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Orlando Shootings Put Clinton and Trump to Pivotal Test on National Security

The GOP businessman risks revealing there's no substance beyond his rhetoric while the former secretary of state must prove she can keep Americans safe.

OrlandoTrumpClinton

Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. And now, Orlando.

After each terrorist attack, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — now the presumptive nominees of their respective parties — have followed a loose pattern.

Trump, the Republican real estate magnate, blames and attacks his political opponents, then uses tough talk to project strength and propose controversial policies. Clinton, the Democratic former secretary of state, outlines more measured blueprints to step up the fight against the Islamic State, urge unity, and project calm resolve.

Yet the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday that left at least 50 dead and as many wounded carries a bloody distinction: It’s the worst shooting in U.S. history and deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. It marks a pivotal moment for Clinton and Trump as they enter the general election phase of the campaign, a high-stakes stage from which to display presidential resolve and gain credibility as a potential commander in chief.

But as their dueling speeches Monday underscored, the political fallout from the attack also carries potential pitfalls for both, particularly with moderate, independent, and undecided voters who may provide the deciding edge for either candidate in November. 

A Washington Post/ABC news poll last month showed slightly more American voters trust Clinton to handle national security issues than Trump, but independents lean more toward the Republican, with 50 percent saying he’d make the country safer compared with 39 percent who say Clinton would. Still, some 60 percent of registered voters say Trump has a “very poor” temperament, according to a June NBC/WSJ poll.

In New Hampshire, Trump initially intended to focus his speech on Clinton and “all of the bad things and we all know what’s going on, and especially how poor she’d do as president in these very, very troubled times of radical Islamic terrorism,” he said. But, in the wake of the Orlando attack, he took aim at immigration and alleged political correctness, as well as at Clinton.

“With 50 people dead and perhaps more ultimately and dozens more wounded, we cannot afford to talk around issues anymore,” Trump said, mostly reading from a teleprompter. “The days of deadly ignorance will end, and they will end soon if I’m elected.”

Clinton spoke just a short while earlier in Columbus, Ohio, and started out by saying, “Today is not a day for politics.” Still, she pledged to ramp up the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State, spoke of solidarity with the LGBT community, and promised to strengthen gun control — all implicit rebukes of Trump.

“We are heading into a general election that could be the most consequential of our lifetimes,” Clinton said. “The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive.”

As he defeated his GOP opponents in bitter primary elections, Trump gained ground by tapping into heightened anxiety — reaching levels not seen since 9/11 — among Americans following the Islamic State’s rise in 2014 in Iraq and Syria. But he’s now under intense scrutiny as Clinton seeks to paint him as a national security liability.

And with his continued prescriptions for contradictory policy — including again on Monday by renewing his pledge to ban Muslim immigrants to the United States — Trump risks revealing there’s little substance behind his rhetoric.

In his speech, Trump repeatedly predicted “thousands upon thousands” of people from the Middle East would “pour” into the United States with no security screening or monitoring, under policies either already enacted by President Barack Obama or soon to be embraced by Clinton. He said many of the Middle Eastern immigrants “have the same thought process as this savage killer.”

Obama has raised the cap on the total number of refugees across the globe, not just from the Middle East, from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017, and the United States has let in only a little more than 2,500 Syrian refugees of the some 12 million displaced.

During a Monday morning interview on “Fox and Friends,” Trump was asked what should be done to respond to the Orlando attack. At first he said the United States should step up airstrikes. Asked where, he vaguely added the strikes should target “the oil.”

He also seemed to suggest that Obama was somehow complicit in Islamist extremism that inspired the nightclub massacre.  “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said during the Fox interview. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. … There’s something going on.” He did not elaborate or explain what he meant.

Such comments will probably bolster Trump with his already-fervent base of support, but they’re unlikely to win him the new converts he needs for November.

And yet Clinton has her own uphill climb on security and diplomacy issues, despite her years of experience. Having crafted — or at least touted — policies during an Obama administration that saw an unleashed extremist threat and war break out across much of the Mideast and parts of Africa, she must now convince Americans her decisions can keep them safe.

On Monday, she again enumerated her national security strategy. In many ways, however, it represented more of what the Obama administration is already doing against the Islamic State, including more airstrikes, bolstered regional help, and an “intelligence surge” to disrupt foreign fighters’ networks and stanch their funding. She also singled out the identification and deterrence of so-called lone wolf extremists as a “top priority.”

In the years since 9/11, security officials and experts tried to moderate fears of another large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But they acknowledge more violence is inevitable, and the threat from so-called homegrown extremists has grown as ideology spreads across the internet.

Clinton also acknowledged frustrations that suspected Orlando shooter Omar Mateen had been on the FBI’s radar before he opened fire on the nightclub, but the probes were dismissed.

“If there are things that can and should be done to improve our ability to prevent, we must do them,” she said. She also took one of several if oblique unnamed swipes at Trump, citing what she called “inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and threatening to ban the families and friends of Muslim Americans.”

Such actions, she said, play “right into the terrorists’ hands.”

Photo credit: DARREN McCOLLESTER

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