Clinton, Trump Put Weaknesses on Display at Forum on Military

  • Democrat put on defensive over record, use of private e-mail
  • Republican deflects on details of plans, defends judgment

Back-to-back appearances by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at a forum on the military Wednesday night exposed enduring weaknesses that both candidates have yet to overcome two months before the presidential election.

Clinton, the Democratic nominee, was again on the defensive over her decades-long record in government and her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state, offering selective answers that may only raise more questions.

Hillary Clinton at the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7.
Hillary Clinton at the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7.
Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Trump, her Republican rival, wouldn’t detail how he would extinguish the Islamic State or outmaneuver Russia, both challenges that have eluded the Obama administration. He seemed to narrowly shift his approach on immigration by indicating he’s open to allowing undocumented residents to serve in the U.S. military. Asked how his real estate and reality TV background has prepared him to be commander-in-chief, he said his best credential is his "great judgment."

Neither candidate held to a request from NBC’s Matt Lauer, who moderated the sessions, to keep their answers about themselves rather than bash their opponent. The event, at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, was co-sponsored by NBC News and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group, and focused on military and veterans issues.

Among the highlights:

  • Clinton said her use of a personal e-mail account was and mistake and "I make no excuses for it," then shifted to say that "the State Department system was hacked. Most of the government systems are way behind the curve. We’ve had hacking repeatedly, even in the White House. There is no evidence my system was hacked."

  • In a tense moment, a retired naval flight officer told Clinton he would have been prosecuted and imprisoned if he had gone outside protocols to communicate top secret or classified information and asked how people like him could trust her. She said communicated about classified material on "a wholly separate system," without elaboration. She said none of e-mails she sent or received had a header denoting a high level of classification.

  • Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for flattering him while insisting it would have no bearing on his policies. "He does have an 82 percent approval rating," Trump said of Putin. When Lauer said Russia is suspected of hacking U.S. political system, Trump said, "Nobody knows that for a fact" and said of Putin, “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.” At one point, he said Putin "has been more of a leader than our own president has been.”

  • Clinton said Trump’s criticism of her support for the Iraq war and intervention in Libya are hypocritical given that he previously supported both. "I have taken responsibility for my decision," she said of the Iraq war. "My opponent was for the war in Iraq. You can go back and look at the record. He refused to take responsibility for his support. That is a judgment issue." Trump repeated his claim that he was “totally against” the 2003 invasion, despite supportive comments he made in public at the time.

  • Trump faced more questions about his temperament and his admission had said some things on the campaign trail he regretted. "Yeah sure, I regret, but in the meantime I beat 16 people," he said of the Republican primary. He described his trip to Mexico last week as a success because the officials there who help arrange it “have been forced out of government. That’s how well we did.” Mexico Finance Minister Luis Videgaray resigned on Wednesday amid public backlash over Trump’s visit.

Many questions Clinton faced were on her past actions and policies, while the questions to Trump sought to pin down details beyond his aspirational campaign statements. "I’m asking to be judged on the totality of my record" as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, including support for veterans’ health care and Gold Star families, Clinton said.

Donald Trump speaks in New York on Sept. 7.
Donald Trump speaks in New York on Sept. 7.
Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Style Differences

Clinton favored long answers, often talking past Lauer’s efforts to move on to the next question. Trump returned to his quick-fire political rhetoric that he has shied away from since an immigration speech in Phoenix, Arizona. Like previous Republican nominees, Trump enjoys a double-digit lead among military voters but continues to struggle with other groups essential to winning a national campaign, including women and minorities.

The forum was held as the two candidates are positioning themselves for the final stretch of the campaign. The first of three scheduled presidential debates is Sept. 26, when they will face each other directly.

As Clinton has been buffeted over the past several week by new questions about her e-mail use and whether her family’s foundation influenced her work as secretary of state, Trump has narrowed her lead in national polls. The average of nine recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics has Clinton holding a 3.1 percentage point lead, within the margin of error and down from as much as 7.9 points in early August.

Public Disfavor

But both candidates remain unpopular with a majority of the public. Among likely voters in a CNN/ORC poll conducted Sept. 1-4, 54 percent said they had an unfavorable view of Trump and 56 percent said the same of Clinton.

Both campaigns will have fodder for refreshed attacks after the appearances Wednesday.

Clinton’s answers about her e-mail in the forum were correct as to some specifics of what various investigations have found, but she omitted other significant findings of the FBI, which called the her handling of sensitive material “extremely careless.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation found that she repeatedly sent or received material marked “confidential” -- a lower form of classification, but one which is defined as information that “reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security.” She also said in her interview with investigators that she did not know the meaning of some commonly used markings to denote sensitive information.

Powell Told Clinton He Used Private E-Mail to World Leaders

Trump, who Clinton has criticized for deriding the U.S. military, will face new questions about his views of the military. He declined to answer whether he thought he knew more about Islamic State than U.S. general as he said a year ago. Instead, he said "the generals have been reduced to rubble" under Obama and Clinton. Trump said he has "great faith in certain of the commanders" but that if he were president and convened a panel of generals, "They’d probably be different generals to be honest with you."

Asked about how he would support victims of sexual assault in the military, Trump said it was a "massive problem." But when Lauer resurfaced a Trump tweet from 2013 about military sex assaults in which he said, "What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?" Trump defended it as "a correct tweet" before saying that there must be more prosecutions and consequences.

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