WASHINGTON — Russia again took center stage in the third and final presidential debate before the election, as Donald Trump refused to accept the Kremlin's alleged meddling in the US election and Hillary Clinton blasted him as Russia's "puppet."
One of the testiest exchanges of Wednesday's debate in Las Vegas began as Clinton challenged Trump to condemn Russia's election-related hacking. Russian President Vladimir Putin, she said, was directly responsible — a stretch as US officials have attributed the hack only to senior Russian officials.
Ultimately, Trump condemned the cyberattack but also praised Putin as having "outsmarted" Clinton and US President Barack Obama in Syria and in nuclear dealings.
"I don't know Putin," Trump said. "He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS [the Islamic State group], that would be good."
When Trump said Putin has "no respect" for Clinton and Obama — Clinton fired back: "That's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States."
"No puppet, no puppet" Trump said. "You're the puppet.
"She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I've ever seen in any government, whatsoever."
Clinton, on Russian hacking, exaggerated to land blows on Trump. She contended 17 US agencies have confirmed political emails provided to WikiLeaks were hacked by Russia, though that seemed to conflate the recent WikiLeaks release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's personal emails and the Democratic National Committee hack that the US attributed to Russia.
The US has said publicly that intelligence agencies are "confident that the Russian government directed" the hacking of the DNC and leaked stolen material in order to interfere with US elections. The Russian government has repeatedly rejected allegations it hacks the United States.
Trump challenged Clinton on the assertion, saying: "Hillary, you have no idea, and our country has no idea," which elicited her comeback: "Well, he'd rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us."
Trump's foreign policy credibility is a significant factor as he fights fierce political headwinds to the Nov. 8 election and a three-week spiral of lost endorsements and falling poll numbers.
With Clinton's nine-point lead in national polls over Trump, he would have needed to show he had the temperament to be president and commander in chief to make up ground. But a pivotal moment came when Trump refused to say he would accept the result of the election, an answer pundits said was disastrous for him.
In a Fox News poll released Tuesday, Clinton led Trump 45-39 percent, and there were major gaps between them in temperament and judgment, with Clinton leading Trump in both categories. More voters preferred Clinton over Trump when it came to making decisions about using nuclear weapons (by 25 points), handling an international crisis (by 19 points) and handling foreign policy (by 18 points).
In the debate, Trump continued to make the case for renegotiating security agreements with wealthy foreign allies, including Saudi Arabia, Japan and Germany. "We are being ripped off," he said. "We're defending other countries, we are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century."
Clinton maintained: "The United States has kept the peace through our alliances."
On the US-supported fight to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS, Clinton offered optimism the city would be retaken despite tough fighting ahead, Trump argued its liberation will ultimately create a vacuum to be filled by Iran.
"This conspiracy theory, which he's been spewing out for quite some time," Clinton replied, adding that Trump is "unfit, and he proves it every time he talks."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.