Sometimes crises provoke national conversations about American values and the wisdom of contending policy choices. But that’s not what’s happened aftermath of attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota.
Even before police in New Jersey arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in explosions on Saturday and Monday, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had begun a fierce debate in which each side accused the other not just of misguided policies but of actively aiding ISIS, the latest nasty bout in a nasty campaign.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference Monday morning in Philadelphia, Clinton said that Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims made him a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.” That language stuck out—The New York Times called it “most drastic version yet of an attack Mrs. Clinton has tried out recently”—though actually, she has been using that line for some time. In April, for example, she told Henry Blodget, “I think it was said just this week that the way Donald Trump talks about terrorism and his very insulting language towards Muslims is making him the recruiting sergeant for ISIS.”
Trump’s campaign took quick umbrage. Spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement:
Hillary Clinton’s comments today accusing Mr. Trump of treason are not only beyond the pale, it’s also an attempt to distract from her horrible record on ISIS. If Clinton really wants to find the real cause of ISIS, she needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The decision to remove all American troops from Iraq in 2011, which was vigorously supported by Clinton, created the vacuum that led to the founding of ISIS. Nothing she says or does can ever un-ring that bell.
Meanwhile, Trump posted on Facebook, arguing that “Hillary Clinton's weakness while she was Secretary of State, has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the U.S., even on our own soil. They are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes President - so that they can continue their savagery and murder.” He later expanded on that sentiment in a campaign statement.
There is no small irony to Trump’s complaint that Clinton was accusing him of “treason.” Clinton’s accusation was certainly provocative, but it not as stunning as what Trump said about President Obama after the Orlando shooting. At that time, he suggested that Obama may have known about the shooting and done nothing. He acted outraged when the press reported those comments, but he promptly added that Obama put the interests of American allies over the country’s interest. Later, he said Obama “founded ISIS,” a statement that clearly was hyperbolic and not intended to be taken literally, although he insisted he meant it that way, before reversing course and calling his statement “sarcasm.”
Clinton’s claim is based on statements made by former intelligence officials. In March, Al Jazeera asked Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and NSA, whether Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims made him a “recruiting sergeant” for ISIS. Hayden said it did. More recently, after Clinton said on Israeli TV that the group “prays to Allah for Trump victory,” Matt Olsen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, wrote, “Trump’s anti-Muslim proposals are likely to inspire and radicalize more violent jihadists in the U.S. and Europe.”
Trump has shown a predilection for the rhetorical turn best known as “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” When Clinton began assailing her temperament, he added a long attack on her temperament to his stump speech. Last week, after spending five years pushing conspiracy theories about whether Obama was born in the United States, Trump argued that Clinton had started the whole thing, which was both untrue and an odd claim for someone who had so eagerly adopted the theory. His response to Clinton’s “recruiting sergeant” jab is to simply turn it around on Clinton and say that she’s the real recruiting sergeant.
Even by the standards of this election, it was a fast trip from attack to mutual accusations of treason. There are reasons Trump might not want to get into a more detailed policy argument. In particular, his solutions are often shallow, unconstitutional, or both. On Monday, he appeared on Fox and Friends, where he promised to “do something extremely tough” to stop ISIS. Like what, asked Steve Doocy, not ordinarily known as a tough questioner. Trump’s response:
Like knock the hell out of them. We have to get everybody together and and we have to lead for a change. Because we’re not knocking them. We’re hitting them every once in a while. We’re hitting them in certain places. We’re being very gentle about it. We have to be very tough and you have other countries who are getting devastated far more than we are and you have to get them together. It’s called leadership. They have to fight. They have to fight the battle. The battle is over there. And we have to fight the battle and we can’t let any more people come into this country and when we have bad ones—we have people going over fighting for ISIS and coming back and we know they are fighting for ISIS and we take them. Once you leave this country, you fight for ISIS, you never come back.
Elsewhere in the interview, he claimed that the Obama administration was planning to let 100,000 new Syrian refugees into the country, which is both untrue—the 2017 goal is 110,000 refugees from across the globe—and largely irrelevant, as the suspects in both New York and Minnesota were not Syrian refugees. Rahami’s family came to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 1995, long before ISIS or the Syrian civil war, and was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2011, and Rahami himself is a citizen. It’s unclear how one would vet a seven-year-old, on which basis Chris Christie in November argued against admitting even five-year-old orphan refugees. The asylum decision came when Clinton was secretary of state, which will almost certainly become a line of attack for Trump.
During the Fox and Friends interviews, Trump also made some cryptic comments about bomb designs that appeared to argue for limits on press freedom, as he admitted:
So I see the other day, and they're all talking about it so wonderfully because it's called freedom of the press—where you buy magazines and they tell you how to make the same bombs that you saw. I would—now people will go crazy, they'll say Trump is against freedom of the press. I'm totally in favor of freedom of the press. But how do you allow magazines to be sold—these are magazines that tell you, from step one, go to the store and buy such-and-such, right?
It’s unclear quite what magazines he’s referring to. The Anarchist Cookbook, a book, has been in circulation for decades. The other notable publication offering bomb recipes is Inspire, the Al Qaeda periodical. Its publishers, however, are overseas, and the Obama administration’s approach was far more aggressive than simple arrests: It killed Samir Khan, an American citizen believed to be Inspire’s editor, in a 2011 drone strike.
Elsewhere on Monday, Trump lamented that Rahami would receive medical treatment and a lawyer, as constitutionally required.
Clinton, for her part, has offered more detail about how she’d approach homegrown terrorism and national security. It’s a fairly straightforward, sober, predictable set of ideas: Make sure first responders and police are trained in prevention; improve intelligence gathering; enact stronger gun controls; and improve relationships between Muslim American communities and law enforcement. In other words, Clinton wants to basically stay the course on Obama’s strategy for homegrown terror. There’s nothing flashy, and the hard truth underlying it is that some number of attacks is inevitable. She might rather trade allegations of treason, too.