Trump defends call for banning Muslims from United States

Donald Trump, second from left, makes a point as Ben Carson, left, Ted Cruz, second from right, and Jeb Bush look on during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Republican front-runner Donald Trump defended his provocative call for banning Muslims from the United States in Tuesday night’s presidential debate as the candidates pushed their own plans for fighting Islamic State militants. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz clashed over government access to Americans’ communications.

The debate was dominated by national security, reflecting the reshaping of the 2016 contest by the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Hours before the debate began, officials in Los Angeles closed all schools after an emailed threat that was later deemed a hoax.

Trump insisted his proposal, which was roundly condemned by his rivals, wasn’t an attempt to discriminate.

“We are not talking about isolation, we’re talking about security,” he said. “We are not talking about religion, we are talking about security.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dismissed Trump’s proposal as unserious, saying, “Donald is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.” But Cruz and Rubio said they understood why Trump had raised the idea and avoided directly criticizing the front-runner.

Instead, the two senators debated at length their differences over government surveillance programs. Rubio has accused Cruz of weakening the government’s ability to track terrorists because he voted in favor of legislation to eliminate the National Security Agency’s bulk phone-records collection program and replace it with a more restrictive effort to keep the records in phone companies’ hands.

Cruz insisted the new law gives the government more access to cellphones and other technology terrorists are more likely to use — a contention Rubio disputed.

“There is nothing we are allowed to do under this bill that we were not allowed to do before,” Rubio said.

Beginning after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the NSA secretly collected the daily calling records – but not contents of conversations – for most Americans, including people never suspected of any crime.

A new law, called the USA Freedom Act, passed in June with broad, bipartisan support. It ordered the NSA to end bulk collection after a six-month transition that expired last week.

Cruz and Rubio have been sparring from afar over national security for weeks. The Texas senator is on the rise, particularly in Iowa’s kickoff caucuses, where he’s challenging Trump’s months-long lead.

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