The candidates answered questions from veterans and former service members

By Diana Pearl
Updated September 07, 2016 10:50 PM
Credit: Heidi Gutman/NBC

It’s not quite yet time for a head-to-head debate – but we’re getting there.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sat down Wednesday night with NBC’s Matt Lauer for the Commander-in-Chief forum held at the Intrepid Air and Sea Museum in New York City. During the televised town-hall-style hour, the candidates took the stage separately to discuss military, national security and veterans’ issues, taking some questions directly from the vets and military service personnel in the audience.

For Trump, a businessman with no government experience, the forum was an opportunity to gauge what kind of commander in chief he would be.

One of Lauer’s opening questions was: “What have you done in your life that prepares you to send men and women of the United States troops into harm’s way?”

“I think the main this is I have great judgment. I have good judgment,” Trump replied. “I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots.”

After a veteran whose daughter elected not to enlist after seeing the statistics on sexual assault in the military, Lauer asked Trump if he stands by his controversial 2013 tweet in which he wrote: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”

“That’s a correct tweet,” Trump said on Wednesday, calling for increased prosecutions in cases of sexual assault in the military.

Lauer tried, in his 25 minutes or so with Trump, to pin the businessman down on some of his other controversial and bombastic past statements, but Trump slipped around them – often with nonsequitors.

“You have said, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.’ Is that the truth?” Lauer asked.

“Well, the generals under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not been successful,” said Trump. “Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country. … I can just see the great, as an example, General George Patton spinning in his grave as ISIS we can’t beat.”

In one mind-bending exchange, Lauer pressed Trump on whether he does, as he first said months ago, have a real plan for defeating ISIS.

Quoting from one of Trump’s speeches this week, Lauer asked: “You said this, quote ‘We’re going to convene my top generals and they will have 30 days to submit a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.’ So is the plan you’ve been hiding this whole time, asking someone else for their plan?”

Trump’s response unwound in circles: “No. But when I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine or maybe doesn’t. I may love what the generals come back with. I have a plan, but I want to be I don’t want to be – look, I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.”

Trump ardently defended Russian President Vladimir Putin as a popular and successful leader, noting, “He does have an 82 percent approval rating.

Lauer followed up: “He’s also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world and, according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers.”

Trump shrugged that list away. “Well, nobody knows that for a fact, but you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?” Putin, Trump continued, “is really very much of a leader. The man has very strong control over his country.”

The Republican nominee also said he’s the guy to deescalate the current tensions between the United States and Russia – “I think I’ll be able to get along with” [Putin], Trump said – and added, “You know the beautiful part of getting along? Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”

Clinton, who lost a coin toss earlier Wednesday and went first in the forum, faced some uncomfortable moments of her own as, right off the bat, she was confronted about her use of a private email server for official government business when she was Secretary of State.

“I make no excuses for it,” Clinton said. “It was something that should not have been done.”

One former Navy flight officer who was identified as a Republican told Clinton that, with his own top-secret clearance, he also had access to highly sensitive American defense secrets.

“Had I communicated this information without following proscribed protocols, I would have been prosecuted and imprisoned,” the lieutenant told Clinton. “How can you expect those such as myself who were and are entrusted with America’s most sensitive information to have any confidence in your leadership as president when you clearly corrupted our national security?”

Clinton stood firm that she did nothing wrong, asserting that the material she addressed on her private email was not marked as classified. “I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system,” Clinton said. “I did exactly what I should have done. I take it very seriously, always have, always will.”

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On fighting terrorism, she laid out a multi-front approach in contrast to Trump’s promise of a quick fix.

“I’m not going to promise something that most thinking Americans know is going to be a huge challenge,” she said.

Clinton also was questioned on her vote for the Iraq war while she was a United States Senator. She said the vote was a “mistake.” She also disputed Trump’s claims that he was an opponent of the Iraq war, citing statements of support in a past interview with Howard Stern.

Trump “refuses to take responsibility for his support,” she said. “That is a judgment issue.”

When it was his turn, Trump was quick with a rebuttal.

“I was totally against the war in Iraq,” he said, citing a 2004 article in Esquire magazine.

Trump summed up his attitude in two sentences: “We need change, man,” he said. “We have to have it and we have to have it fast.”