- By Molly O’TooleMolly 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.
Hillary Clinton just tried to out-Trump Donald Trump.
Taking the stage in San Diego for what her campaign billed as a major national security speech, Clinton excoriated the mogul’s ever-evolving and often unworkable foreign-policy pronouncements with new lines that sounded even sharper than the blunt insults Trump loves to lob at his opponents.
“Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different; they are dangerously incoherent,” she said in a strikingly combative and sarcastic speech. “They’re not even really ideas — just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.”
Calling him “temperamentally unfit” for the presidency, she continued, “this is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”
Elsewhere in the roughly 30-minute address, Clinton accused Trump of cozying up to Vladimir Putin and mocked him for saying that “he has foreign-policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.”
The contrast with Clinton’s typically earnest and restrained tone was particularly striking given her tightly managed campaign, which has largely tried to avoid getting down in the mud with Trump.
But the strategy dismissing Trump as “unfit” to be commander in chief risks alienating some Democrats who may see the likely Democratic nominee as too hawkish and over-eager to wield U.S. military force herself. Clinton’s rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has questioned her judgment — reserving particular scorn for her vote in favor of the Iraq war — and vowed to remain in the race past California’s primary on June 7 and into the Democratic convention in July.
The tactic also opens Clinton’s lengthy record up to harsher scrutiny, a potential vulnerability against Trump, a Manhattan real-estate magnate who has never served in public office and has no votes or moves to tout or defend. Though she has far more extensive foreign-policy experience, it includes her initial support for the invasion of Iraq and her role in pushing a reluctant President Barack Obama toward deeper military involvement in Afghanistan and Libya, policies which have failed to bring stability to either country.
It’s a difficult balance that has Clinton has struggled to strike during the bitter fight with Sanders, and which would probably be even harder in her general election matchup with Trump. A Washington Post/ABC news poll last month showed slightly more American voters trust Clinton to handle national security issues than Trump, but they’re roughly split, 47 percent to 44 percent, putting the results within the survey’s margin of error.
Independents, though, lean more toward Trump, with 50 percent saying he’d make the country safer versus 39 percent who say Clinton would.
In her speech Thursday, Clinton didn’t mention these more complex areas of her tenure in the Obama administration. Instead, she again cited watching the Osama bin Laden raid in the White House Situation Room, negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and a nuclear weapons deal with Russia, and helping lay the groundwork for Obama’s historic deal with Iran over its nuclear program and the Paris climate accords. And she highlighted the value of U.S. alliances Trump has vowed to pull back from, arguing they give Washington an effective “qualitative edge” over global rivals Beijing and Moscow.
“If Donald gets his way, they’ll be celebrating in the Kremlin,” she said, repeating a variation of a favored line.
Many of Trump’s national security prescriptions — whether threatening to reduce the U.S. role in NATO, encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons, or expressing admiration for strongmen like Putin or North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — have been criticized as dangerous, from both sides of the aisle.
But in a marked shift in tone, Clinton excoriated those pronouncements with new lines that sounded, well, a little more like the mocking reality-TV show mogul.
“I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants,” she quipped.
Noting Trump’s comment that he doesn’t have to listen to military officials, “because he has — quote — ‘a very good brain,’” she paused for comic effect. “He also said, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.’ You know what? I don’t believe him.”
Belittling the purported business acumen that Trump cites as his main qualification for office, she said, “There’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf-course deal.” She described his “tools” of statecraft as “bragging, mocking, composing nasty tweets,” arguing they’d create global crises, not solve them.
The Clinton camp sees some retired military officers, GOP elected officials, and former Republican national security officials who have vowed “Never Trump” as potential recruits, an unlikely alliance that underscores how her doctrine, in many ways, is more hawkish than Obama’s or Trump’s.
Yet even as she spoke Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) published an op-ed expressing support for the mogul, making him the highest-ranking elected GOP official to formally endorse Trump. It’s the strongest signal yet that the last holdouts of the elected Republican establishment are accepting the reality of a Trump-led GOP and turning toward defeating Clinton.
It’s unclear whether the Clinton campaign’s gamble will pay off in November.
No amount of controversy over Trump’s national security statements seems to have negatively impacted his support in an election cycle where “establishment” is a dirty word and frustration a primary mobilizer. The social media mud-slinging that Clinton mocks but Trump masters also neutralizes her relative qualifications to be commander in chief. And despite current anxiety over terrorism, presidential elections are rarely decided by national security.
Still, Clinton put both voters and Trump on notice.
“If you really believe America is weak — with our military, our values, our capabilities that no other country comes close to matching — then you don’t know America,” she said. “And you certainly don’t deserve to lead it.”
Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images