Many of Donald Trump’s presidential rivals swiftly joined in the widespread condemnation of his call to bar all non-U.S. Muslims from entering the country until government officials -- still reeling from the terrorist attack in California -- can figure out “what the hell is going on.”
Trump had pushed the political envelope many times before, demanding the mass arrest and deportation of millions of illegal, mostly Hispanic immigrants; building a wall along the 2,000-mile long U.S.-Mexico border; wiping out ISIS and targeting the families of terrorists; and creating watch lists of Muslim Americans. But not until his statement on Dec. 7 calling for a temporary ban on Muslims seeking entry to the U.S. did many of the other GOP candidates speak out against Trump.
All of the candidates shared in the horror and outrage over the jihadist Islamic-inspired massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, and many blamed President Obama for waging a lackluster military campaign against Islamic extremists. But what Trump was proposing was not only dubious from a constitutional standpoint but also patently un-American in its intent.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said that Trump was coming “unhinged.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said disdainfully, “We don’t need to resort to that type of activity, nor should we.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, typically a suck-up to Trump, said excluding Muslims from this country wasn't his policy. And Gov. John Kasich of Ohio said Trump’s harsh and unrealistic idea should disqualify him from being president.
But that was then and this is now. Kasich and the others issued their denouncements from the campaign trail, where they received only fleeting notice. Last night, they shifted back into the bright lights and massive audience of the fifth and final GOP presidential debate of the year, where they hoped to make a lasting positive impression before the 2016 campaign officially begins next month.
Moreover, the public had over a week to process the implications of Trump’s proposal. And according to the latest polls, while Americans in general disagree with his approach, a sobering 59 percent of Republican voters endorse the billionaire’s plan while only 38 percent oppose it, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
So Trump’s competition had to be somewhat wary about coming down too hard on his controversial plan. And with the exception of just a few – notably an energized and combative Bush -- the rest of the field either tiptoed around the issue or ducked it altogether.
Here is what Trump’s nine main competitors had to say about his idea at last night’s two-hour debate in Las Vegas sponsored by CNN:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) Paul wasn’t asked directly to weigh in on Trump’s proposal, possibly because the moderators knew what he would say. Paul used the first sentence of his opening statement to go after the billionaire.
“Trump says we ought to close that Internet thing ... like they do in North Korea?" he asked. “If we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, then I think that at that point the terrorists would've won,” Paul added. “In defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for.”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Unlike Paul, Fiorina was asked to comment on Trump’s plan but made a boilerplate statement that Republicans should stand for solutions, not arguments over laws or “entertainers throwing out soundbites for media attention.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) Rubio made a strategic choice to use the question about Trump to attack President Obama and his strategy for defeating ISIS. He said he understood why a majority of GOP primary voters supported banning Muslims because “this president hasn’t kept us safe,” and once again chided the president’s address to the nation following the strike in California, saying, “I wish he hadn’t spoken at all.” The closest he came to knocking Trump was saying ISIS “needs to be confronted with serious proposals.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) Like Rubio, Cruz used the topic to pivot to another topic: himself. He said several times that he understood why Trump suggested his plan, but disagreed on the specific approach. Instead, he touted a bill he’s introduced to suspend all refugees for three years from countries where ISIS or Al-Qaeda hold territory. Cruz also attacked the president for not saying the U.S. is at war with radical Islam. “It’s not a war on a faith," it is “a war on a theocratic ideology that seeks to murder us,” he said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The tough talking former federal prosecutor who is beginning to get some traction in New Hampshire shied away from any direct criticism of Trump’s proposals. Instead, he repeatedly said that Americans had been “betrayed” by the leadership of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He bemoaned the fact that the terrorist attack in California, the terrorism scare earlier yesterday in the Los Angeles public school system and the public’s mounting anxiety over the threat of terrorism has become “the new normal” under the Democrats.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Seemingly fed up with Trump’s frequent attacks on him for having “low energy,” Bush wasted little time in pouncing on Trump’s insulting campaign style and frequently preposterous proposals.
“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “And I do have the strength. Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people. Leadership is about creating a serious strategy to deal with the threat of our time.” As for Trump’s proposal to close the U.S. borders to Muslims, Bush said that would be counter-productive to U.S. interests in trying to enlist the support of Muslim groups in the war on ISIS. “If we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS?” he said. “Look, this is not a serious proposal. 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.”
“Donald is great at the one-liners, but he is a chaos candidate,” Bush added. “He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe.”
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Kasich was criticized after the last debate for going overboard in his attacks on Trump and Ben Carson for being amateurs when it came to governing, and appeared to tone down his rhetoric last night. Instead, he sought to demonstrate he had been prescient in anticipating what was needed to defeat ISIS. “I said last February that we needed to have people on the ground, troops on the ground, in a coalition similar to what we had in the first Gulf War,” he said. “First and foremost, we need to go and destroy ISIS, and we need to do this with our Arab friends and our friends in Europe.”
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Carson was largely invisible for much of the debate – and at one point admonished moderator Wolf Blitzer for not calling on him more. Clashing with Trump has never been Carson’s style. Instead, he sought to show off his newly acquired knowledge of the Middle East and the course of the war with ISIS after being criticized for knowing too little about foreign policy.
When asked at one point whether he could be ruthless enough as a commander in chief to order air strikes that might kill innocent children, the soft-spoken former surgeon insisted he would be “tough and resolute” as president. “You have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job rather than death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
As an honorable mention, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was consigned to the undercard debate preceding last night’s big showdown, publicly apologized to the Muslim world for Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric and proposals.