Donald Trump had Hillary Clinton right where he wanted her — giving an unconvincing explanation of why she praised an unpopular immigration policy during a closed-door meeting with Brazilian bankers. And yet, moments later, he found himself engaged in a debate over which presidential candidate is a more plausible “puppet for Putin.” Which can’t possibly be the argument his campaign wanted to have at the third presidential debate.
The exchange started with Chris Wallace quoting from a 2013 speech Clinton gave to Banco Itaú — which was excerpted in an email published by WikiLeaks, possibly after it was obtained by Russian intelligence operatives — in which the Democratic nominee said, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”
Trump has relentlessly promoted the fiction that Clinton’s immigration plan amounts to open borders. It’s hard to imagine a more convenient quote for the Republican nominee’s campaign than this one. And so, when Wallace asked Clinton to explain her remarks, Trump actually interrupted the moderator to thank him.
For Clinton, the honest explanation would probably be something like, “I was describing a far-off fantasy, that I will have no opportunity to realize in office.”
But that would not be a politically wise thing to say. So, instead, Clinton pretended that she was merely talking about open trade and open borders — in energy.
“Well, if you went on to read the rest of the sentence, I was talking about energy,” Clinton said. “You know, we trade more energy with our neighbors than we trade with the rest of the world combined. And I do want us to have an electric grid, energy system that crosses borders.”
Then, Clinton played the Putin card.
“But you are very clearly quoting from WikiLeaks and what’s really important about WikiLeaks is that the Russian government has engaged in espionage against Americans,” Clinton said. “So I actually think the most important question of this evening, Chris, is finally will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election, that he rejects Russian espionage against Americans, which he actually encouraged in the past?”
Trump called her bluff, at first.
“That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, okay?” Trump said. “How did we get off to Putin?”
But then, after decrying Clinton’s support for resettling Syrian refugees, Trump started arguing that Putin has more respect for the Republican nominee than he does for Clinton.
“Look, Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person,” Trump said, gesturing to Clinton.
“Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton said.
“You’re the puppet!” Trump replied.
Then, the mogul proceeded to argue that Clinton was way more of a puppet for Putin than he was — while also defending the brilliance of Putin’s foreign policy and Putin’s right to the benefit-of-the-doubt with regard to the hacking of Clinton’s campaign.
Clinton cited “17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military” who all suspect that Russia was behind the hacking of her campaign’s emails.
“She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China, or anybody else,” Trump replied. “She has no idea … And our country has no idea.”
“Well, he’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us,” Clinton said.
Trump did not feel compelled to defend himself against this characterization. Instead, he defended Putin’s wisdom.
“She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.”
To review: During a segment on immigration policy, Trump had Clinton claiming the term “open borders” refers to free trade in solar panels — and ended the segment defending the president of Russia against American intelligence agencies.