday, Clinton had the highest of praise, an aide said.
    "Wow, that sounded exactly like Philippe," Clinton said.