On Thursday, the full force of the Democratic Party, including President Obama, rallied around Hillary Clinton, saying that rival Donald Trump is unfit for office.
On the Republican side, there was no such unity as lawmakers struggled with how to respond to the GOP nominee’s claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a stronger leader than Obama.
And both parties fiercely criticized the role of the media in an election that is testing time-worn theories on how to cover presidential campaigns, aiming much of their fire Thursday at the performance of NBC’s Matt Lauer in moderating a foreign-policy forum this week.
Taken together, Thursday’s events offered a glimpse of where the final two months of the campaign appear to be headed, as the contest tightens and anxiety in both parties grows over the nominees’ chances and the possible impact on House and Senate races down the ballot.
Senior Republicans such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to avoid commenting directly on Trump’s claim that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” Trump had also said at the NBC forum Wednesday night that he welcomed compliments from Putin and praised the Russian leader’s poll numbers. Trump then appeared Thursday on RT, a Russian state-funded television company, where he criticized U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. political press corps.
When asked about the praise of an autocratic foe over the sitting U.S. president, Ryan said only that “Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests” and that the Russian president “is acting like an adversary.”
Other top Republicans were less reserved.
“Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) quipped about Putin.
Graham, a former presidential candidate, has often sparred with Trump and is one of his most vocal critics. “This calculation by Trump unnerves me to my core.”
The GOP responses were a far cry from Obama’s warm embrace of Clinton. Speaking at a news conference in Laos on Thursday, Obama said Trump’s behavior is “unacceptable and outrageous” and warned that it has become normalized in this election. He said the media had insufficiently scrutinized Trump’s claims and behaviors but said he thinks voters will make “a good decision.”
“I don’t think the guy’s qualified to be president of the United States, and every time he speaks, that opinion is confirmed,” Obama said. “There is this process that seems to take place over the course of the election season where somehow behavior that in normal times we consider completely unacceptable and outrageous becomes normalized, and people think we ought to be grading on a curve.”
Clinton herself was intent on keeping Trump’s controversial comments alive. Speaking before boarding her campaign plane en route to North Carolina, Clinton said Trump had “failed once again” to come off as a credible commander in chief and said it was “scary” to hear him praise Putin.
“Meanwhile, bizarrely, once again, he praised Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, even taking the astonishing step of suggesting that he prefers the Russian president to our American president,” Clinton said. “Now that is not just unpatriotic and insulting to the people of our country as well as to our commander in chief, it is scary.”
Clinton also dinged Trump for his discussion of what he has been told during intelligence briefings, which he receives as the GOP nominee. During the forum, Trump said the briefers had intimated that Obama and others did not follow the advice of the experts — an impression Trump said he gathered in part from the “body language” of his briefers.
“I think what he said was totally inappropriate and undisciplined,” Clinton said Thursday.
As he often does, Trump took to Twitter in response: “Hillary just gave a disastrous news conference on the tarmac to make up for poor performance last night.”
His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also came to Trump’s defense during a television interview.
“I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” Pence told CNN. “And that’s going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America.”
Meanwhile, some members of the media were caught in the middle. Lauer was widely panned Thursday by journalists and political strategists, who said he should have been better prepared to challenge the candidates on misleading claims they made during the Wednesday night forum, which was held at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.
The criticism elevates the stakes for the moderators of the presidential debates — the first of which will be held in three weeks — to prepare for their performances in front of millions of live viewers watching on their television screens.
Democrats accused Lauer of focusing too intently on questions over Clinton’s handling of a private email server while secretary of state and for failing to challenge Trump’s bogus claim that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. Republicans, meanwhile, said Lauer failed to ask Clinton several key questions about her tenure as the State Department.
On Iraq, Trump stuck with his false claim of opposition to the Iraq War, which he has repeated throughout his campaign. Fact checkers have repeatedly debunked the assertion, citing recorded comments before and after the invasion.
“Iraq is one of the biggest differences in this race,” Trump said Thursday during a campaign event in Cleveland. “I opposed going in — and I did oppose it, despite the media saying, ‘Oh, yes, no.’ I opposed going in. . . . But I was opposed to the war from the beginning, long after my interview with Howard Stern.”
During an interview on Stern’s radio show on Sept. 11, 2002 — before the war — Trump responded affirmatively when asked if he supported it. He later praised the 2003 invasion on another show as “a tremendous success.”
Democrats and their liberal allies fired salvos at Trump on Thursday on several fronts, from the Iraq claim to his defense of a 2013 tweet in which he suggested that sexual assaults in the military were inevitable “when they put men & women together.”
But it was Trump’s praise of Putin, a major U.S. foe, that garnered most of the attention. Trump’s surrogates on the Hill scrambled to either dismiss Trump’s admiring take as so much “noise in the wind” — as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) put it — or to attempt to cast Trump’s approach as strategic.
“You know, maybe he’s playing to Putin’s ego,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), emerging from a meeting of the GOP nominee’s surrogates Thursday morning. “Russia is a threat, and I think Mr. Trump may be playing it very smart with how he addresses Mr. Putin.”
Other lawmakers were concerned about the idea that Trump welcomes praise from Putin. He said in the forum that “when he calls me brilliant, I think I’ll take the compliment, okay?”
“You know, flattery can be used as a tool that sometimes bears very negative fruit,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was once on the shortlist to be Trump’s vice-presidential nominee. “One has to be careful about letting flattery affect one’s relationship with a person or a country.”
In a campus visit Thursday afternoon at historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Clinton urged young people to vote. Early voting by mail begins Friday in North Carolina, a battleground where Clinton leads Trump by 1.2 percentage points in the latest RealClearPolitics average.
She criticized what she said are deliberate Republican attempts to stymie voting in the state and railed against the state’s law requiring transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.
But much of her address was an amplification of her earlier attack on Trump for what she called insulting answers during the forum the night before.
“It’s hard to forget what Trump did last night. It was a test, and he failed it,” Clinton said.
He denigrated active-duty military and praised Putin, she said.
“People who have sacrificed and spent their lives protecting our country, valuing what makes us exceptional and already great, see Donald Trump and know he should not be anywhere near the White House,” she said.