September 7, 2016
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton squared off on military and veterans issues in separate appearances at a “commander in chief” forum in New York.
Hosted by NBC, the event was held on the decommissioned USS Intrepid, now a floating museum. Today show anchor Matt Lauer was the moderator.
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.
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, 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.