5 takeaways from Trump and Clinton's military forum
By Jonathan Easley and Jonathan Swan
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appeared at the first presidential forum of the general election cycle on Wednesday and were both forced to play defense as they tried to convince veterans and voters why they deserve to be in charge of the military.
Each had just 30 minutes to field questions from moderator Matt Lauer and veterans in the audience, who wasted no time pressing the candidates on their former and current stances on military and veterans issues, national security and past controversies.
Here are five takeaways from NBC News's "Commander-in-Chief Forum” on national security:
Progressives aren't sold on Clinton’s record
A decade and a half after her vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Clinton is still working to repair her standing among liberals who view her foreign policy positions as a relic from the Bush years.
“You have had an extensive record with military intervention,” one veteran said to the Democratic nominee. “How do you respond to progressives like myself who worry and have concerns like myself that your hawkish foreign policy will continue, and what is your plan to end wasteful war campaigns?”
In a room full of veterans — many of whom served in Iraq — Clinton reiterated that her vote to authorize the Iraq War was a mistake and that she would be more cautious going forward.
“I view force as a last resort, not a first choice,” Clinton said.
Clinton vowed never to return U.S. troops to Iraq and said she would also not put boots on the ground to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Still, Clinton flashed her hawkish side in defending the Obama administration’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya. Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time, described it as a successful operation that protected many Libyans from their murderous dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.
“We were able to save lives, we did not lose a single American in that action,” Clinton said.
Clinton also highlighted work she had done with two of the most influential foreign policy hawks in Congress, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), on veterans issues.
During the primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) repeatedly hammered Clinton for supporting the Iraq War, calling it “the worst foreign policy blunder” of the modern era.
While Clinton has been able to accumulate support from close to 90 percent of all Democrats, according to polls, there remains a wary contingent of progressives who may never give her a look, and some of her major foreign policy choices may continue to work against her among that bloc.
Clinton lacks a knock-out rebuttal to the email scandal
Clinton has been dogged by controversies surrounding her use of a private email server for more than a year now and has had to respond to questions about it in essentially every interview she’s done since.
But Clinton still does not have a strong response to the seemingly endless drip of news surrounding her use of the server and often takes a meandering path in explaining what she did that appears to leave her twisting in the wind and failing to satisfy voters.
On Wednesday night, NBC anchor Matt Lauer grilled Clinton on the issue and then ceded the floor to a military veteran who did the same.
Clinton has the first part down — she acknowledges the mistake and expresses regret.
But then she got lost in explaining the intricacies of the State Department’s communication system with an answer that has a long wind-up and a confusing finish.
“You know and I know, classified material is designated, it is marked, there is a header so there is no dispute at all that what is being communicated to or from someone who has that access is marked classified,” Clinton said.
“And what we have here is the use of an unclassified system by hundreds of people in our government to send information that was not marked, there was no header, there was no statement Top Secret, Secret or Confidential. I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system. I took it very seriously.”
The email issue will continue to haunt Clinton for as long as there are new revelations — like the email exchange with former Secretary of State Colin Powell released during the presidential forum — or until she can find a way to put it to bed herself.
Trump doubling down on secrecy
Trump insists he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS, and he's not saying what it is because he doesn't want to "broadcast" his intentions to the enemy.
A young man in the audience asked the GOP nominee what his plan was for the day after he defeats ISIS. Trump didn't directly answer the question and so the host, Lauer, tried to corner Trump on what his plan was for beating ISIS in the first place.
Lauer said, "Yesterday you actually told us a little about your plan. In your speech you said, '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?"
"No," Trump replied. "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."
"But you have your own plan?" Lauer asked.
Trump replied, "I have a plan. But I don't want — look — I have a very substantial chance of winning ... if I win, I don't want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is."
Trump rejects Republican norms
Whatever efforts Trump has made so far to moderate his message and appeal to leaders of the Republican foreign policy establishment were largely blown apart on Wednesday night.
Trump refused to back away from Vladimir Putin, despite the Russian president's almost enemy status among mainstream Republicans.
"You know the beautiful part of getting along?" Trump said. "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?"
Trump described Putin as a leader who had "strong" control over his country, but he had tougher words for the U.S. generals serving under the current commander in chief.
“The generals under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not been successful,” Trump said.
“Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country.”
The judgment election
Clinton and Trump both believe they have it and the other lacks it.
“The main thing is I have great judgment,” Trump declared in response to a question about why the nation can trust him as commander in chief.
And when asked about the most important qualities a commander in chief can have, Clinton said: “Temperament and judgment."
Trump has argued that Clinton’s email controversy is evidence she lacks the judgment to be president.
Clinton is busy making the case that Trump is erratic and dangerous. One group supporting her presidential bid is running ads warning that Trump will lead the nation into a nuclear war.
For the two most unpopular major party nominees of all time, it’s a race to define the other as lacking the steadiness to lead.