The first general election debate won’t be until Sept. 26, but on Wednesday night NBC News presented something of a prelude: The Commander-in-Chief Forum, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump participating in a back-to-back event on veterans issues and national security.
At the town-hall style event, held at the Intrepid Museum in New York and sponsored by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, host Matt Lauer asked Clinton and Trump to keep their attacks to a minimum. But the takeaway was still the same — Clinton presenting herself with the steadiness to serve as commander-in-chief; Trump as the leader who has the common sense to avoid the foreign policy mistakes of the past.
“The main thing is, I have good judgment,” said Trump, who spent a good chunk of his half hour slamming Clinton and President Obama. The generals, he said, “have been reduced to rubble,” referring to what he sees as the diminishment of the military.
What the forum lacked were more questions from the audience, as the sessions with each candidate were front loaded with queried from Lauer on what makes them ready to take office. That largely gave Clinton and Trump the chance to repeat talking points — Clinton touting her “rock steadiness” and Trump his dealmaking. Lauer, determined to pack as much in as he could, also missed opportunities for follow ups.
Still, there were some unexpected moments from the hour, which zoomed by given the sheer breadth of the topics covered:
Hillary and the e-mails. This one was a given, but the Clinton campaign was probably surprised at the multiple questions that Lauer pressed her on the use of a private server when she was secretary of state.
“I would certainly not do it again; there are no excuses for it,” she said. She said that “none of the emails sent or received by me” had a header that marked them “top secret” or “classified.”
The first question from the audience of veterans was a pointed one, about how she could justify something that risked exposure of classified material. Again, Clinton assured that she never saw emails with a “header” marked classified.
ISIS and safety: Asked whether she could guarantee that the country would be safer at the end of her presidency, Clinton said that she “was not going to promise something that most thinking Americans know will be a huge challenge.”
She did, however, say that defeating ISIS would be top priority. She called for an “intelligence surge,” but pledged that there would be no ground troops in Syria or in Iraq “ever again.”
Trump’s Iraq support: Clinton said that her vote as a senator to authorize the use of force in Iraq was a “mistake,” but she said that Trump “refuses to take responsibility” for his own support for the war. That’s because Trump insists that he opposed the war from the start, and in his half -hour he continued to do so.
He cited an interview he gave to Esquire in 2004. The problem is, the war started in 2003, and there are a number of interviews he gave around that time where he expressed support for military action. Lauer didn’t call him out on it.
Putin’s praise: Pressed by Matt Lauer over how he would deal with Russian leader Vladmir Putin, Trump said that the praise Putin has given to him would not affect how he deals with him as president.
But Trump clearly likes that a foreign leader called him “brilliant” — or at least was rumored to have — and mentioned Putin’s 82% approval rating.
“If he says great things about me, I am going to say great things about him,” he said.
After Lauer cited things like Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Trump said, “Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does?” He didn’t, but the inference was in line with Trump’s argument that Putin is a better leader than Obama.
He also pointed to his trip to Mexico last week to defend his ability on the diplomatic front, and even noted that “the people who arranged the trip in Mexico have been forced out of government. That’s how well we did.”
The secret plan: Lauer pressed Trump on his plan to defeat ISIS, as Trump had said that he would convene generals to come up with something.
“If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is,” he said, saying that the plan may be a “combination of my plan and the generals plan.”
A curious moment came when Trump claimed that he could tell that the national security personnel who have been giving him briefings were not pleased with Obama. “I’m pretty good with body language,” he said.