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Forum Offers Preview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Presidential Debate
Patrick Healy, NYT, Sep 7 2016

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Hillary Clinton vowed not to send Pindo grunts to Iraq “ever again” and Donald Duck insinuated that he had learned shocking new information involving Obama without ever revealing it, as the two candidates made back-to-back appearances Wednesday night at a forum that foreshadowed their highly anticipated debate later this month. Clinton, who was frequently put on the defensive by audience members asking questions about her judgment, sought to reassure voters that she would be a forceful and steady commander-in-chief, noting her role in the killing of Osama bin Laden and pledging that defeating Daesh was her “highest counter-terrorism goal.” She promised air power and other support to Arab and Muslim allies but added:

We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting them into Syria.

Trump was withering in his attacks on her record while vague about his own, and defensive about his shifting stands on the Iraq war over the years. He repeatedly declared that he was “100%” ready to handle national security issues, without being challenged, one of several instances when he made blunt assertions but provided no details. He was especially insistent in defending his praise of Putin, arguing that Putin had “an 82% approval rating” in his country. Trump said:

I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?

Of the two candidates, Clinton faced by far the tougher and most probing questions from the moderator, Matt Lauer of NBC, and from an audience of military veterans about her use of private email, her vote authorizing the Iraq war, her hawkish foreign policy views and other issues. She appeared stilted at first, particularly when one Republican, a veteran who had held a top-secret naval flight clearance, said he would have been “prosecuted and imprisoned” if he had handled classified information as she did on her private email server. He charged that she had “clearly corrupted our national security.” Clinton began:

I appreciate your concern and also your experience.

Clinton then launched into a lengthy explanation, describing the designations for classified material and how she had handled the most sensitive material “very seriously.” She said:

I did exactly what I should have done. Always have and always will.

The forum, which took place at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, served as a preview of sorts for the first Clinton-Trump debate set for Sep 26, with both candidates drawing differences over policy and testing out lines on national security and other issues. It was also a rare moment when Clinton and Trump all but appeared in the same room together, talking one after the other and facing the same audience and moderator. By the end of the night, the candidates offered a study in contrasts on substance and style. Clinton was far more specific than Trump in laying out her ideas to provide mental health care and create jobs for veterans, and she highlighted her extensive foreign policy experience as secretary of state and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. On body language, the two diverged as well. Clinton was far more likely to look audience members in the eye, nod along as they expressed concern or curiosity, and give relatively direct if sometimes uncomfortable answers. Trump came off as more relaxed but also far lighter on policy explanations, and he faced no questions about his past insults of veterans and their families or his own Vietnam-era draft deferments. It wasn’t the first debate, but at least Clinton and Trump were on the same stage on Wednesday, though not at the same time.

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Here’s how we analyzed tonight’s forum live. One of the most surprising moments of the night came when Trump chose to answer a question about the confidential national security briefings that he has recently begun to receive, a topic that presidents and presidential candidates rarely discuss with any openness. Trump, asked if he learned anything alarming, said, “There was one thing that shocked me.” He suggested that it involved a decision by Obama and Clinton that amounted to “a total disaster.” He then went further, asserting that Obama “did not follow what our experts” said to do, and even claimed that the government officials who provided the briefing were “not happy” with Obama. Explaining the basis of that assessment, Trump said, “I was pretty good with the body language.” It was a classic Trump moment, a dark insinuation without evidence and his campaign declined to provide details after the debate. Trump ridiculed Obama as much as he did Clinton during his 25-minute appearance, deriding the president over the recent diplomatic incident in China where local officials would not provide the requisite staircase for Air Force One. Trump said, “They wouldn’t give him stairs.” Both candidates also lamented the surge in suicides among veterans, with Clinton offering the most details and expressions of empathy over the problems of poor mental health care and the widespread use of painkillers for depression and other mental health problems. Clinton said:

I’ve spent a lot of time with family members, survivors, who have lost a loved one when he or she came home. We’ve got to remove the stigma.

Trump put the blame for suicide squarely on the Dept of Veterans’ Affairs, blasting it as “almost a corrupt enterprise” and saying:

They are under tremendous pain and they can’t see a doctor.

Several polls have shown Trump with a solid lead over Clinton among veterans, yet she has drawn an unusually strong number of endorsements from generals and admirals as well as national security experts who served under Republican presidents. Trump, who went to pains to point out that several generals in the audience were supporting him, has increasingly sought to position himself as the candidate of the military, aides say, in part to increase his chances of winning swing states like Florida and Virginia, where there are sizable numbers of veterans and military families. Earlier on Wednesday he called for a massive expansion of the military, including many thousands more troops for the Army for a total of 540,000 and increasing the number of Marine Corps battalions from 23 to 36. To do so, Trump said he would ask Congress to eliminate so-called sequestration caps on military spending that have forced the reduction of troops, budget limits that Trump had supported until recently. But in a sign of the relatively gentle questioning of Trump at the forum, no one challenged him over the chances that his proposals would come to pass. Democrats in Congress have stood firm against lifting the caps unless domestic spending is allowed to grow too. One of the few confrontations between the two candidates, albeit indirect, with Lauer pressing one after the other, came over the future of government-run veterans’ hospitals and other services. Clinton promised to improve services and then, in a potent warning to veterans and their family members, suggested that Trump would harm veterans’ services by putting them in the hands of private health providers. Clinton said:

I will not let the VA be privatized, and I do think there’s an agenda out there supported by my opponent to do just that.

Trump adamantly denied the charge, saying:

I never said take the Veterans Administration private. I have too much respect.

Yet Trump’s proposals would most likely prompt many veterans to choose private care and lead to a vastly smaller government health system for veterans. He said on Wednesday that veterans should be able to choose any private doctor or hospital rather than wait for treatment from veterans’ hospitals, and promised that the federal government would “pay the bill.” Such an option would cost many billions of dollars, yet Trump has not said how he would cover the costs beyond ending “waste, fraud and abuse at the VA.” It was one of several moments when Trump bobbed and weaved, a concern that Clinton advisers have about the coming debates if the moderators do not force him to back up his statements. He denigrated military generals during the forum, saying they had been “reduced to rubble” under Obama, but he was not pressed on those assertions. He did not back away from his 2013 Twitter post in which he suggested that the integration of women into the military had played a role in sexual assaults, saying:

It is a correct tweet.

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