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On Russian Puppets, ‘Bad Hombres,’ and Maybe Rejecting the Vote: 2016’s Last Debate

On Russian Puppets, ‘Bad Hombres,’ and Maybe Rejecting the Vote: 2016’s Last Debate

Republican nominee Donald Trump issued plenty of surprising statements Wednesday night during the third and final presidential debate of 2016, from describing the New START nuclear reduction treaty as a “start-up” to dismissing U.S. intelligence indicating Russia is trying to influence the American election. But perhaps the biggest bombshell was Trump’s declaration that he will wait to accept the Nov. 8 vote results, defying a fundamental part of America’s electoral process.

Trump’s rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, was already ahead in most national polls by the time the debate began. It ended after 95 minutes that included Trump citing “bad hombres” to discuss immigration, both candidates accusing the other of being puppets of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Clinton almost certainly solidifying her lead in the nasty race.

Following a week of accusing Clinton, the media, and even fellow Republicans of rigging the election, Trump said he will “look at” the vote results before he decides to accept them.

“I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now,” Trump said, when Fox News moderator Chris Wallace quoted both running mate Mike Pence and his daughter, Ivanka, saying they believed he would accept the results. He added, “I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”

As Trump’s campaign has threatened to implode following multiple women accusing him of sexual assault, Clinton mostly has maintained a low profile. Yet she too faced controversy upon entering the debate as WikiLeaks released what appeared to be a fresh crop of her private emails while serving as secretary of state. She purposely shielded her emails through a homebrew server.

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded the leaks may be an attempt by senior Russian officials to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. And prompting another explosive exchange Wednesday, Clinton challenged Trump to disavow the site as a tool of state-sponsored espionage.

Trump demurred, saying he’d disavow any country’s cyberwarfare but dodging on pointing at Putin. He instead accused Clinton of disrespecting the Russian president.

“Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton interjected.

“No puppet. No puppet,” Trump shot back, talking over Clinton. “You’re the puppet!”

While the Republican nominee has repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin, at one point calling him a stronger leader than President Barack Obama, he also hit Clinton during the debate for the “start-up” the U.S. signed as evidence the Russian president has “outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way.”

Trump was referring to the New START nuclear stockpile reduction treaty, considered a victory for the “reset” early on in the Obama administration. Moscow recently announced it was pulling out of the 2011 landmark nuclear security agreement as U.S.-Russia relations devolved over Syria and other issues.

The debate opened with the two contenders seemingly trying to appear presidential and calmly discussing their differences on Supreme Court nominees. But it quickly devolved over the issue of immigration — a sticky issue in battleground Nevada, where Trump’s rejection of migrants and refugees from Latin America and the Middle East could very well swing the state to Democrats.

“We’ll have no country if we have no border,” Trump said, accusing Clinton of “amnesty” and wanting to let in “550 percent more people” than Obama, implying they would all be Syrian refugees.

“We have some bad hombres here,” he pledged, “and we’re going to get them out.”

The GOP nominee has capitalized on American voters’ anxiety over the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and what he described as dozens of other countries worldwide. He continued in that vein Wednesday, pinning a spate of international crises since 2009 on the former secretary of state and undermining her years of working on foreign policy and security as “bad experience.”

“When you look at her real record, take a look at Syria,” Trump said. “Take a look at the migration. Take a look at Libya. Take a look at Iraq. She gave us ISIS.”

Clinton repeated her boilerplate plan for taking on ISIS, including an ill-defined “intelligence surge” and combatting the terrorist group’s online propaganda. She also ducked her long-stated support for a no-fly zone in Syria when asked if she’d be willing to shoot down a Russian plane, saying it would provide leverage for tough negotiations.

But Trump also stumbled when Wallace asked him about his declarations that the Syrian city of Aleppo — where Russia earlier Wednesday agreed to extend a cease-fire — had fallen. Parts of Aleppo are alternately controlled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni-dominated rebel groups.

“Have you seen Aleppo?” Trump demanded of a nonplussed Wallace. It was reminiscent of independent candidate Gary Johnson’s widely panned “What is Aleppo?” gaffe. Trump had few details on how he would curb Iran and Russia’s role in Syria’s civil war but took aim at Clinton: “If she did nothing, we’d be in much better shape.”

Trump also slammed the ongoing military offensive on Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, which has been under Islamic State control since 2014. Iraqi and Peshmerga fighters are leading the fight, supported by U.S. forces. Trump criticized the Obama administration for broadcasting its moves to the enemy — but he also suggested the long-planned operation was finally launched in time to benefit Clinton.

It was not the first conspiracy theory Trump has peddled, but it may be one of the last.

“One of these two people will be the next president of the United States,” Wallace began the debate. “It’s very important for them to make their case” and listeners “to hear them.”

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla / Staff