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Trump, Clinton Show Vast Differences in Foreign Policy Forum

Trump and Clinton
Trump and Clinton

And Trump gets surprised by a question from out military activist Sue Fulton.

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Who's best equipped to defeat ISIS and fix problems with veterans' health care -- and who opposed the Iraq war and when -- were among the questions to which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave far different answers at NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum Wednesday night.

The two presidential candidates appeared separately -- first Clinton, then Trump -- to take questions from NBC journalist Matt Lauer and an audience of military veterans at the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum in New York City.

Clinton's answers were detailed, Trump's less so. In the fight against the Middle Eastern terrorist group ISIS, she said she would use air power (which the U.S. military is doing now, under President Obama) but would not send in American ground troops. She also said she would provide more support to the local forces fighting ISIS on the ground. Defeating ISIS, she said, "is my highest counterterrorism goal."

Trump continued to say he had a secret plan for defeating ISIS, and he would not release details of it. Lauer pressed him, though, on a statement he made Tuesday, that as president he would convene his top generals to submit a plan for quashing ISIS. "So is the plan you've been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?" Lauer said. Trump replied that he might like a combination of his plan and the generals' plan.

"But you're going to convene a panel of generals, and you've already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do," Lauer responded. Trump said he would have different generals. Earlier in the forum, he had said, "I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble."

Later, however, he said Obama, Clinton, and John Kerry, who succeeded her as secretary of State, ignored the advice of foreign policy experts -- something he learned, he said, in the intelligence briefing given to him as a candidate. "Trump's logic here is confusing," wrote Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers in an annotation to the Post's forum transcript. "He basically says the generals advising Obama are idiots who know less about the Islamic State than Trump does. Yet Trump slams Obama for not listening to these idiots?"

On veterans' health care, both candidates promised to do whatever they can to decrease wait times for treatment and address mental health to attend the rash of suicides by veterans. "I rolled out my mental health agenda last week, and I have a whole section devoted to veterans' mental health," Clinton said. "And we've got to remove the stigma. We've got to help people currently serving not to feel that if they report their sense of unease, their depression, that somehow it's going to be a mark against them. We have to do more about addiction, not only drugs, but also alcohol."

She also said she was "outraged" by reports about problems with delivery of care by hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. "I have been very clear about the necessity for doing whatever is required to move the VA into the 21st century, to provide the kind of treatment options that our veterans today desperately need and deserve," she said. "And that's what I will do as president. But I will not let the VA be privatized. And I do think there is an agenda out there, supported by my opponent, to do just that. I think that would be very disastrous for our military veterans."

During his segment, Trump said, "Hillary Clinton six months ago said the vets are being treated essentially just fine, there's no real problem, it's overexaggerated." Lauer put in, "No, no, she went on after that and laid out a litany of problems within the VA." Trump then said he did not want to privatize the VA, but he would let vets receive treatment at the clinic or hospital of their choice rather than waiting for treatment at a VA facility.

When Lauer asked the candidates about the most important characteristics for a commander in chief, both emphasized judgment. Trump has often criticized Clinton's judgment because of her vote in favor of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq when she was a U.S. senator from New York, something which she has long said was a mistake. Trump said he always opposed the Iraq war, but a bit of fact checking shows he initially supported it. He has also denounced Clinton for her move as secretary of State to invade Libya and depose dictator Moammar Gadhafi -- but she pointed out that he did at one point support that action as well. Indeed, in 2011 he expressed his support several times.

Trump also received a question from lesbian military activist Sue Fulton, who was part of the first West Point class that included women, if an undocumented immigrant who plans to serve in the military deserves to stay in the U.S. legally. (Some are already serving, Fulton pointed out.) Trump, well known for his support for deporting undocumented immigrants, said such people would have to be carefully vetted, but serving in the military would create a special circumstance. "I could see myself working that out, absolutely," he said.

Lauer questioned Trump about his enthusiasm regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the Republican candidate said would be a great ally in the fight against ISIS. Lauer listed several of Putin's misdeeds -- "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 Trump responded, "Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I'll take the compliment, OK? The fact is, look, it's not going to get him anywhere. I'm a negotiator. We're going to take back our country."

Trump also blamed President Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq for the rise of ISIS and said the U.S. should have left a small number of troops in to control oil-rich regions. "If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn't have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil," he said.

And Lauer put Trump on the spot when a vet in the audience said his daughter decided against entering the military when she read about the large number of sexual assaults in the armed forces. Trump said these should be prosecuted within the military court system, not in civilian courts, as some Democrats have proposed, and said the military courts needed to be strengthened. Lauer brought up a Trump tweet from 2013, mentioning the high prevalence of assaults and the few convictions, with the comment "What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?"

"So this should have been expected?" Lauer said. "And does that mean the only way to fix it is to take women out of the military?" Trump said no, the problem is that there are so few prosecutions.

One audience member expressed concern to Clinton about what she said is the Democratic candidate's "hawkish" foreign policy. Clinton responded, "I view force as a last resort, not a first choice. I will do everything in my power to make sure that our men and women in the military are fully prepared for any challenge that they may have to face on our behalf."

Trump, during his segment, said Clinton "has a happy trigger" and that he would be slower and more cautious about going to war.

Other topics that came up: Lauer questioned Clinton about her use of a private email server at the State Department -- she said no classified material was compromised; she defended the deal making it more difficult for Iran to acquire nuclear arms; and Trump said that despite his lack of political experience, with his business skills and knowledge gained from advisers, he will be ready to lead the nation on day one.

Many journalists and political types saw the forum as a dry run for the first debate between Clinton and Trump. It's set for 8 p.m. Eastern, September 26, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., to be moderated by NBC's Lester Holt. A vice-presidential debate and two more presidential debates will follow in October.

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.
Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.