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Fact-Check: The Democratic Debate


The last Democratic presidential debate of the year was held last night in New Hampshire. There was some feisty exchanges before the three remaining candidates - Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley - especially around the issues of gun safety. But the major focus of the debate was national security, especially how to combat ISIS. We wanted to dig a little deeper into some of the statements the candidates made around those issues, so we've called NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Hi, Phil.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Hi. How's it going?

MARTIN: Good. So let's start with something Hillary Clinton said that's been getting a lot of attention. It has to do with the rhetoric coming from Donald Trump about Muslims.


HILLARY CLINTON: He is becoming ISIS' best recruiter. They are going to people, showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.

MARTIN: Is that true?

EWING: Well, it's one of those things you hear about during a campaign that's both true and not true. But the point that Clinton was trying to make here is that when they want to approach Americans or approach people around the world who are Muslim and say this is why you need to take up arms against the United States, they can, from Clinton's position, point to the things Trump has said and say this guy could be president of the United States. He wants to keep all Muslims from coming in to the United States, and that's why you need to join our global jihad against these guys.

MARTIN: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also had a serious disagreement over what the U.S. focus should be in Syria and whether it should be defeating ISIS or bringing down Bashar al-Assad. And I wanted to play a little bit about what each of them had to say about this.


BERNIE SANDERS: It is not Assad who is attacking the United States. It is ISIS. The major priority right now in terms of foreign and military policy should be the destruction of ISIS.

CLINTON: We will not get the support on the ground in Syria to dislodge ISIS if the fighters there who are not associated with ISIS but whose principal goal of getting rid of Assad don't believe there is a political diplomatic channel that is ongoing. We now have that.

MARTIN: I understand Bernie Sanders' argument. His argument seems very clear, which is to go after ISIS. What's the argument against that that we got from Secretary Clinton?

EWING: Well, this was one of the most interesting things to me that came out of this debate because Secretary Clinton's position on Syria has been different before. She seemed to indicate that she was willing to go along with the Russians and take a position more like Sanders in that the U.S. and its allies should put Assad to the side, focus on destroying ISIS and then once that terror group was destroyed or disabled resolve the political situation in Syria. But what she said last night was no, she will effectively, if elected, continue President Obama's approach. And the point that she tried to make to Sanders was you can't do one or the other.

MARTIN: OK, while she was talking about this two-pronged strategy, she made a statement that has already gotten a lot of criticism from Republicans. I just want to play that.


MARTIN: We now finally are where we need to be, and we finally have a U.N. Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria...

SANDERS: Can I jump in?

MARTIN: So a lot of people are saying how can she say that we are where we need to be when ISIS still holds a lot of territory and they are still inspiring attacks like the one in San Bernardino. What did she mean by that?

EWING: I think the point she's trying to make is there was no way for the world powers to go into a room and meet and figure out what the milestones were going to be on a Syrian political transition. And she argues that structures are now in place. But I think she raised a lot of eyebrows when she said that because, you know, the U.N. or some other international body has reached a consensus does not in any way mean that you can then move the pieces on the board and get Assad out of power and begin a transition there.

MARTIN: Finally, Phil, before we let you go, where was Martin O'Malley in all this? The main thing people are talking about today was how he got tough with his opponents over the issue of gun safety. But did he stake out any new ground on the - kind of the meat of the debate, which was the foreign policy questions?

EWING: His main objective in this debate was to stand out, was to get as much time on TV as possible, basically, I think reasons for pure dignity at this point. O'Malley has to show as much viability as he can for as long as he can. I think that's why he tried to get as much screen time in this debate.

MARTIN: That's NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Phil, thank you.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Phil Ewing
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