Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton vied for the title of commander-in-chief on Wednesday, each touting their own experience while saying the other lacks the judgment and temperament to lead the nation's armed forces in perilous times.
Clinton, the former secretary of State, stressed her support of the 2011 raid that killed 9/11 plotter Osama bin Laden during a "Commander-in-Chief Forum" sponsored by NBC News and said she has the essential quality for the job of president: "Steadiness — an absolute rock steadiness, and mixed with strength."
The former first lady and U.S. senator also said it was "a mistake" to use private email while at the State Department, but denied suggestions that she mishandled classified information.
Trump, appearing after Clinton at the NBC/MSNBC forum, cited problems in the Middle East, China and elsewhere that he blamed on the policies of President Obama and his former secretary of state, Clinton.
"We need change," the New York businessman said, arguing that he will bring a "common sense" approach to the demands of being commander-in-chief.
During a national security speech earlier in the day, Trump attacked Clinton for her past support of military action in Iraq and Libya, saying that "she's trigger-happy and very unstable, whether we like it or not."
At the forum, Clinton called her vote in favor of the Iraq war a "mistake," but noted that Trump also initially supported the 2003 invasion and has shifted his position in the years since.
"I have taken responsibly for my decision," Clinton said. "He refuses to take responsibility for his support. That is a judgment issue."
Trump told the forum he was "totally against the war in Iraq" — contrary to some statements he made at the time — and added that "I have good judgment."
NBC News moderator Matt Lauer asked the candidates to discuss their own ideas and refrain from attacking their opponent, a request not always honored. The candidates, who had only 30 minutes apiece, also took questions from veterans invited to participate in the forum.
Regarding one dispute — the role of Vladimir Putin in global affairs — Trump said past praise from the Russian president will not affect his policy toward Russia. Trump also cited Putin's high approval rating in his country and said he has "been a leader far more than our president has been a leader."
Trump also said of Putin: "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him."
The Clinton campaign criticized Trump's "bizarre admiration" for Putin, saying in a statement that "his embrace of pro-Kremlin policies that undercut American interests and threaten our allies, and his campaign’s deep ties to Russia have been a cause for great alarm across the board."
Clinton, meanwhile, suggested Trump wants to "privatize" health services for veterans; Trump later said that's not true.
Trump, at one point, said the generals serving under Obama have been "reduced to rubble;" the Clinton camp accused him of attacking the military.
Both candidates pledged efforts to defeat the Islamic State.
In his speech earlier Wednesday, Trump proclaimed a goal of "Peace Through Strength," and told an invited crowd at Philadelphia's Union League club that he wants a foreign policy "focused on advancing America’s core national interests — so important — promoting regional stability and producing and easing the tensions within our very troubled world."
Trump, who cited endorsements from 88 generals and admirals on Tuesday, called for increased defense spending and an end to the automatic series of congressional budget cuts known as "sequestration" in his Wednesday remarks, saying that would permit the financing of more submarines, ships and troops.
The GOP candidate did not supply an overall cost estimate for his plans, though he said budget reforms and the collection of unpaid taxes would help finance them.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reported that Trump's plans would cost $150 billion, even if his cost offsets materialize.
Among his "military readiness" proposals:
- Demanding that other countries pay the U.S. for mutual defense projects, including demands that NATO meet its financial obligations and that wealthy nations like Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and South Korea contribute more money.
- Ordering the Pentagon to present a plan within 30 days of his inauguration to defeat and destroy the Islamic State.
- Increase the Army to around 540,000 troops, the Marine Corps to 36 battalions, the Navy to 350 surface ships and submarines and bolster the Air Force to at least 1,200 fighter aircraft.
- A "state of the art" missile defense system, including on naval cruises.
- Seek a thorough review of U.S. cyber defenses and detect potentially vulnerable spots on the power grid, communications systems and vital infrastructure.
That issue and a proposal to enforce classification rules enabled Trump to again taunt Clinton over her use of private email while at the State Department and the subsequent FBI investigation.
She "has taught us really how vulnerable we are to cyber hacking," Trump said, adding that it was "probably the only thing that we've learned from Hillary Clinton."
While trashing the Obama administration, Trump also criticized policies pursued by the Republican administration of George W. Bush. He decried nation building and attempts to spread democracy to other countries, citing the Iraq war as an example.
The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, unveiled a list of endorsements from 95 retired generals and admirals — most of whom had previously announced their support for the Democratic nominee — who cited her years as secretary of State and as a U.S. senator in contrast to the New York businessman who lacks experience in government and has attacked global allies as well as adversaries.
The Democratic presidential nominee "is the only candidate that has the experience, temperament, critical thinking and level-headed leadership to keep America safe and our partnerships strong," said Air Force Gen. Lloyd Newton.
As for Trump's attacks, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said the Republican candidate is reduced to "taunts and insults" because he cannot otherwise defend his own record. "You could dismiss these actions as insecure schoolyard behavior but this man is running to be president of the United States," she said.