NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump battled Wednesday over their judgment and preparation to be commander in chief at a forum that sounded the starting gun for the final stretch of the presidential race and offered a potential preview of what are expected to be rollicking debates in the weeks to come.
In back-to-back appearances at a forum focused on national security here, Clinton offered herself as a model of “absolute rock steadiness” on foreign policy while Trump promised to be a disruptive force for improvement, saying that under President Obama even the military’s generals have been “reduced to rubble.”
While Clinton appeared serious and even stilted as she sometimes awkwardly navigated tough questions about her use of a private email server while secretary of state and her vote for the Iraq war in the Senate, Trump offered no such restraint with a series of controversial statements.
He reaffirmed his view that having men and women serve alongside one another is the root of sexual assaults in the military. He said recent intelligence briefings he has received have convinced him that Clinton and other Obama administration officials did not heed the advice of experts. And he defended his mutual admiration with Russian president Vladimir Putin, even suggesting he is more worthy of his praise than President Obama.
“Do you want me to start naming some of the things President Obama does at the same time?” Trump said when asked to defend some of Putin’s aggressions on the world stage. He also said that an alliance with Putin would help defeat the Islamic State. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS?”
Ahead of Wednesday’s forum, Trump delivered a speech in Philadelphia in which he called for a robust expansion of U.S. military capabilities and an end to budget sequestration on defense spending.
“As soon as I take office, I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military. It is so depleted. We will rebuild our military,” Trump said during the speech at the Union League in Philadelphia. “This will increase certainty in the defense community as to funding and will allow military leaders to plan for our future defense needs.”
Trump’s address represented his most substantive and comprehensive plan on national security to date — part of an ongoing effort to assuage doubts that he lacks a sufficient understanding of policy issues to assume the presidency. Reading from prepared remarks, Trump spoke about modernizing the military’s equipment and increasing the size of the armed forces.
Clinton spent the earlier part of her segment of the forum defending the email controversy, as well of her handling of classified material, which she insisted she did responsibly.
And she acknowledged that her vote to authorize force in Iraq, while a senator from New York, was a mistake. But Clinton said she had learned from the decision and chided Trump for saying he opposed the war from the outset despite statements to the contrary.
“I have taken responsibility for my decision,” Clinton said. “He refuses to take responsible for his support.”
The forum, broadcast by MSNBC and NBC stations and hosted by Matt Lauer of the “Today” show, was billed as a discussion of the most important issues facing the nation’s next commander-in-chief. Clinton and Trump appeared consecutively before a live audience of active-duty and military veterans — a group that traditionally skews Republican — at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York at an event hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The forum was scheduled ahead of three more traditional debates between the two major-party candidates, the first of which is scheduled for Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
Both Clinton and Trump were asked early in their segments not to attack their opponent — and both drew admonishments from Lauer for ignoring him.
Clinton, for example, chided Trump for proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country, saying “that is not going to help us succeed in defeating ISIS.”
And Trump accused Clinton of having a “happy trigger,” a suggestion that she is too eager to insert the United States into international conflicts.
The United State’s involvement in Iraq was a prominent part of both segments.
Clinton argued that the war was one area where she and Trump shared positions: “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,” Clinton said. “There was a mistake. 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.”
As he has in the past, Trump insisted that he did not support President Bush’s invasion in 2003, despite evidence to the contrary. The businessman brushed off Lauer’s attempts to suggest otherwise.
During his segment, Trump also defended a tweet that he posted three years ago that stated the estimated number of unreported sexual assaults in the military and then mused: “What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
“Well, it is, it is a correct tweet,” Trump said when asked about the tweet by Lauer. “There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct … Well, well, it’s happening, right? And, by the way, since then, it’s gotten worse.”
When asked what he’d learned from his intelligence briefings since becoming the Republican nominee, Trump said that Obama and others “what our experts said to do.“
“And I was very, very surprised,” he added. “In almost every instance, and I could tell, I have pretty good with the body language, I could tell, they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.”
Trump also defended his relationship with Putin, saying: “I think I would have a very, very good relationship what Putin and I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.”
Trump denied that mutual admiration between him and the Russian leader would benefit Russia in its dealings with the United States.
“It’s not going to get him anything,” Trump said. “I’m a negotiator.”
During her segment, Clinton defended her use of classified information, insisting that she never sent or received any documents on her private email server that were properly marked as classified.
Clinton was pressed with questions on the issue almost immediately forum got underway.
“Classified material has a header that says ‘top secret,’ ‘secret,’ ‘confidential,’” Clinton said. “None of the emails sent or received by me had such a header.”
The issue has bedeviled her campaign from the start, and one of the questions about it came from a veteran, who noted that if he had handled classified information in a way that was not permitted, he would have been prosecuted and jailed.
“I communicated about classified material on a wholly separate system,” Clinton said. “I took it very seriously.”
A poll released Wednesday showed Trump with a sizable lead among active-duty and military veterans.
Trump leads Clinton by 19 points — 55 percent to 36 percent — among voters who are currently serving or have previously served in the U.S. military, according to the an NBC News/SurveyMonkey tracking poll released Wednesday.
That’s a somewhat larger margin that two other recent national polls of military veterans since the Democratic convention. Trump led Clinton by 14 points in a a Fox News Poll and 11 points in a McClatchy-Marist poll.
The demographics of military veterans align closely with Trump’s strongest sources of support; More than 9 in 10 are men, and about 8 in 10 are white. In 2012, among military veterans, Republican Mitt Romney bested President Obama by about 20 points, according to exit polls.
The run-up to Wednesday’s forum featured intense jockeying from Clinton and Trump over which candidate is better suited to lead the military — with both sharply questioning the other’s temperament and judgment. During a campaign stop Tuesday in Tampa, Clinton said Trump had “no clue” about national security issues. Her campaign also released a new television ad Tuesday that used some of Trump’s past comments to try to call into question his commitment to military veterans and the sacrifice of military families.
Just minutes before the forum was set to begin, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Donald Trump has proven over and over again that he’s unfit to be our Commander-in-Chief.”
On Tuesday, Trump announced that he has been endorsed by 88 retired senior military officials. Not to be outdone, Clinton released a list Wednesday showing the support of 95 retired generals and admirals, more than any recent non-incumbent Democrat, her campaign said. Meanwhile, Clinton noted that Trump’s endorsement figure was more than 400 shy of the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
DelReal and Gearan reported from Washington. Scott Clement, Karen DeYoung, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Jenna Johnson, Abby Phillip and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.