National Security and the important role our President plays as Commander in Chief is very much at the forefront of the political conversation. In this episode, we’ll look at last Wednesday’s Commander in Chief Forum where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump discussed their plans for keeping Americans safe, combating terrorism, and why they think they’re the best person for the job.
Commander In Chief Forum Transcript
LAUER: Good evening, everyone, from the Carrier Intrepid here in New York City. In just a couple of short months, Americans are going to vote in a critical election. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are vying not only to become president of the United States, but one of them will become the leader of the most potent military force the world has ever seen.
I’m standing in a place where I can actually see the site of the World Trade Center. Fifteen years ago this week, the worst terror attack on American soil changed the world and launched this nation into years of war. Tonight’s forum is a great opportunity for these nominees to talk about national security and the complex global issues that face our nation. And they’ll get to tell you why they are ready for the role of commander-in-chief.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KENNEDY: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States.
JOHNSON: I have today ordered to Vietnam the Air Mobile Division.
REAGAN: Air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: No president can easily commit our sons and daughters to war.
BILL CLINTON: We can and will succeed because our mission is clear and our troops are strong.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
OBAMA: I can report to the American people the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaida.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: The Commander-in-Chief Forum, live from the Carrier Intrepid in New York. Here now is Matt Lauer.
LAUER: Good evening, everyone. The decisions a commander-in- chief makes can have a profound and lasting impact on all Americans, but none more so than the brave men and women who serve, fight, and die for our country. What makes tonight’s forum unique, some of the questions will be asked by U.S. military veterans who are in our audience. The presidential nominees will appear back-to-back tonight. After a coin toss yesterday won by Mr. Trump, he chose to go second. So that means we begin tonight with the Democratic nominee for president. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Hillary Clinton.
CLINTON: Matt, how are you? Good to see you. Thank you. Hi. How are you?
LAUER: Good to have you.
Nice to see you. Good evening.
CLINTON: Thank you very much. I’m happy you’re doing this.
LAUER: Let me — thank you very much, I’m happy to be here. Let me ask you something ahead of time that I’ll ask Mr. Trump in a half an hour. To the best of your ability tonight, can we talk about your qualities and your qualifications to be commander-in-chief and not use this as an opportunity to attack Mr. Trump, all right? And I’ll ask him the exact same thing.
CLINTON: I think that’s an exactly right way to proceed.
CLINTON: This is a very important decision for our country. And each of us should be presenting our experience, our expertise, and our plans to protect and defend the United States and our allies around the world.
LAUER: What is the most important characteristic that a commander-in-chief can possess?
CLINTON: Steadiness. An absolute rock steadiness, and mixed with strength to be able to make the hard decisions. Because I’ve had the unique experience of watching and working with several presidents. And these are not easy decisions. If they were, they wouldn’t get to the president in the first place.
And when you’re sitting in the Situation Room, as I have on numerous occasions, particularly with respect to determining whether to recommend the raid against bin Laden, what you want in a president, a commander-in-chief, is someone who listens, who evaluates what is being told to him or her, who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented…
LAUER: You’re talking about judgment.
CLINTON: … and then makes the decision. Makes the decision, that’s right.
LAUER: So judgment is a key.
CLINTON: Temperament and judgment, yes.
LAUER: The word “judgment” has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year-and-a-half, and in particular concerning your use of your personal e-mail and server to communicate while you were secretary of state. You’ve said it’s a mistake.
LAUER: You said you made not the best choice. You were communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying, if you want to be commander-in- chief?
CLINTON: Well, Matt, first of all, as I have said repeatedly, it was a mistake to have a personal account. I would certainly not do it again. I make no excuses for it. It was something that should not have been done.
But the real question is the handling of classified material, which is I think what the implication of your question was. And for all the viewers watching you tonight, I have a lot of experience dealing with classified material, starting when I was on the Senate Armed Services Committee going into the four years as secretary of state. Classified material has a header which says “top secret,” “secret,” “confidential.” Nothing — and I will repeat this, and this is verified in the report by the Department of Justice — none of the e-mails sent or received by me had such a header.
LAUER: Were some of the e-mails sent or received by you referring to our drone program, our covert drone program?
CLINTON: Yes, because — of course, there were no discussions of any of the covert actions in process being determined about whether or not to go forward. But every part of our government had to deal with questions, and the secretary of state’s office was first and foremost. So there are ways of talking about the drone program…
LAUER: And you said you thought your communications on that were fairly routine?
CLINTON: Well, let me say, the FBI just released their report about their investigation, they discussed drone matters in the unclassified section of their report.
LAUER: But Director Comey also said this after reviewing all the information. He said there is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.
CLINTON: Well, Matt, I just respectfully point to the hundreds of experienced foreign policy experts, diplomats, defense officials who were communicating information on the unclassified system because it was necessary to answer questions and to be able publicly to go as far as we could, which was not acknowledging the program.
But I would be in Pakistan, as I was on several occasions. There might very well have been a strike. I would be asked in a public setting, in an interview, about it. It was known to have happened. We had to have an answer that did not move into classified area. And I think we handled that appropriately.
LAUER: You mentioned you’re in Pakistan. Some of the e-mails you sent and received happened while you were overseas. And Director Comey also said that while they have no proof, we assessed that it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail accounts.
CLINTON: Matt, there is no evidence. Of course anything is possible. But what is factual is the State Department system was hacked. Most of the government systems are way behind the curve. We’ve had hacking repeatedly, even in the White House. There is no evidence my system was hacked.
LAUER: Let us bring in Hallie Jackson of NBC News who’s been covering this campaign. She’s getting questions from our veterans. Hallie, who are you with?
JACKSON: Hi, Matt. I’m with Lieutenant Jon Lester (ph), who will stand with me here. He began his military career by enlisting in the Air Force and then switched over to the Navy before he retired, where he flew P-3 Orions in Desert Storm and in Desert Shield. He’s a Republican, and he has this question for you, Secretary Clinton.
CLINTON: Thank you.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, thank you very much for coming tonight. As a naval flight officer, I held a top secret sensitive compartmentalized information clearance. And that provided me access to materials and information highly sensitive to our warfighting capabilities. Had I communicated this information not following prescribed protocols, I would have been prosecuted and imprisoned.
Secretary Clinton, how can you expect those such as myself who were and are entrusted with America’s most sensitive information to have any confidence in your leadership as president when you clearly corrupted our national security?
CLINTON: Well, I appreciate your concern and also your experience. But let me try to make the distinctions that I think are important for me to answer your question.
First, as I said to Matt, you know and I know classified material is designated. It is marked. There is a header so that there is no dispute at all that what is being communicated to or from someone who has that access is marked classified.
And what we have here is the use of an unclassified system by hundreds of people in our government to send information that was not marked, there were no headers, there was no statement, top secret, secret, or confidential.
I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system. I took it very seriously. When I traveled, I went into one of those little tents that I’m sure you’ve seen around the world because we didn’t want there to be any potential for someone to have embedded a camera to try to see whatever it is that I was seeing that was designated, marked, and headed as classified.
LAUER: Let us…
CLINTON: So I did exactly what I should have done and I take it very seriously, always have, always will.
LAUER: Sir, thank you. Thank you very much for your question. Secretary Clinton, let’s talk about your vote in favor of the war in Iraq. You’ve since said it was a mistake.
LAUER: Obviously, it was not something you said you would do again. I asked before for people to raise their hand if you served in Iraq. Can you do it again? How do you think these people feel when the person running to be their commander-in-chief says her vote to go to war in Iraq was a mistake?
CLINTON: Look, I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake. And I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake. I also believe that it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes, like after- action reports are supposed to do, and so 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 be able to understand that and prevent it.
But I will say this. I’m asking to be judged on the totality of my record, what I’ve done for our veterans as first lady, as senator, what I’ve done for Gold Star Families, working with them to increase the death benefit from $12,000 to $100,000, working with Republicans, like Lindsey Graham, to get TRICARE for our National Guard members who didn’t have health care unless they were deployed, working to provide more support for the care of our veterans, those who are wounded, working with the Fisher family, now into the third generation of caring for our fallen heroes, working with John McCain to raise money for Brooke Medical Center’s Intrepid Center to take care of those who are coming back with profound injuries, working on TBI and PTSD and so much more, working with groups to end veteran suicide, like TAPS. So, yes…
LAUER: I’m going to get on to that subject in a second.
CLINTON: There was — there was a mistake. Now, my opponent was for the war in Iraq. He says he wasn’t. You can go back and look at the record. He supported it. He told Howard Stern he supported it. So he supported it before it happened, he supported it as it was happening, and he is on record as supporting it after it happened. I have taken responsibility for my decision.
LAUER: Let me go to another…
CLINTON: He refuses to take responsibility for his support. That is a judgment issue.
LAUER: Let me go to another question. Hallie?
JACKSON: (OFF-MIKE) who served in the Air Force for nearly a decade, where she was an intelligence specialist, specializing in countering violent extremism. Like you, Secretary Clinton, she’s a Democrat and she has this question for you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Clinton, to your point, you have had an extensive record with military intervention. How do you respond to progressives like myself who worry and have concerns that your hawkish foreign policy will continue? And what is your plan to end wasteful war campaigns in which our peers, servicewomen and men, continue to be killed and wounded?
CLINTON: Well, I assume you’re talking about Iraq, because of my vote, and you probably are talking about Libya, because of the role that I played in the administration’s decision about whether to take on Gadhafi.
CLINTON: But before I get to that, let me say very clearly: 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.
But I will also be as careful as I can in making the most significant decisions any president and commander-in-chief can make about sending our men and women into harm’s way.
With respect to Libya, again, there’s no difference between my opponent and myself. He’s on record extensively supporting intervention in Libya, when Gadhafi was threatening to massacre his population. I put together a coalition that included NATO, included the Arab League, and we were able to save lives. We did not lose a single American in that action.
And I think taking that action was the right decision. Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria.
LAUER: I’m going to jump in. Thank you very much for your question. Let me ask you about the Iran nuclear deal. It was signed under Secretary Kerry; it was begun under you. You started those talks.
CLINTON: Right, I did.
LAUER: You have said you expect the Iranians to cheat, you think they’ll buy time, and perhaps stay along their course to building a nuclear weapon. If they cheat, Secretary Clinton, will you have any course of action other than a military course of action? Would you enter into negotiations with again (ph)? Would you go back to economic sanctions knowing they cheated and are then closer to a nuclear weapon?
CLINTON: Matt, look, let me put this in context, because this is one of the most important strategic questions we face. When I became secretary of state, the Iranians were on a fast track to acquiring the material necessary to get a nuclear weapon. That had happened the prior eight years. They mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, they built covert facilities, they stocked them with centrifuges, and they were moving forward.
What was our decision? Our decision was to try to put together an international coalition that included Russia and China to exert the kind of pressure through sanctions that the United States alone could not do.
LAUER: Right, but you’ve said that you think they’re going to cheat…
CLINTON: Now, wait, let me — look, this is an important issue. I know we’re on TV and we don’t have a lot of time.
LAUER: I want to get to a lot of questions.
CLINTON: I will talk quickly. But I want people to understand this. So, yes, I put together the coalition. We imposed the sanctions. We got them to the negotiating table. And after I left, we got the agreement. That agreement put a lid on their nuclear weapons program and imposed intrusive inspections. I have said we are going to enforce it to the letter.
LAUER: Do you think they’re playing us?
CLINTON: On the nuclear issue, no. I think we have enough insight into what they’re doing to be able to say we have to distrust but verify. What I am focused on is all the other malicious activities of the Iranians — ballistic missiles, support for terrorists, being involved in Syria, Yemen, and other places, supporting Hezbollah, Hamas.
But here’s the difference, Matt. I would rather as president be dealing with Iran on all of those issues without having to worry as much about their racing for a nuclear weapon. So we have made the world safer; we just have to make sure it’s enforced.
JACKSON: I’m with Kenneth Anderson (ph). He’s one of our undecided voters here. He considers himself an independent. He earned the rank of sergeant in the Marine Corps, where he was an Arabic translator during three tours in Iraq. Kenneth, you have a question for Secretary Clinton.
QUESTION: Yes, Secretary Clinton, last October you said that surveys of veterans show that they’re overall satisfied with their treatment and that the problems with the V.A. aren’t as widespread as they’re made out to be. So do you think the problems with the V.A. have been made to seem worse than they really are?
CLINTON: Look, I was outraged by the stories that came out about the V.A. And I have been very clear about the necessity for doing whatever is required to move the V.A. into the 21st century, to provide the kind of treatment options that our veterans today desperately need and deserve. And that’s what I will do as president.
But I will not let the V.A. 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. So I’m going to do everything I can — I’m going to have a meeting every week in the Oval Office. We’re going to bring the V.A. people, we’re going to bring the DOD people, because we’ve got to have a better fit between getting mustered out and getting into the V.A. system, sometimes — and you probably know this, Sergeant — I’ve met so many vets who get mustered out, who leave the service, they can’t find their records from DOD, and those records never make it to the V.A. They feel like they’re living in a funhouse. They have to go over the same things over and over.
We’re living in a technological world. You cannot tell me we can’t do a better job getting that information. And so I’m going to focus on this. I’m going to work with everybody. I’m going to make them work together.
LAUER: And I’m going to jump in.
CLINTON: And we’re going to fix the problems in the V.A.
LAUER: Sergeant, thank you very much for your question. Let’s talk about veterans and suicide.
CLINTON: Yes, let’s, please.
LAUER: It’s an alarming, alarming story. The population of veterans has a rate of suicide far above the general population.
CLINTON: Twenty — twenty suicides a day.
LAUER: What are you going to do to stop it?
CLINTON: Well, this month is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. And I’ve spent a lot of time with family members, survivors, who’ve lost a loved one after he or she came home, sometimes suffering from PTSD or TBI or sexual assault, being handed bags of opioids, not being given an appropriate treatment to help that particular person, which is something, to go back to the sergeant’s question, we have to change.
So I rolled out my mental health agenda last week, and I have a whole section devoted to veterans’ mental health. 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. So I have put forth a really robust agenda, working with a lot of the VSOs and other groups, like TAPS, who have been thinking about this and trying to figure out what we’re going to do to help our veterans re-enter civilian life and live full, productive lives.
JACKSON: I’m with Ernie Young. Come on up here with me, a former Army captain, who led troops during tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s an independent voter. And you have a question for the secretary.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, as an Army veteran, a commander-in- chief’s to empathize with servicemembers and their families is important to me. The ability to truly understand implications and consequences of your decisions, actions, or inactions. How will you determine when and where to deploy troops directly into harm’s way, especially to combat ISIS?
LAUER: As briefly as you can.
CLINTON: We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. And we’ve got to do it with air power. We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They’ve taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They’ve got to hold them. They’ve got to now get into Mosul.
We’re going to work to make sure that they have the support — they have special forces, as you know, they have enablers, they have surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance help.
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 going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops. So those are the kinds of decisions we have to make on a case-by-case basis.
And, remember, when I became secretary of state, we had 200,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’m very grateful that we have brought home the vast majority of those. We have a residual force, as you know, in Afghanistan. We have built up several thousands of the folks that I’ve talked about who are assisting in the fight against ISIS.
But it is in our national security interest to defeat ISIS. And I intend to make that happen.
LAUER: Thank you very much for your question.
CLINTON: And as part of it, we’re going after Baghdadi, the leader, because it will help us focus our attention, just like going after bin Laden helped us focus our attention…
CLINTON: … in the fight against Al Qaida in the Afghanistan- Pakistan theater.
LAUER: Secretary Clinton, I am fast running out of time. I want to get to one of the concerns just about everybody in this country, and that is terror attacks on our soil.
LAUER: Either directed by ISIS or inspired by ISIS. Would your message as the next president of the United States or potential next president be to Americans that we simply are living in the reality that those attacks will happen? And can you guarantee people that after four years of a Clinton presidency, they will be safer on the streets of San Bernardino or Boston than they are today?
CLINTON: Well, Matt, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that that’s the result. I’m not going to, you know, promise something that I think most thinking Americans know is going to be a huge challenge, and here’s why. We’ve got to have an intelligence surge. 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.
We also have to do a better job combating ISIS online, where they recruit, where they radicalize. And I don’t think we’re doing as much as we can. We need to work with Silicon Valley. We need to work with our experts in our government. We have got to disrupt, we have got to take them on in the arena of ideas that, unfortunately, pollute and capture the minds of vulnerable people. So we need to wage this war against ISIS from the air, on the ground, and online, in cyberspace.
And here at home, for goodness’s sakes, we have to finally pass a law prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from being able to buy a gun in the United States of America. So we’ve got work to do. I know we can do that work. I’m meeting with a group of terror experts, counterterrorism experts.
But I want to just say one additional thing.
LAUER: I’ve got 30 seconds left.
CLINTON: Matt Olsen, the former director of the National Center on Counterterrorism, has a great article out today saying the last thing we need to do is to play into the hands of ISIS. Going after American Muslims, defaming a Gold Star family, the family of Captain Khan, making it more difficult for us to have a coalition with Muslim majority nations…
LAUER: And we tried to have an agreement…
CLINTON: … that is not going to help us to succeed in defeating ISIS and protecting our American homeland.
LAUER: Secretary Hillary Clinton, thank you very much.
CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you all.
Thank you so much. Too short a time.
LAUER: I know. We’re going to take a break. We’re going to have much more with her competitor, Donald Trump, right after this. You’re watching NBC News special, the Commander-in-Chief Forum.
LAUER: We welcome you back now to this NBC News special, the Commander-in-Chief Forum. Tonight we’re speaking with the two major party presidential nominees to find out where they stand on the critical issues. Now, please welcome the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.
LAUER: Good to see you.
TRUMP: Thank you, Matt.
LAUER: Thank you very much for joining us.
TRUMP: Thank you.
LAUER: You heard me say to Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and it didn’t completely work out toward the end there, as much as possible I’d like you to tell our veterans and our people at home why you are prepared for the role of commander-in-chief and try to keep the attacks to a minimum. We’ve had a year of that and maybe 60 more days of it.
TRUMP: To a minimum, absolutely.
LAUER: OK, perfect. To a minimum. I guess that’s a question of definition.
TRUMP: I guess.
LAUER: Any time you interview a president, sitting or past president, they will tell you that the most daunting…
TRUMP: Was I supposed to answer this question?
LAUER: No, no, no, I mean just keep the attacks to a minimum. Any time you talk to a president, they’ll tell you the most daunting part of the job is the role of commander-in-chief.
TRUMP: Right. LAUER: What have you experienced in your personal life or your professional life that you believe prepares you to make the decisions that a commander-in-chief has to make?
TRUMP: Well, I’ve built a great company. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve dealt with foreign countries. I’ve done very well, as an example, tremendously well dealing with China and dealing with so many of the countries that are just ripping this country. They are just taking advantage of us like nobody’s ever seen before.
And I’ve had great experience dealing on an international basis. I look today and I see Russian planes circling our planes. They’re taunting us. I see in Iran, I see the boats taunting our ships, our destroyers, and I think…
LAUER: But what have you done in your life that prepares you to send men and women of the United States into harm’s way?
TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that.
And I was against the war in Iraq because I said it’s going to totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has. It has absolutely been a disastrous war, and by the way, perhaps almost as bad was the way Barack Obama got out. That was a disaster.
LAUER: People talk about you and commander-in-chief, and not just Secretary Clinton, but some of your Republican opponents in the primary season, and they wonder about your temperament. They say, does Donald Trump have the temperament to be commander-in-chief?
You said something recently that I found interesting. You admitted that sometimes in the heat of a debate or when you’re talking about a lot of issues you say things that you later regret. So can we afford that with a commander-in-chief — to have a commander-in-chief who says things that he later regrets?
TRUMP: Well, when you say regret, yeah, sure, I regret. But in the meantime, I beat 16 people and here I am. So, you know, to a certain extent there is a regret. I would have liked to have done it in a nicer manner. But I had 16 very talented people that I had to go through. And that was a lot of people.
LAUER: But when you say…
TRUMP: That was a record, Matt. That was a record in the history of Republican politics. I was able to get more votes than anybody ever has gotten in the history of Republican politics.
LAUER: But when you say inflammatory things… (CROSSTALK)
LAUER: … in a presidential campaign, it’s different than saying them when you’re commander-in-chief. If you say things you regret…
TRUMP: I agree with you.
LAUER: … when you’re commander-in-chief, you can spark a conflict, you can destabilize a region, you can put American lives at risk. Can we afford to take that risk with you?
TRUMP: Well, I think absolutely. I think if you saw what happened in Mexico the other day, where I went there, I had great relationships, everything else. I let them know where the United States stands. I mean, we’ve been badly hurt by Mexico, both on the border and with taking all of our jobs or a big percentage of our jobs.
And if you look at what happened, look at the aftermath today where the people that arranged the trip in Mexico have been forced out of government. That’s how well we did.
LAUER: Back in August…
TRUMP: And that’s how well we’re going to have to do, Matt.
LAUER: Back in August, when you admitted that you regret some of the things you said, you also said this. “I can promise you this: I will always tell you the truth.”
TRUMP: It’s true.
LAUER: So let me read some of the things you’ve said. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” Was that the truth?
TRUMP: Well, the generals under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not been successful. ISIS…
LAUER: Do you know more about ISIS than they do?
TRUMP: I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country. You have a force of 30,000 or so people. Nobody really knows. But probably 30,000 people. And I can just see the great — as an example- General George Patton spinning in his grave as ISIS we can’t beat. We had the greatest…
LAUER: Yeah, you’ve said if we had MacArthur today or if we had Patton today, we would not have ISIS, that the rise of these military commanders that we have today, they come up the chain of command, and by the time they get to the top, they’re too politically correct. And we know that’s not a compliment coming from you. Have you lost faith in the military commanders?
TRUMP: I have great faith in the military. I have great faith in certain of the commanders, certainly. But I have no faith in Hillary Clinton or the leadership. You look at what’s happened. And, you know, when she comes in and starts saying, oh, I would have done this, I would have — she’s been there for 30 years. I mean, we need change, Matt. We have to have it, and we have to have it fast.
LAUER: Let’s go to Hallie Jackson in our crowd. Hallie?
JACKSON: I’m with Phillip Clay (ph), who was a public affairs officer in the Marine Corps. He spent a year in Anbar province in Iraq. He left the military with the rank of captain, service that inspired him to write a book. He’s a Democrat, and he has this question for you, Mr. Trump.
QUESTION: Mr. Trump, over the past 15 years, a lot of U.S. troops have bled and died securing towns and provinces from Iraq to Afghanistan, only to have insurgent groups like ISIS spring back the moment we leave. Now, you’ve claimed to have a secret plan to defeat ISIS. But you’re hardly the first politician to promise a quick victory and a speedy homecoming. So assuming we do defeat ISIS, what next? What is your plan for the region to ensure that a group like them doesn’t just come back?
TRUMP: Sure. I mean, part of the problem that we’ve had is we go in, we defeat somebody, and then we don’t know what we’re doing after that. We lose it, like as an example, you look at Iraq, what happened, how badly that was handled. And then when President Obama took over, likewise, it was a disaster. It was actually somewhat stable. I don’t think could ever be very stable to where we should have never gone into in the first place.
But he came in. He said when we go out — and he took everybody out. And really, ISIS was formed. This was a terrible decision. And frankly, we never even got a shot. And if you really look at the aftermath of Iraq, Iran is going to be taking over Iraq. They’ve been doing it. And it’s not a pretty picture.
The — and I think you know — because you’ve been watching me I think for a long time — I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil. If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil.
LAUER: How were we going to take the oil? How were we going to do that?
TRUMP: Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. They have — people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves in the world, in the entire world.
And we’re the only ones, we go in, we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.
One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is ISIS would not have been able to take oil and use that oil…
LAUER: Let me stay on ISIS…
TRUMP: … to fuel themselves.
LAUER: Let me stay on ISIS. When we’ve met in the past and we’ve talked, you say things like I’m going to bomb the expletive out of them very quickly. And when people like me press you for details like that gentleman just said on what your plan is, you very often say, I’m not going to give you the details because I want to be unpredictable.
TRUMP: Absolutely. The word is unpredictable.
LAUER: But yesterday, you actually told us a little bit about your plan in your speech. You said this. Quote, “We’re going to convene my top generals and they will have 30 days to submit a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” So is the plan you’ve been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?
TRUMP: No. But when I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine, or maybe doesn’t — I may love what the generals come back with. I will convene…
LAUER: But you have your own plan?
TRUMP: I have a plan. But I want to be — I don’t want to — look. I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.
LAUER: But you’re going to…
TRUMP: And let me tell you, if I like maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan, or the generals’ plan, if I like their plan, Matt, I’m not going to call you up and say, “Matt, we have a great plan.” This is what Obama does. “We’re going to leave Iraq on a certain day.”
LAUER: But you’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do.
TRUMP: Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m looking at the generals, today, you probably saw, I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today.
LAUER: It’s a numbers game. Hillary Clinton claims more numbers.
TRUMP: Well, it’s not really — it’s not — yeah, numbers. People that have been losing for us for a long period of time. I mean, the fact is, we have had the worst and you could even say the dumbest foreign policy. Our results are so bad. We would have been better off had we never, ever spent $2 in that part of the world.
LAUER: You recently — you recently received two intelligence briefings.
TRUMP: Yes, I did.
LAUER: Did anything in that briefing, without going into specifics, shock or alarm you?
TRUMP: Yes. Very much so.
LAUER: Did you learn new things in that briefing?
TRUMP: First of all, I have great respect for the people that gave us the briefings. We — they were terrific people. They were experts on Iraq and Iran and different parts of — and Russia. But, yes, there was one thing that shocked me. And it just seems to me that what they said President Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who is another total disaster, did exactly the opposite.
LAUER: Did you learn anything in that briefing — again, not going into specifics — that makes you reconsider some of the things you say you can accomplish, like defeating ISIS quickly?
TRUMP: No, I didn’t learn anything from that standpoint. What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly — when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason — what our experts said to do. LAUER: Hallie?
TRUMP: And I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance. And I could tell you. I have pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.
JACKSON: I’m with former Army Captain Sue Fulton, who was a member of the First West Point class to include women. She served as a signal corps officer in Germany.
She’s a Democrat, and she has this question for you, Mr. Trump.
QUESTION: Mr. Trump.
TRUMP: Hi, thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you. Do you believe that an undocumented person who serves — who wants to serve in the U.S. armed forces deserves to stay in this country legally?
TRUMP: I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a very special situation, and I could see myself working that out, absolutely.
LAUER: So she’s saying has already served in the armed forces or wants to serve, plans to serve?
QUESTION: Plans to serve. Plans to serve in the armed forces. As you know, under DACA, we already have people who are undocumented who are serving.
TRUMP: I think military is a very special thing. If they plan on serving, if they get in, I would absolutely hold those people — now, we have to be very careful. We have to vet very carefully. Everybody would agree with that. But the answer is, it would be a very special circumstance, yes. Thank you.
LAUER: Thank you very much for your question. Hallie, you have another one?
JACKSON: I do. Alex Gronkowski (ph) was an Army staff sergeant assigned in special operations. He was stationed at Fort Bragg and was deployed to Afghanistan and other places across the Middle East. He has not decided who he will vote for yet in November. And you have a question for Mr. Trump.
QUESTION: I do. Mr. Trump, as you know, tensions between the United States and Russia have been at the highest level since the Cold War. In your first 120 days of presidency, how would you de-escalate the tensions? And more importantly, what steps would you take to bring Mr. Putin and the Russian government back to negotiating table? TRUMP: I think I would have a very good relationship with many foreign leaders. I think it’s very sad, when you look at Barack Obama, as an example, lands Air Force One in China, and they don’t want to put out stairs to get off the plane. And he has to use the stairs that mechanics use to get up and down to fix the plane. They wouldn’t give him stairs.
I think it’s very sad, when he lands in Saudi Arabia, and he lands in Cuba, and there aren’t high officials to even greet him. This is the first time in the history — the storied history of Air Force One.
I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin. And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.
As I said, take a look today. Take a look at what happened with their fighter jets circling one of our aircraft in a very dangerous manner. Somebody said less than 10 feet away. This is hostility.
And I saw, just two or three days ago, they looked like they were not exactly getting along, but I looked at President Obama and Putin staring at each other. These were not two people that were getting along.
And, you know, the beautiful part of getting along, Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?
LAUER: Let me ask you about some of the things you’ve said about Vladimir Putin. You said, I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said it’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond.
TRUMP: Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here. Look, look…
LAUER: 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 according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers…
TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?
LAUER: But do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer? TRUMP: 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. You look at what’s happening to our country, you look at the depleted military. You look at the fact that we’ve lost our jobs. We’re losing our jobs like we’re a bunch of babies. We’re going to take back our country, Matt. The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.
LAUER: But the fact that you say you can get along with him, do you think the day…
TRUMP: I think I’d be able to get along with him.
LAUER: Do you think the day that you become president of the United States, he’s going to change his mind on some of these key issues?
TRUMP: Possibly. It’s possible. I don’t know, Matt. It’s possible. And it’s not going to have any impact. If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country.
Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country. We have a country where you have Hillary Clinton with her e-mails that nobody’s ever seen where she deletes 33,000 e-mails, and that’s after getting a subpoena from Congress. If you do that in private business, you get thrown in jail.
JACKSON: Steve Korea (ph), here with me, was in the Army Reserves and spent 10 months in Iraq right at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a Republican and has this question for you.
QUESTION: Good evening, Mr. Trump.
QUESTION: I like what you say about supporting veterans and how they’re important. But I haven’t heard what the actual plans are to continue that support beyond words. How do you translate those words to action after you take office?
TRUMP: Well, I love that question, because I’ve been very close to the vets. You see the relationship I have with the vets just by looking at the polls. In fact, today a poll came out. And my relationship has been very good.
I have a very, very powerful plan that’s on my website that you possibly saw. One of the big problems is the wait time. Vets are waiting six days, seven days, eight days. And by the way, Hillary Clinton six months ago said the vets are being treated essentially just fine, there’s no real problem, it’s over-exaggerated. She did say that.
LAUER: No, no, she went on after that and laid out a litany of problems within the V.A.
TRUMP: Look, I mean, she made up half of the things she said about me. I’m telling you, this is — she said she was satisfied with what was going on in the Veterans Administration.
Now, under my plan, if you’ve got to wait — and, by the way, people are dying on line. They’re dying, waiting, waiting to get to see a doctor. They’re waiting five days and six days.
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 or just a prescription. And they end up dying because they can’t get to see the doctor. We will pay the bill. They go outside, they get a doctor, they get a prescription, they do what they have to do, and we pay the bill.
That is something that I have been praised — and, by the way, I never said take the V.A. — take the Veterans Administration private. I wouldn’t do that. Too much respect for our people. I would never do that.
TRUMP: I heard it was said that I said that. I would not do that. But I do believe — I do believe, when you’re waiting in line for six, seven days, you should never be in a position like that. You go out, you see the doctor, you get yourself taken care of.
LAUER: Hallie, you’ve got another question.
JACKSON: I do. Rachel Fredericks (ph), who specialized in aviations operations in the Marine Corps, serving stateside, she lost two friends to suicide. And you now struggle yourself with PTSD. She’s a Republican, but leaning towards you, still undecided a little bit. Rachel, you have a question for Mr. Trump.
QUESTION: I do. Mr. Trump, I wanted to ask what your plan will be to stop 20 veterans a day from killing themselves.
TRUMP: And actually it’s 22. And it’s almost impossible to conceive that this is happening in our country, 20 to 22 people a day are killing themselves. A lot of it is they’re killing themselves over the fact that they can’t — they’re under tremendous pain and they can’t see a doctor.
We’re going to speed up the process. We’re going to create a great mental health division. They need help. They need help. They need tremendous help. And we’re doing nothing for them.
The V.A. is really almost, you could say, a corrupt enterprise. If you look at what’s going on, as an example, Matt, in Arizona, where they caught people stealing, and they can’t even do anything about it, they can’t even fire the people. So we are going to make it efficient and good. And if it’s not good, you’re going out to private hospitals, public hospitals, and doctors. Thank you very much.
LAUER: Hallie, one more?
JACKSON: Donald Day (ph) here, who served as a radio operator in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam era. He had tours of duty in Southeast Asia and in Europe. He’s also a Democrat and has this question for you.
QUESTION: Mr. Trump, I have a daughter who is interested in joining the service, but when she researched the military, she saw the stats on sexual assault and decided not to go. I have a concern about the rape of women in our armed forces. As president, what specifically would you do to support all victims of sexual assault in the military?
TRUMP: It’s a great question. And it’s a massive problem. The numbers are staggering, hard to believe, even. But we’re going to have to run it very tight. I at the same time want to keep the court system within the military. I don’t think it should be outside of the military. But we have to come down very, very hard on that.
And your daughter is absolutely right, it is a massive problem. But we have to do something about that problem. And the best thing we can do is set up a court system within the military. Right now, the court system practically doesn’t exist. It takes too long.
LAUER: In 2013, on this subject, you tweeted this, quote, “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military, only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?”
TRUMP: Well, it is — it is — it is a correct tweet. There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct. And we need to have a…
LAUER: So this should have been expected? And does that mean the only way to fix it is to take women out of the military?
TRUMP: Well, it’s happening, right? And, by the way, since then, it’s gotten worse. No, not to take them out, but something has to be happen. Right now, part of the problem is nobody gets prosecuted. You have reported and — the gentleman can tell you, you have the report of rape and nobody gets prosecuted. There are no consequence.
When you have somebody that does something so evil, so bad as that, there has to be consequence for that person. You have to go after that person. Right now, nobody’s doing anything. Look at the small number of results. I mean, that’s part of the problem.
LAUER: So many of the issues that we’ve talked about with you, Mr. Trump, tonight, and Secretary Clinton, are so complex that even career military people and career diplomats and politicians have trouble getting their arms around them.
LAUER: You’ve had a very different background, in business. So nobody would expect you to have taken over the last 20 years really deep dives into some of these issues. But I’m curious about what you’re doing now. What kind of research are you doing now? What kind of homework are you doing? What kind of things are you reading as you prepare for the day in two months where you might be elected the next president of the United States?
TRUMP: Sure. Well, in the front row, you have four generals. You have admirals. We have people all throughout the audience that I’m dealing with. Right here is a list that was just printed today of 88 admirals and generals that I meet with and I talk to.
LAUER: How much time are you spending on this?
TRUMP: I’m also — a lot. A lot. And I’m doing a lot of different things. Don’t forget, we’re running a big campaign. We’re doing very well. I’m also, you know, and I’m very much giving it to my children and my executives to run, I’m also partially running a business. I’m campaigning, I’m running a business. I’ve got a lot of hats right now.
But we’re doing very well. But in the meantime, I am studying. And I’m meeting constantly — you see — you see General Flynn and you see some of the folks that we have, and they’re scattered throughout the audience. So we have admirals, we have generals, we have colonels. We have a lot of people that I respect.
And I think I’ve learned a lot. But I think, also, I certainly — I really feel I have a common sense on the various issues that you’re talking about, Matt.
LAUER: You said in the speech today, you said history shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is the greatest.
TRUMP: And we’re not prepared.
LAUER: Will you be prepared on day one, if you’re elected president of the United States, to tackle these complex national security issues?
TRUMP: One hundred percent. Hey, Matt, again, she made a mistake on Libya. She made a terrible mistake on Libya. And the next thing, I mean, not only did she make the mistake, but then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you know what out of Gadhafi. I mean, she made a terrible mistake on Libya. And part of it was the management aftereffect. I think that we have great management talents, great management skills. LAUER: But you are prepared?
TRUMP: And I have to tell you — totally prepared. But remember this. I found this subject and these subjects of interest all of my life, Matt. This hasn’t been over the last 14 months. I’ve found these substantiates of tremendous interest. That’s why they were asking me about Iraq 14 years ago. They were asking me these questions. They don’t ask businesspeople those questions.
LAUER: Let me end in kind of the same place I started. Have you given much thought, Mr. Trump, if you’re elected president and commander-in-chief, to that moment where you’re going to have to make that first decision that puts American men and women in harm’s way?
TRUMP: I think it’s the most difficult decision you can possibly ever make. You’re talking about death. And we’re talking death to not just our side. We’re talking death all over. I would be very, very cautious. I think I’d be a lot slower. She has a happy trigger. You look, she votes for the wars, she goes in Libya…
LAUER: Have you thought about personally the emotional burden of that moment?
TRUMP: I think it’s a tremendous burden. I think there is no greater burden that anybody could have. I’ve been preparing this for a long time. And, you know, my theme is make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. But, Matt, we’ve also got to make America strong again. And right now, we are not strong. Believe me. We have a depleted military. We have the greatest people in the world in our military. But it is very sadly depleted.
LAUER: The Republican nominee for president of the United States, Donald Trump.
TRUMP: Thank you, Matt.
LAUER: Thank you.
We’re going to be much — we’ll be back with much more from the Intrepid carrier on this Commander-in-Chief Forum right after this.
LAUER: There’s a lot of people we want to thank for making tonight a success, the presidential nominees themselves, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We want to thank the many veterans in our audience for their questions and, most importantly, for their service. We want to thank our hosts at the IAVA, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and, of course, the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, this amazing venue.
The first presidential debate will be held on September 26th right here on NBC. It’ll be hosted by my colleague, Lester Holt. We hope you’ll tune in for that. And more importantly, we hope you get out and vote this November. Nothing could be more important.
Thank you for joining us tonight. For Matt Lauer — I’m Matt Lauer. For all of us at NBC News, we appreciate your tuning in.