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Why Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are still fighting over a nonexistent ISIS video

Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the debate at Saint Anselm College December 19, 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the debate at Saint Anselm College December 19, 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

During Saturday night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton made a claim about Donald Trump that earned her some flak. She said the Republican frontrunner’s anti-Muslim rhetoric had made him an ace recruiter for ISIS.

[Americans] need to make sure that the really discriminatory messages that Trump is sending around the world don't fall on receptive ears. He is becoming ISIS's best recruiter. They are going to people, showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.

The fallout after the debate

The comments earned her a "false" rating from PolitiFact, and Trump demanded an apology.

"She lies about emails, she lies about Whitewater, she lies about everything. She will be a disaster about everything as president of the United States," Trump told the Today show after demanding an apology.

Then on Monday, Jeb Bush — perhaps Trump’s biggest critic in the Republican field — defended Trump.

"Hillary Clinton suggesting that Donald Trump is being used in an ISIS recruiting video, man, talk about chutzpah," Bush said on Bill Bennett’s radio program, as reported by BuzzFeed. "There’s no evidence of that. There’s no evidence of that at all."

Experts say that no ISIS videos using footage of Trump as an explicit pitch exist – at least as far as they’ve seen.

After the debate, Clinton’s campaign has walked back the remark about the video. Appearing on ABC's This Week, Clinton spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri said the candidate "didn’t have a particular video in mind" but was referring to jihadists’ use of Trump’s comments on social media more generally.

Even so, Clinton is still refusing to apologize. In a statement released on Monday, Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon said, "Hell no," Clinton wouldn’t be offering any sort of apology. He elaborated in an appearance on MSNBC Live.

"Hillary Clinton was spot on in observing that the hateful rhetoric that we are hearing from Donald Trump is playing into the hands of ISIS and other terrorism groups that are trying to tell Muslims across the world that the United States and the West is against, out to fight Islam," he said. "And so is she going to take a back seat to Donald Trump and stand down in the face of his attempt to bully her, as he has done to the rest of the Republican field? Absolutely not."

Trump, in an appearance in Grand Rapids on Monday night, relished the discrepancy. "It turned out to be a lie — she's a liar!" Trump told a cheering crowd, according to the Washington Post. "And the last person she wants to run against is me."

But rather than resting on the moral high ground, Trump took his critique of Clinton further. He said her brief absence from the Saturday night debate to use the restroom was "disgusting" and that she got "schlonged" in 2008 by Barack Obama in the presidential primary.

Critics described Trump’s attack as sexist, potentially setting back his legitimate attack that Clinton misrepresented her claim about him and ISIS.

ISIS recruiters are citing anti-Muslim comments, but we haven’t seen a video of Trump

Clinton would have remained on firm ground if she’d stuck to the essence of her first comment — that Trump’s "really discriminatory messages" are "[falling] on receptive ears."

In comments to NBC and the Washington Post, SITE Intelligence Group’s Rita Katz said that ISIS has indeed pointed to specific Trump comments as proof that the United States is hostile to people of the Muslim faith.

"They love [Trump] from the sense that he is supporting their rhetoric. … They follow everything Donald Trump says," she said on NBC. "When he says, 'No Muslims should be allowed in America,' they tell people, 'We told you America hates Muslims, and here is proof.’"

Generally speaking, jihadist groups seize on anti-Muslim sentiments in the West to attract disaffected Muslims to their extremist cause — and certainly ideas like banning all Muslims from entering the United States play into that recruitment pitch.

It bears mentioning, though, that ISIS’s main recruiting tools focus on the destruction wrought by American-led airstrikes on ISIS territory, so in that sense, the main American pitchman in their videos is actually President Obama.

The Clinton/Trump fight is becoming a proxy for the general election

Clinton’s attack on Trump hints at a larger strategy to pivot away from her appeals to a progressive base this past summer and fall, to a position where she can begin making her case to general election voters.

Vox’s Andrew Prokop points out several other instances of Clinton’s posturing: her pledge not to tax middle-class families, for example, or her hawkish support of regime change in Syria and other embattled nations.

It is no secret that Clinton would love to run against Trump in a general election, a cause her campaign has attempted to advance by circulating statements saying she feared a Trump nomination was a realistic possibility.

Clinton likely views Trump as the most beatable of the current crop of Republican opponents, for the exact reasons exemplified by this latest exchange.

In a national Quinnipiac poll out Tuesday, Clinton bests Trump in a theoretical matchup 47 percent to 40, though the ultimate difference may look starker given that presidential elections are determined state by state.

Other Republicans are taking notice, and warning voters not to allow such a matchup to become reality. On Fox News Sunday, Republican candidate Carly Fiorina said Trump is "a big Christmas gift wrapped up under the tree" for Clinton — because his nomination would cause even some Republicans to back the presumed Democratic candidate in a general election matchup and probably scare off a lot of swing voters.

Of course, Clinton and Trump have to first secure their own parties’ nominations, and for now, Clinton has far fewer candidates to beat in her own field than Trump does. It remains to be seen how the Republican base will factor all of that in when they go to the primary and caucus polls early next year.