NEW YORK, Sept. 7 (UPI) — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump burnished their credentials to lead the U.S. military as president on Wednesday, with Clinton emphasizing her steady leadership as secretary of state and Trump promising a clean break with interventionist military policies that have led to unpopular, expensive conflicts in the Muslim world.
Clinton and Trump appeared back-to-back at the hour-long forum, hosted by NBC News on the deck of the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that has been converted into a military museum on the Hudson River in New York. Moderator Matt Laurer and former members of the military in attendance peppered the candidates with questions relating to foreign policy and veterans issues.
Trump also used the forum to suggest he was given information privately that members of the intelligence community are upset with the Obama administration’s pursuit of terror threats.
Answering a question from Laurer, Trump said the CIA officials who gave him two classified intelligence briefings conveyed to him behind closed doors their unhappiness that President Barack Obama had not followed the advice of anti-terrorism experts on an unspecified issue of national security.
“Our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts … said to do and I was very, very surprised. And I’m pretty good with the body language, they were not happy,” Trump said.
Laurer opened the forum with Clinton, who spoke first, by asking about her use of a private email system while secretary of state, and whether her handling of classified material on an unclassified system should disqualify from to becoming president.
Clinton responded, saying she did handle classified information that came to her properly, but never in her emails did she receive something marked with the classified “header” that normally accompanies official government communications that require security clearance.
“I have a lot of experience dealing with classified materials. … Classified material has a header that says ‘top secret,’ ‘secret,’ [or] ‘confidential.’ None off the emails sent or received by me had such a header,” Clinton said.
Laurer also pressed Trump on whether his brash campaign style would pose a risk if he were put in the position of commanding armed forces.
“I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. I was against the war in Iraq. … I said it was going to destabilize the Middle East and it has,” Trump said.
On the question of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Clinton said she now regards her vote as senator to authorize it as a mistake, one she has learned from in the years since and would be able to avoid repeating if elected president herself.
“The decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake and I have said my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake,” she said. “I also believe it is imperative to learn from the mistakes. We must learn what led us down that path so that it never happens again. I think I’m in the best possible position to understand that and prevent it.”
As he has in the past, Trump was critical of policies under both George W. Bush and Obama to engage in military interventions in the Muslim world that he said have resulted in instability that made it possible for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups to fill the power void.
“Part of the problem we’ve had is we go in, we defeat somebody, and we have no idea what to do next, we lose it,” Trump said.
Trump was also asked about comments he made praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Trump previously described as a “strong leader.” Trump said he accepts Putin’s mutual praise, but it would not have an effect on his administration’s dealings with Russia.
“I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin and I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia,” he said. “I think when he calls me ‘brilliant’ I’ll take the compliment. It’s not going to get him anywhere.”
On the topic of the Iran nuclear deal — something many conservatives have decried as too generous to Iran — Clinton defended the Obama administration’s handling, saying it “put a lid” on Iran’s nuclear program, which she said was rapidly advancing when Obama came into office.
“When I became secretary of state, the Iranians were on a fast track to acquire the elements necessary to obtain a nuclear weapon. Our decision was to try to put together an international coalition that included Russia and China” to implement economic sanctions that forced the Iranians to the negotiating table, she said.
Laurer asked Clinton if the Iranians are “playing” the United States by agreeing to the deal. Clinton said no.
“On the nuclear issue, no. I think we have enough insight to know,” she said, adding the details of the agreement give the United States enough latitude “to be able to mistrust and verify” that the Iranians are living up to their end of the agreement.
The forum was the first time the two candidates shared the same stage on the same night, though they did not interact. The next time they come as close will be Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, when they face off in the first of three head-to-head debates.