Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton veered from veterans issues to discuss other national-security matters during the first forum in which they shared a stage before the election.
Trump and Clinton addressed the crowd of mostly veterans at different times during the first-ever "Commander-in-Chief" forum, which was organized by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the vets group known as IAVA, and held aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, site of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
During the hour-long event hosted by NBC's Matt Lauer, the candidates indeed touched on veterans issues, notably waits for appointments at Veterans Affairs Department hospitals and the high number of veterans who die by suicide. But during most of the hour-long event, they focused on other national-security and military matters.
Trump appeared at the event just hours after he gave a speech in Philadelphia in which he unveiled his plans to bolster the U.S. military with more troops, ships and aircraft. He criticized the military brass under the Obama administration and U.S. policy in Iraq, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, defended previous comments on gender-separation in the military and supported undocumented immigrants serving in the military.
When asked about what experiences have prepared him to serve as as commander in chief, Trump said, "I've built a great company. I've been all over the world. I've dealt with foreign countries. I've done very well … dealing with China and so many other countries that are just ripping this country."
He criticized the performance of military leaders under the Obama administration and suggested he'd look for new leadership. "Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I think the generals have been reduced to rubble," he said. Trump's military adviser, Michael Flynn, is a retired Army lieutenant general who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama.
Phil Klay, who served as a Marine in Iraq before becoming a writer whose book, "Redeployment," won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction, asked Trump what his plan is for the Middle East if the U.S. succeeds in defeating ISIS. Trump used the opportunity to criticize U.S. policy after the 2003 invasion and the 2011 withdrawal of troops. He also said the U.S. should have seized Iraqi petroleum assets. "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.
Trump said Russia wants to defeat militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, "as badly as we do." Of Putin, Trump said, "in that system, he's been a leader." He noted Putin has praised him as a "brilliant leader" and said "it's possible" the two could work together as heads of state. "I'm a negotiator," he said. "I think I'll be able to get along with him."
The Republican candidate defended his 2013 tweet in which he said, "26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?" and signaled support for handling sex-assault cases within the military rather than outside the chain of command as some Democrats have proposed.
When asked whether an undocumented person who wants to serve in the armed forces should be allowed to legally stay in the country, Trump said, "When you serve in the armed forces, that's a very special situation and I could see myself working that out -- absolutely."
Clinton, who took to the stage first, spent a third of her time on the defensive for using a private email system to send classified messages while secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey said the practice was "extremely careless," but concluded she shouldn't be prosecuted because she didn't intend to mishandle and exploit the information.
Even so, the issue remains high-profile both on the campaign trail and in courtrooms. Republicans have said service members facing similar charges have received different levels of scrutiny.
In one case, the military career of Marine Maj. Jason Brezler, a reservist and member of the New York City Fire Department, hangs in the balance of a legal case stemming from improperly handling classified material. In 2012, Brezler sent colleagues an email from a Yahoo account containing a classified profile of an Afghan policeman whom the Marines believed was corrupt and sexually abusing young Afghan boys.
"It was a mistake to have a personal account," Clinton said. "I would certainly not do it again. I make no excuses for it." But she also sought to defend her handling of classified information by saying none of the messages were marked top secret, secret or confidential. "None of the emails sent or received by me had such a header," she said.
When asked about U.S. military interventions abroad, Clinton again was on the defensive, repeating her claim that she regretted her vote as senator to authorize the war in Iraq. "The decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake," she said. "I also believe that it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes," she added. "I think I'm in the best possible position to be able to understand that and prevent it."
On Iraq, Clinton said, "we are not going to put ground troops into Iraq ever again," but failed to acknowledge the roughly 5,000 American service members who are currently deployed in the country to train Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS.
She defended her role in advocating the 2011 military intervention in Libya to oust leader Muammar Gaddafi, saying, "I think taking that action was the right decision." She also backed the Iran nuclear deal, saying it "put a lid on their nuclear weapons program" and took precedence as a strategic threat over other issues such as Iran's meddling in Iraq and Syria.
Trump called for giving veterans greater access to private care if they face waits of several days for appointments at hospitals and clinics run by the VA, which he described as "almost a corrupt enterprise."
"People are … dying waiting to see a doctor," he said. "Under a part of my plan, if they have that long wait, they walk outside, they go to the local doctor. They choose the doctor. They choose the hospital whether it's public or private. They get themselves better. In many cases, it's a minor procedure or a pill."
Both Trump and Clinton said they would not seek to privatize the VA.
When an audience member asked him what he plans to do to stop the 20 veterans, on average, who die by suicide every day, Trump erroneously sought to correct her by citing an old figure of 22 veterans. "Actually, it's 22," he told the woman. The VA in July released its latest study on the issue and concluded an average of 20 veterans kill themselves each day, down from 22 veterans in a 2014 study. The victims are mostly older vets.
"A lot of it is they're under tremendous pain and can't see a doctor," Trump said. "We're going to speed up the process."
Clinton, meanwhile, pledged to hold weekly meetings in the White House to better coordinate services as troops transfer from the Defense Department to veterans at the VA. She said she was "outraged" by some of the stories she has heard about missing records and vowed to help move the department into the 21st century.
"We've got to remove the stigma" associated with mental health, she said. "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."