NEW YORK: Hillary Clinton sought to show a steady hand and Donald Trump claimed “I told you so” on Monday, as a fresh spate of terror attacks prompted markedly different tacks from the dueling White House hopefuls. Fifty days out from the presidential election, a bomb in New York, a mass stabbing in Minnesota and a New Jersey pipe blast injured dozens and put national security centre-stage in the 2016 race. The suspected terror attacks also distilled a stark contrast between the closely-matched Democratic and Republican nominees as they head down the final stretch. Appearing at an airfield hanger flanked by US flags, a solemn Clinton tried to show she has the steady temperament, smarts and experience needed to be commander-in-chief.
“This threat is real but so is our resolve,” Clinton said, addressing the American public even sooner than her would-be predecessor President Barack Obama. The former secretary of state tried to show a breadth of understanding, touching on a gamut of terror-related issues – from radicalisation to intelligence gathering. The response from Americans, Clinton argued, should be resolve, and from government an “intelligence surge” to counter disparate and diffuse plots. She also touted her role in Obama’s decision to kill Osama bin Laden.
Clinton noted she would meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi later Monday and discuss “the threat from terrorism” – as Trump’s campaign disclosed that he too would be meeting the Egyptian leader later in the day. If the message from Clinton was one of patient determination, Trump’s demand was for radical change. He sought to show that these latest attacks are an inevitable result of Clinton and Obama’s weak handed anti-terror and immigration policies. His platform was not a flag-backed podium, but a morning news chat show, underscoring how central the media has been to his improbable campaign. “Our country has been weak. We’re letting people in by the thousands and tens of thousands. I’ve been saying you’ve got to stop it,” Trump told Fox. An Afghan-born US suspect – Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28 – described as “armed and dangerous” was wounded on Monday in a dramatic shootout with police and taken into custody over the bombings in New York and New Jersey.
The Minnesota attack was carried out by a 22-year-old Somali-American with possible links to the Islamic State extremist group. Trump’s campaign rubbished Clinton’s response as a “disgusting attempt to distract” from failures to tackle the Islamic State group.
The political repercussions of the attacks are hard to predict. Neither candidate has benefitted markedly from national security issues so far, judging from the reactions that followed June’s attack on an Orlando nightclub or the string of attacks in Europe. But the attacks come a week before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. Those set-piece jousts are an important staging post and often crystalise the campaigns, with voters shifting from getting to know the candidates to imagining them in the Oval Office.
Trump has made security concerns a cornerstone of his platform. He advocates selectively closing US borders to people based on their country of origin, including barring the entrance of Syrian refugees. The reality TV mogul has boasted of his endorsements from the main organisation representing US Border Patrol Agents and the nation’s largest police union, as well as from more than 160 former generals and admirals. Clinton has tried to show that Trump is a racist demagogue and temperamentally unfit for office. Far from helping in the fight against terror, Clinton accused Trump of making things worse. “The rhetoric we’ve heard from Donald Trump has been seized on by terrorists, in particular ISIS,” she said, adding it plays into the hands of those “who are looking to make this into a war against Islam.”
Trump has tried to counter allegations that he is a neophyte on the world stage. He recently visited Mexico and on Monday indicated he had already met “a couple” of world leaders in New York. “I’ve had a lot of calls from a lot of different people on the basis that I’m doing well,” he said. “I’ve already met with a couple. I just don’t want to comment specifically on who they are.”
The Republican has faced questions about his handling of the attacks and why he told a rally in Colorado about the bombing in New York before local authorities had confirmed details of the explosion. Both candidates get security briefings from the intelligence services. American voters, though, are split. According to a Fox News poll published prior to the weekend, 46 per cent of voters have more confidence in Clinton regarding questions of terrorism and national security, versus 45 per cent who prefer Trump. After a bout of pneumonia prompted her to lay low last week Clinton was holding a rally in Philadelphia on Monday that is slated to focus on millennials, with Trump scheduled to hold a Florida event.