The full force of the Democratic Party, including President Obama, rallied around Hillary Clinton on Thursday, saying rival Donald Trump is unfit for office.

On the Republican side, there was no such unity as lawmakers struggled how to respond to the Republican nominee’s claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a stronger leader than Obama.

And both parties fiercely criticized the role of the media in an election that is testing time-worn theories on how to cover presidential campaigns, aiming much of their fire at the performance of NBC’s Matt Lauer in moderating a foreign policy forum this week.

Taken together, Thursday’s events offered a glimpse of where the final two months of the campaign appear to be headed, as the contest tightens and anxiety in both parties grows over their nominee’s chances and the possible impact on congressional races down the ballot.

Senior Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tried to avoid commenting directly on Trump’s claim that Putin has “been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.” Trump had also said at the NBC forum Wednesday that he welcomes compliments from Putin and praised the Russian leader’s poll numbers.

When asked about the praise of an autocratic foe over the sitting U.S. president, Ryan said only that “Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests” and that the Russian president “is acting like an adversary.”


Other top Republicans were less reserved.

“Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., quipped about Putin.

The Republican responses were a far cry from Obama’s embrace of Clinton. Speaking in Laos Thursday, Obama said Trump’s behavior is “unacceptable and outrageous” and warned that it has become normalized in 2016. He said the media had insufficiently scrutinized Trump’s claims but said voters will make “a good decision.”

“I don’t think the guy’s qualified to be president of the United States, and every time he speaks, that opinion is confirmed,” Obama said. “There is this process that seems to take place over the course of the election season where somehow behavior that in normal times we consider completely unacceptable and outrageous becomes normalized, and people think we ought to be grading on a curve.”

Clinton herself was intent on keeping Trump’s comments alive. She said Trump had “failed once again” to come off as a credible commander in chief and said it was “scary” to hear him praise Putin.

Clinton also dinged Trump for his discussion of what he has been told during intelligence briefings, which he receives as the Republican nominee. During the forum, Trump said the briefers had intimated that Obama and others did not follow the advice of the experts – an impression Trump said he gathered in part from the “body language” of his briefers.


“I think what he said was totally inappropriate and undisciplined,” Clinton said.

As he often does, Trump took to Twitter in response: “Hillary just gave a disastrous news conference on the tarmac to make up for poor performance last night.”

His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also came to Trump’s defense.

“I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” Pence told CNN. “And that’s going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, Lauer was widely panned by pundits, who said he should have been better prepared to challenge the candidates on misleading claims they made during Wednesday’s forum, which was held at the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York.

The criticism elevates the stakes for the moderators of the presidential debates – the first of which will be held in three weeks – to prepare for their performances in front of millions of live viewers.

Democrats accused Lauer of focusing too intently on questions over Clinton’s handling of a private email server while secretary of state and for failing to challenge Trump’s claim that he opposed the Iraq War from the start. Republicans said Lauer failed to ask Clinton key questions about her tenure in the State Department.

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