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Donald Trump Tries to Reset Race With Hillary Clinton Onslaught

Trump threw decades of Clinton’s policy positions and controversies into a blender and tossed the mix against the wall on Wednesday.
Image: Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Phoenix, Arizona
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters during a campaign rally on June 18, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.Ralph Freso / Getty Images

Donald Trump threw decades of Hillary Clinton’s policy positions and controversies — and a heavy dose of innuendo — into a blender and then tossed the mix against the wall on Wednesday.

The question now is whether it will stick, especially given gaps between his more incendiary claims and the available facts that are likely to come up in subsequent interviews. Trump's new approach will also test whether he can focus attention on his opponent’s vulnerabilities for a sustained period, rather than turning the topic back to himself, something he’s struggled with throughout the race.

Reading carefully from a teleprompter at the Trump Soho hotel in Manhattan, Trump denounced Clinton as a “world-class liar” beholden to special interests. He called her leadership style “volcanic and impulsive” and said her foreign policy prescriptions “spread death, destruction, and terrorism everywhere she touched.”

“Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States,” he said.

The stakes are high for Trump. Since becoming the presumptive nominee, he has faced a full-scale rebellion from Republican allies, largely over his attacks on a federal judge, the substance and style of his response to the Orlando terrorist attack, and his failure to build a functional campaign and fundraising operation.

If there’s one thing that unites Republicans, though, it’s their dislike of Clinton, and Trump delivered by far his most concentrated fire yet against his Democratic opponent. A number of conservative commentators who have criticized his campaign in the past cheered Trump’s speech on Twitter.

By taking on Clinton's “temperament” and “judgment,” Trump also sought to muddy the waters on his own major weaknesses and reflect some of Clinton's most piercing attacks back at her.

Playing to his top strength in the primaries, Trump framed the election as a choice between a consummate insider, represented by Clinton, and an outsider, himself. He argued an outsider is necessary to overcome entrenched interests in Washington.

“We'll never able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who have rigged it in the first place,” Trump said.

Related: Fact-checking Trump's speech

He lashed out at Clinton for collecting millions of dollars for giving “secret speeches” to Wall Street firms. Clinton has refused to release transcripts of her paid addresses to firms like Goldman Sachs and the issue came up throughout her primary race.

Turning to policy, Trump mocked Clinton for praising the Trans-Pacific Partnership in her memoirs, only to oppose the proposed trade agreement during the primaries. He also criticized her for supporting NAFTA, the trade deal inked during her husband’s presidency and a chief villain for the far left and far right alike.

In those instances, Trump seemed to effectively exploit some of Clinton’s biggest vulnerabilities. He focused on the economic anxiety lingering at the end of the Obama era, and said Clinton — a former Obama cabinet member — is the wrong person to fix it.

On trade and Clinton’s private sector ties, Trump picked up many of the arguments Bernie Sanders advanced against Clinton in the Democratic primary, and even made a direct appeal for Sanders voters to “join our movement."

Even the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Clinton last week, said in a statement that Trump “recognized some of the challenges working people have known for decades” — though the labor union federation added that Trump would only make them worse.

Other parts of Trump’s speech were geared more towards riling up his own base than converting persuadable voters.

He decried Clinton’s calls for new executive action to protect undocumented immigrants as a “mass amnesty.” At one point, quoting a letter from the mother of a police officer killed by an undocumented immigrant, Trump suggested Clinton “needs to go to prison” because she “has the blood of so many on her hands.”

Trump argued Clinton would allow into the country Muslim immigrants who “believe women should be enslaved and gays put to death” and claimed there was “no way to screen” refugees from countries like Syria, who in reality go through a vetting process that can take years.

Wading into more treacherous waters, Trump criticized Clinton’s early support for the Iraq War, which she has since said was an mistake, as well as her push for military action in Libya that deposed dictator Muammar Gadhafi, which Trump said created a vacuum then exploited by "ISIS barbarians."

Despite his claims that he was a vocal critic of the Iraq War "before the war ever started," there’s no evidence Trump opposed invading Iraq — he even sounded supportive of the idea in a 2002 interview. His position on Libya is also all over the map: He explicitly called for Gadhafi’s ouster in 2011, inaccurately claimed credit for opposing the move in the GOP primaries, and then told CBS News just this month that he supported a “surgical” strike to remove the dictator.

Trump’s accusations about Clinton will likely keep fact checkers busy for days as well. He mixed standard Republican talking points with conspiratorial claims that only fringier political figures have adopted.

For instance, he claimed Clinton’s private email server had been hacked by foreign governments. The New York Times reported that computer security logs provided to the FBI showed no evidence of foreign hacking. The State Department Inspector General’s report on the matter was highly critical of Clinton’s use of private email on security grounds, but included no reference to successful hacking.

He also claimed that during the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Ambassador Chris Stevens “was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed.” It’s a claim Trump has made before, refuted by fact checkers.

Related: Trump Attacks Clinton as 'World-Class Liar'

Benghazi has been one of the most litigated chapters of Clinton's long career in public office, but the seven previous congressional investigations that looking into the incident did not find evidence to support the claim. Clinton testified to the House Benghazi Committee “did not sleep all night” and kept in touch with the government officials via a secure phone at her home. Many conservatives have since revised their claims to now criticize Clinton for sleeping in four days after the attack, rather than the night of it.

In other instances, Trump went beyond the facts presented by some of Clinton’s staunchest critics, like author Peter Schweitzer, whose book “Clinton Cash” Trump mentioned by name as a key source for his speech.

"She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund — doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others, in exchange for cash,” Trump said, citing Schweitzer’s investigation into donors to The Clinton Foundation.

The Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars from foreign governments and wealthy private individuals, including countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which Trump noted employ harsh religious legal systems. Good government watchdogs have warned the situation is ripe for potential conflicts of interest, or at least the appearance thereof (though they’ve said the same of Trump’s business empire as well).

Related: Clinton: Trump Would 'Bankrupt America' Like One of His Casinos

But Schweitzer himself acknowledged that “we don't have direct evidence” of quid-pro-quo behavior, telling NBC's Savannah Guthrie that “it warrants further investigation.” Parts of Schweitzer’s reporting fell apart under scrutiny.

Trump’s focus on Clinton’s ties to oppressive Middle East regimes leaves him open to counterattack as well, however. Just this month, he boasted that he “made a lot of money” doing business with Gadhafi while he was still in power. He criticized Clinton’s relationship with the Sultan of Brunei, from whom he purchased a 282-foot luxury yacht in the 1980s. Trump’s top aide, Paul Manafort, has also faced criticism over his lobbying work for regimes accused of human rights violations.

For their part, Clinton’s campaign sought to put Trump’s speech in the context of his more outlandish claims in the past.

“The only thing Donald Trump offered today was more hypocritical lies and nutty conspiracy theories,” a campaign official said in a statement. “This is more distraction from a candidate that cannot answer or dispute any of yesterday’s criticism of his business record.”