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Foreign Policy Challenges Put Clinton, Trump On Defensive At Forum

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York City on Wednesday evening.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the Commander-in-Chief Forum in New York City on Wednesday evening.

A forum designed to test the leading presidential candidates' capacity for military leadership Wednesday night displayed as much unpredictability as the rest of this election, as questions and answers veered off-topic and both candidates were put on the defensive several times.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump participated in the town hall-style event, held aboard an aircraft carrier that is now the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. The one-hour forum was co-hosted by NBC News and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and was moderated by NBC's Matt Lauer.

It was the first time the candidates had appeared back-to-back at an event since they secured their parties' nominations, and the evening offered a preview of their first debate on Sept. 26.

Clinton was pressed, yet again, over her use of a private email server at the State Department and had to explain her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War. Meanwhile, Trump again praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and continued a streak of shifting statements on immigration by saying he was open to letting immigrants who want to serve in the military but are here illegally stay in the U.S.

NPR's national security team produced a separate fact check of the forum. Here are five important moments from that hour.

Clinton defends her email server ... again

The Democratic presidential nominee spent almost a third of her allotted half-hour explaining and apologizing for her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

At the outset of the event, Clinton was pressed on what it takes to be a commander in chief, which she said called for "steadiness — an absolutely rock steadiness" and also "temperament and judgment." But her judgment has been called into question regarding that email server, and a veteran in the crowd told her she had "clearly corrupted our national security," and that if he had mishandled classified information similarly, "I would have been prosecuted and imprisoned."

"I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system. I took it very seriously," Clinton rebutted. "There were no headers. There was no statement, 'Top Secret,' 'Secret' or 'Confidential.' "

Clinton promises no ground troops in Iraq or Syria

In laying out her plan to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, Clinton admitted that securing the American homeland would be a "huge challenge" for the next president.

"We've got to have an intelligence surge and we've got to get a lot more cooperation out of Europe, out of the Middle East. We have to do a better job of not only collecting and analyzing the intelligence we do have, but distributing it much more quickly down the ladder to state and local law enforcement," she told Lauer.

But that wouldn't include committing more forces to the effort. Earlier, Clinton reiterated that she regretted her vote for the Iraq War, and hit Trump on falsely saying he has opposed the war from the onset — something he again incorrectly repeated when it was his turn during the forum.

She promised to support Iraqi forces working to take their country back from ISIS, but drew the clear line: "They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we're not putting ground troops into Syria. We're to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops."

Trump says Obama's generals have been "reduced to rubble"

The GOP nominee faced questions about his own preparedness to lead the military, and about assertions he has made in the past that he "know[s] more about ISIS than the generals do."

He argued it was the generals serving under the current Democratic president who were ill-prepared, and said he would change leadership if elected.

"The generals under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not been successful. ... The generals have been reduced to rubble," Trump said. But he also noted he still has "great faith in the military."

While still not giving many specifics on his plan to fight ISIS, which he has said he won't release so as not to tip off U.S. enemies, Trump said there would be "different generals" who would advise him on national security and military policy as president.

"I have a substantial chance of winning, but if I win I don't want to broadcast" the plan, Trump said. "We have had the worst, and you could even say the dumbest, foreign policy."

Trump doubles down on praise for Putin

The GOP nominee again defended Russian President Vladimir Putin. The controversial leader has praised Trump, and Trump said he would return the sentiment.

"If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him," Trump said, but "it's not going to get him anywhere."

Trump praised Putin's reported 82 percent approval rating in Russia, even calling him "a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."

He also argued there was no evidence the Russians were behind a hack into the Democratic National Committee's email system this summer, though counterintelligence officials have said there's little doubt regarding the culprits.

Trump questions whether men and women should serve together in military

The Republican nominee also stood behind a 2013 tweet in which he raised the idea of separating men and women in the military to reduce sexual assaults.

"Well, it is, it is a correct tweet," Trump said. "There are many people that think that that's absolutely correct ... it's happening, right? And, by the way, since then, it's gotten worse."

Trump didn't say that men and women should necessarily be separated, but that "something has to happen," and that there should be a better system of prosecuting offenders.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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