Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed Wednesday over national security issues that exposed deep divides over how to manage the military and conduct foreign policy in an increasingly complex world.
During the “Commander in Chief” forum hosted by NBC, Trump caused a stir when he stood by a 2013 tweet that implied military sexual assault is a result of women serving in the military.
“26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Trump had tweeted.
When asked about the tweet by moderator Matt Lauer, Trump didn’t back down.
“I think that that’s absolutely correct,” he said during the forum. “No not to take them out, but something has to happen. The problem is nobody gets prosecuted.”
The gulf between the candidates was especially apparent when the discussion focused on combating ISIS. Clinton, who said defeating ISIS would be her “highest terrorism goal,” spoke of using air power and regional alliances to defeat the group.
“We’ve gotta do it with much more support from the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS,” she said. “We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They’ve taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They’ve gotta hold them. They’ve gotta now get into Mosul.”
Trump, who has both said he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS and, if elected, that he would give generals 30 days to present him with a plan to beat ISIS, also offered little clarity as to which was the case.
“So is the plan you’ve been hiding this whole time — asking someone else for their plan,” Lauer asked.
“No,” Trump responded. “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 up with.”
Lauer asked: “But you have your own plan?”
“I have a plan … Look, I have a very substantial chance of winning,” Trump said. “If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.”
Lauer asked Trump whether he knows more about ISIS than President Barack Obama’s generals, a statement he has previously made.
“I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble,” Trump said. “They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.”
Clinton on emails
Clinton, meanwhile, repeated “it was a mistake” to have used a personal email account and server while leading the department, and that she would “certainly not do it again.”
“I make no excuses for it,” she said.
But Clinton defended certain emails, including information about the country’s covert drone program, as not revealing classified information.
“There were no discussions about any of the covert actions in process being determined about whether or not to go forward,” she said. “But every part of our government had to deal with questions, secretary of state’s office was first and foremost, so there are ways of talking about the drone program.”
Trump, again said he was “against” the Iraq War, though he said he supported the invasion one month before Congress voted to authorize it, and praised the military campaign in Iraq in the first months after the invasion.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Clinton over her support for the war, saying it showed poor judgment. Clinton, when asked about her vote to authorize the war, said: “I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake,” she said. “I am asking to be judged on the totality of my record.”
Asked about what critics call her hawkish foreign policy record, Clinton said: “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again and we are not putting ground troops into Syria.”
She added: “I view force as a last resort, not a first choice. I will do everything in my power to make sure our men and women in the military are fully prepared for any challenge they may have to face on our behalf, but I will also be as careful as I can in making the most significant decisions any president and commander and chief can make about sending our men and women into harms way.”
Trump said at the forum that he’d be open to “working” a way for undocumented immigrants to serve in the US military — a sharp contrast to his tone during a speech in Arizona last week where he said he would focus on deporting undocumented immigrants from the country.
“I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a very special situation,” Trump said. “I could see myself working that. Absolutely. Now we have to vet very carefully, everybody would agree with that.”
A woman in the audience asked Trump during the forum what he’ll do to stop the “20 veterans” from committing suicide daily.
“Actually it’s 22. It’s almost impossible to conceive that this is happening in this country,” he said. “We’re going to speed up the process, we’re going to create a great mental health division. They need help.”
Clinton, also asked about the issue, pointed to her recently rolled out mental health policy agenda.
“I have a whole section devoted to veterans’ mental health. And we’ve gotta remove the stigma. We’ve gotta help people currently serving not to feel that if they report their sense of unease, their depression, that somehow it’s gonna be a mark against them. We have to do more about addiction. Not only drugs but also alcohol,” Clinton said.
A member in the audience asked Trump how he would deescalate tension with Russia.
“I think I would have a very, very good relationship with (Russian President Vladimir Putin). And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia,” he said.
Lauer then asked Trump what about his relationship with Putin, who “annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world.”
“Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?” Trump said. “The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.”
He added: “Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”