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Clinton, Trump offer contrasting responses to Brussels attacks

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.Doug Mills/New York Times (left) | Wilfredo Lee/Associated press

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump called Tuesday for greater reliance on torture and border lock-downs to combat terrorism like that in Brussels, while Hillary Clinton dismissed those measures as ineffective and said “steady, strong, smart hands’’ are needed in the White House.

Those sharply divergent statements from the Republican and Democratic front-runners reflect a fundamental contrast in style and policy approaches to national security. The issue is likely to grow more pressing in the wake of the Brussels bombings, which killed at least 30 and injured hundreds.

At stake is not only Trump’s proposal to lift the US ban on torture, but how to combat the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attacks, as well as screen immigrants from global hot spots, and conduct domestic spying, surveillance, and data-monitoring.

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Trump’s demand for a return to torture — “more than waterboarding’’ he said Tuesday — could violate international law and has been condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. But it produces a gut-level appeal among his supporters, who crave a powerful, retaliatory solution to terrorism.

Clinton, meanwhile, is relying on her deep government experience, tenure as secretary of state, and detailed knowledge of security matters to convey a sense of competency and calm in the face of global dangers, while implying that a Trump presidency could be unpredictable and dangerous.

She said on CNN that authorities need to deploy more police to protect “soft targets’’ like the Brussels airport against suicide bombers.

Clinton, on NBC’s “Today,’’ urged security officials to intensify efforts to find terrorists and prevent attacks, but said they “do not need to resort to torture.”

“We have to be absolutely strong and smart and steady in how we respond,” Clinton said. “We’ve got to work this through consistent with our values.”

Some political observers last fall predicted that the Paris massacre in November would slow Trump’s momentum by highlighting his lack of foreign policy experience. Instead, Trump maintained his lead in polls as he ramped up his nationalistic rhetoric against immigrants and Muslim refugees following Paris and the subsequent terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.

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His remarks about closing US borders, waterboarding Muslim terror suspects, and greater scrutiny of immigrants and refugees have become popular refrains at his rallies that routinely draws thousands of cheering supporters chanting “USA! USA!”

On Tuesday, Trump attributed his lead in polls to his discussion of terrorism “much more than anybody else.”

“We can’t be soft and weak,” Trump told NBC. “I’d be very, very tough on the borders, and I would be not allowing certain people to come into this country.”

Trump said he would bring back waterboarding, a technique considered to be torture that is now banned by a UN convention ratified by the United States.

“Frankly, the waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we changed the laws or had the laws, waterboarding would be fine,’’ Trump said. “If they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding. You have to get the information from these people.”

Analysts say it will be difficult for Trump, if he captures the nomination, to attract voters in a general election who are outside the GOP tent.

“I don’t think he’s converting anyone with his rhetoric because it is so substance-less,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. He said Clinton, on the other hand, “has strong opinions that are well grounded in facts and experience. What Trump offers is just bravado.”

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Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said that Clinton responding to Trump’s policies plays into both candidates’ plans.

“Hillary Clinton wants to make Donald Trump the issue of this campaign,” Luntz said. “She wants it to be a referendum on Trump. Trump doesn’t mind it being a referendum on him.

“He says things that grab attention, that are very controversial. But these are scary times. It allows him to be more dramatic than what a candidate might usually be,” Luntz added.

Trump spent Monday in Washington giving Republicans and the media a preview of what a Trump presidency would look like, introducing some of his foreign policy team to Washington Post editorial writers.

In his meeting with the Post, Trump questioned the need for the United States’ continued involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an intergovernmental military alliance headquartered in Brussels.

Senator Ted Cruz, Trump’s strongest rival for the GOP nomination, slammed Trump for backing away from NATO. Cruz also invoked fear of foreigners in his response to the attacks at the Brussels airport and a subway station near the European Union headquarters. He called for an immediate halt to refugees from countries with a significant Al Qaeda or Islamic State presence and for securing the country’s southern border to prevent terrorists from infiltrating.

He advocated for surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, an idea that echoes Trump’s previous proposals to spy on mosques and make Muslims in America register and carry special identification cards.

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“We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” Cruz said.

Governor John Kasich of Ohio, also running for the GOP nomination, said on Fox News Tuesday that Trump’s proposal to close the borders would not be a “wise way to proceed” and unlike his rivals for the presidency, did not blame Islam. He said the United States should lead a coalition of NATO and Arab countries to destroy the Islamic State.

Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination, said in a statement that the Brussels attack served as a “brutal reminder that the international community must come together to destroy ISIS.”


Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan. Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.