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Commander in Chief Forum
Appearance by Hillary Clinton

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: 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.


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.


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.

CLINTON: Mm-hmm.

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.

CLINTON: Mm-hmm.

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.

LAUER: Hallie?

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.

LAUER: Hallie?

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 service members 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…

LAUER: Secretary…

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.