US presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump jabbed at each other over how to fight terror, negotiate with allies and keep the US safe and prosperous as the two contenders locked horns in a debate marked by vociferous — and sometimes boisterous — attacks on each other.
Locked in an exceedingly close race, the presidential rivals tangled for 90-minutes over their vastly different visions for the nation’s future and how to engage with the world.
Trump repeatedly pushed at Clinton over her record in the Middle East and elsewhere, painting her as a “lying politician,” and accusing her of aiding Iran through the last year’s landmark nuclear deal and helping foster the rise of Islamic State.
“You look at the Middle East, it’s a total mess, under your direction, to a large extent,” Trump said. “You’re talking about taking out ISIS. But you were there, and you were secretary of state when it was a little infant. Now, it’s in over 30 countries, and you’re going to stop them? I don’t think so.”
“Well at least I have a plan to fight ISIS,” Clinton shot back.
“She tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don’t think General Douglas MacArthur would like that too much,” quipped Trump, insisting both that Clinton lacked a plan, but that by publishing that plan on her website “you’re telling the enemy everything you want to do.”
“No wonder you’ve been fighting — no wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life,” he said, though it was not clear what he was referring to.
Clinton contended that Trump lacks “good judgment or the right temperament” and could take the country to war over small issues, like being mocked on Twitter.
“A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes,” she said.
Trump replied: “That line’s getting a little bit old.”
Still, he avoided a specific declaration on how he would use nuclear weapons if elected president.
The Republican nominee said he “would not do first strike” because “once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over.” That statement suggests he would not authorize a nuclear attack unless the US was struck first.
But in the same answer Trump said he “can’t take anything off the table.” He mentioned adversary nations such as North Korea and Iran in his answer.
While Israel was not mentioned in the debate, Trump name-checked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met both candidates separately on Sunday, saying he was “not a happy camper” over the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump called “one of the worst deals in history.”
“You started the Iran deal, that’s another beauty, they were about to fall” because of sanctions, Trump said. “They were choking on the sanctions and now they’re probably going to be a major power.”
Clinton responded that Iran was only “weeks away” from a nuclear bomb when she became secretary of state — and said the Obama administration thwarted that progress with the deal, which exchanged sanction relief for limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities.
“It’s been very successful in giving us access to facilities we’ve never been to before,” she said.
She added that the deal freed the United States to deal with other Iranian acts, including the Islamic Republic’s backing of terrorism and record of interfering in other countries.
“Personally, I would rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program,” she said.
The televised face-off was the most anticipated moment in an election campaign that has been both historic and unpredictable. Both sides expected a record-setting audience for the showdown at Hofstra University in suburban New York, reflecting the intense national interest in the race to become America’s 45th president.
The centerpiece of Trump’s case against Clinton was that the former senator and secretary of state is little more than a career politician who has squandered opportunities to address the domestic and international issues she’s now pledging to tackle as president.
“She’s got experience,” he said, “but it’s bad experience.”
Clinton insisted that one key to fighting terrorism in the United States and abroad was working closely with Muslims and Muslim-majority countries, while Trump has “consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home.”
“I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policeman of the world, we cannot protect countries all over the world, where they’re not paying us what we need,” Trump said, referring to alliances with US allies to help fight terror.
Clinton knocked at Trump for his comments suggesting he would ice-out NATO, and said her plan included an intelligence surge to obtain “every scrap of information” and to “do everything we can to vacuum up intelligence from Europe, from the Middle East.”
Yet Trump took credit for NATO’s focus on terrorism. He insisted the alliance’s launch of a new anti-terrorism division earlier this year was “largely because of what I was saying, and my criticism of NATO.”
Clinton noted that NATO’s first-ever invocation of Article 5, charging all members to come to the defense of another member under attack, was after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on American soil.
Much of the debate focused on domestic issues, as well as personal quibbles between the candidates and their records.
Clinton called for lowering taxes for the middle class, while Trump focused more on renegotiating trade deals that he said have caused companies to move jobs out of the US.
The Republican candidate backed the controversial “stop-and-frisk policing” tactic as a way to bring down crime, while the Democrat said the policy was unconstitutional and ineffective.
The debate was confrontational from the start, with Trump frequently trying to interrupt Clinton and speaking over her answers. Clinton was more measured and restrained, but also needled the sometimes-thin-skinned Trump over his business record and wealth.
“There’s something he’s hiding,” she declared, scoffing at his repeated contentions that he won’t release his tax returns because he is being audited. Tax experts have said an audit is no bar to making his records public. She said one reason he has refused is that he may well have paid nothing in federal taxes.
He interrupted to say, “That makes me smart.”
Trump aggressively tried to turn the transparency questions around on Clinton, saying he would release his tax information when she produces more than 30,000 emails that were deleted from the personal internet server she used as secretary of state.
Trump’s criticism of Clinton turned personal in the debate’s closing moments. He said, “She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina” to be president. He’s made similar comments in previous events, sparking outrage from Clinton backers who accused him of leveling a sexist attack on the first woman nominated for president by a major US political party.
Clinton leaped at the opportunity to remind voters of Trump’s numerous controversial comments about women, who will be crucial to the outcome of the November election.
“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs,” she said.
Both candidates portrayed themselves as best-prepared to lead a nation where many are still struggling to benefit from a slow economic recovery and are increasingly fearful of terror threats at home and abroad. When Trump jabbed Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail to study for the debate, she said, “I prepared to be president, and that’s a good thing.”
The candidates sparred over trade, taxes and how to bring good-paying jobs back to the United States.
Clinton said her Republican rival was promoting a “Trumped-up” version of trickle-down economics — a philosophy focused on tax cuts for the wealthy. She called for increasing the federal minimum wage, spending more on infrastructure projects and guaranteeing equal pay for women.
Trump panned policies that he said have led to American jobs being moved overseas, in part because of international trade agreements that Clinton has supported. He pushed her aggressively on her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact while she was serving in the Obama administration. She’s since said she opposes the sweeping deal in its final form.
“You called it the gold standard of trade deals,” Trump said. “If you did win, you would approve that.”
Disputing his version of events, Clinton said, “I know you live in your own reality.”
Trump struggled to answer repeated questions about why he only recently acknowledged that Obama was born in the United States. For years, Trump has been the chief promoter of questions falsely suggesting the president was born outside of America.
“He has really started his political activity on this racist lie,” Clinton charged.
Trump also repeatedly insisted that he opposed the Iraq War before the 2003 US invasion, despite evidence to the contrary. Trump was asked in September 2002 whether he supported a potential Iraq invasion in an interview with Howard Stern. He responded: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Presented with the comment during the debate, Trump responded: “I said very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows.”
JTA and AFP contributed to this report