Republicans vowed to greatly escalate a war on terrorism in their first debate since attacks in Paris and California on Tuesday, but clashed over whether to treat all Muslims as suspect and how much to spy on Americans.
The threat of terrorism dominated the often raucous and heated two-hour faceoff of the nine top-polling candidates, reinforcing how much the race has changed since the terror attacks this fall.
“We have people across this country who are scared to death,” said Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on a day when Los Angeles closed its schools out of an abundance of concern after a threat, which later turned out to be false.
The debate revealed the party’s internal debate over national security, divided between the desire to lash out at the Islamic State and concerns over civil liberties that arose in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Donald Trump remains at center stage, with his repeated vow to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and call to use Silicon Valley tech experts to help shut down the Internet to terrorists.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is emerging as the greatest threat to Trump, disagreed sharply with the Muslim ban, but saved most of his barbs for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who sparred with Cruz repeatedly over national security. Ben Carson, who’s standing in polls dropped sharply after the California and Paris attacks raised questions about his foreign policy credentials, was mostly absent in the debate.
Several candidates disagreed with Donald Trump’s proposal to bar non-American Muslims from entering the country
“If we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS?” said former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. “This is not a serious proposal,” Bush said. “In fact, it will push the Muslim world, the Arab world, away from us at a time when we need to re-engage with them to be able to create a strategy to destroy ISIS.”
“I’m reminded of what FDR’s grandfather said . . . ‘All horse thieves are Democrats, but not all Democrats are horse thieves.’’’ said Cruz.
“There are millions of peaceful Muslims across the world, in countries like India, where there is not the problems we are seeing in nations that . . . have territory controlled by al Qaida or ISIS,” said Cruz. “It’s not a war on a faith; it’s a war on a political and theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us.”
Trump defended the ban, saying, “We are not talking about isolation. We’re talking about security. We’re not talking about religion. We’re talking about security.”
Spying on Americans
Rubio defended the collection of metadata from U.S. citizens and lashed out at Cruz for supporting restrictions this year.
Rubio said Cruz supported a bill that took away “a valuable tool that allowed the National Security Agency . . . and other intelligence agencies to quickly and rapidly access phone records and match them up with other phone records to see who terrorists have been calling.”
Christie also complained about the change, urging the restoration of those “tools to the NSA and to our entire surveillance and law enforcement community.”
Cruz countered that the USA Freedom Act, which passed this year, ended the government’s bulk collection of phone metadata of law-abiding citizens but opened new ways to find terrorists. “The old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists,” Cruz said. “The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also countered Rubio: “We are not any safer through the bulk collection of all Americans’ records. In fact, I think we’re less safe.”
Cruz and Rubio battled over Rubio’s support for a 2013 Senate bill that would have given immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally a path to citizenship.
Rubio said he backed the measure, but “learned” that Americans don’t trust their government to secure the borders. Under questioning, he said he was still open to a path to citizenship for those here illegally, “down the road.”
And he insisted that Cruz at one time had also supported allowing those here in the country without proper documents to stay legally.
“It’s not accurate that I supported legalization; I led the fight against his amnesty bill,” Cruz said. “It’s like suggesting a fireman and an arsonist have the same record because they were both at the fire.”
“He’s a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.” Bush on Trump.
“You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.” Bush to Trump.
“They’re ready to die. Bring on the virgins.” Lindsey Graham on the Islamic State.
“If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate.” Christie on Cruz and Rubio.