A presidential debate that almost seemed destined for serious discussion about policy careened suddenly into shouting and interruptions over Russia’s efforts to influence the American election.
“Putin, from everything I’ve seen, has no respect for [Hillary Clinton],” Donald Trump charged, one of the first moments where he perked up, after an unusually reserved 30 minutes to open up the third and final 2016 presidential debate.
Then Clinton struck—sparking the two candidates’ first confrontation of the night: “Well, that’s because he would rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
This did not sit well with the businessman, who shot back: “You’re the puppet!”
The Democratic nominee, sensing she had hit a sore point, went on the offensive, arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has a very clear favorite in this race” because Trump has been willing to support “break[ing] up NATO.”
Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee have both been hacked in recent months and their private communications released to the public—with embarrassing effects. The intelligence community has assessed that the Russian government was involved with the cyberintrusions, which Trump has questioned.
“She has no idea whether it is Russia, China, or anybody else,” Trump said.
“He would rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us,” Clinton responded.
Ultimately, Trump said he objected to foreign influence on the American election, regardless of the source—but he ultimately declined to agree that Russia was even involved.
“Of course I condemn,” Trump said. But he did have some praise for the Russian leader: “Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way.”
Then Trump added, unprompted, “I don’t know Putin… this is not my best friend.”
Trump has previously bragged about his relationship with Putin, in particular the idea that the Russian president was “very interested” in what Trump had to say.
“I do have a relationship [with Putin] and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I am saying today, and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form,” Trump said back in 2013.