Report

Clinton’s Debate Take on Trump: ‘Only Secret Is He Doesn’t Have a Plan’

Short on details but long on criticism, Trump is put on the defensive in a test of his preparedness to be commander in chief.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Republican nominee Donald Trump after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Republican nominee Donald Trump after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — In their first head-on debate of the presidential campaign, the sparring between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton centered Monday on an unusual premise: Whether a candidate should tell voters his or her plan to keep America secure.

Early on, Trump struck at Clinton’s economic vision with a wildly aimed broadside on how she has outlined her strategy to take on the Islamic State if elected.

“She tells you how to fight ISIS on her website! I don’t think General Douglas MacArthur would like that,” Trump said, referring to the five-star general who was fired by a president for trying to escalate war. “You’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life!”

Clinton retorted: “Well, at least I have a plan to fight ISIS.”

“You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,” Trump shot back.

Clinton is 68 years old. Trump’s accusation means she would have been fighting and failing for a half-century to defeat the Islamic State, the terrorist group with roots in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that later rose and took over swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The exchange Monday night was telling for a key difference between Trump and Clinton, one on which American voters will decide the 2016 election on Nov. 8.

The rise of the Islamic State and a recent string of attacks across the globe and in the United States has prompted a hyper-awareness on “Keeping America Secure,” one of three main themes of Monday’s debate. Trump has keyed in on “who makes you feel secure” and Clinton on “how to make you secure.”

Yet the battle between Clinton and Trump for the mantle of commander in chief has so far played out in clashes of style rather than substance, favoring the former reality-TV show host’s synthesis of social media, raw political instinct, and base appeal to America’s nativist underbelly amid a sense of frustration and anxiety. The former secretary of state’s wonkish, staid encyclopedic grasp of policy stemming from her years in public office has often been drowned out.

But the format of the debate at Hofstra University in New York — which ran 90 minutes long and covered three themes: “Keeping America Secure,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “America’s Direction” — exposed and directly challenged Trump’s short-on-detail campaign more than ever before.

Almost immediately, Trump sought to blame Clinton for American jobs being outsourced to countries like Mexico, as a result of trade agreements like those signed into law by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, or that she later supported as secretary of state, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump forced Clinton to defend her reversal on TPP that she said she embraced after seeing the final agreement and concluding it would not help the middle class.

But as the debate turned to security issues, it was Trump was on the defensive.

“First of all, Secretary Clinton doesn’t want to use a couple of words, and that’s ‘law and order,'” he said, answering a question about racial tensions in the United States. “We need law and order; if we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country.”

But he then agreed with Clinton, who said a key step for homeland security would be addressing gun control, and preventing those on terrorist watch lists from buying weapons: “If you are too dangerous to fly, you are too dangerous to buy a gun,” she said.

Clinton continued, returning to her theme: “We cannot just say ‘law and order’…. We have to come forward with a plan.”

Finally in the security-focused segment, Clinton identified cyberwarfare as a key threat, citing Trump’s call — which he later claimed was facetious — for Russian hackers to attack her emails.

“She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia,” said Trump, who has been complimentary of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has advocated a warmer relationship with Moscow. “It could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

As for the Islamic State, Clinton called for an “intelligence surge,” a more robust offensive to counter the group’s propaganda online, more airstrikes, and targeting the terrorist group’s leaders — all elements she’s highlighted before, and without real distinction from what the Obama administration is already doing.

Trump dodged Clinton’s accusations about his campaign’s coziness toward Russia or providing his own plan to defeat the terrorist group. Instead, he again sought to tie her to the spate of foreign policy crises under the Obama administration, saying she’d promise more of the same if elected.

“President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq,” said Trump, calling it a “disaster” that led to the Islamic State. He continued, “We have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast.”

That gave Clinton — and NBC moderator Lester Holt — an opening to remind Trump, and the viewers, of his initial support for Republican President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Bush also negotiated and announced the troop withdrawal that Trump tried to ding Clinton with Monday.

Clinton’s debate strategy might have been summed up in one of her final responses of the night: “Words matter.” She used it to zero in on Trump’s repeated complaints over why the United States won’t deploy its nuclear weapons arsenal, or isn’t willing to allow other countries to develop nuclear weapons; his threats to withdraw from NATO and incitements of Islamophobia, and his pledges to renegotiate world powers’ agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.

“Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? … He should tell us what his alternative would be,” she said, referring to Trump’s criticism of the Iran deal.

In questioning his strategy to destroy the Islamic State, Clinton might have been speaking about his candidacy more broadly: “He says it’s a secret plan,” Clinton said, “but the only secret is that he has no plan.”

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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