Donald Trump sought to allay voter concerns about his temperament Wednesday as Hillary Clinton tried to assure Americans that her mistakes in handling national security email should not undercut their trust in her capacity to lead the nation.
In a scrappy prelude to their upcoming debates, the rival presidential nominees appeared back-to-back at an NBC News town hall in New York, highlighting their differences on turmoil in the Middle East and other matters of concern to the military audience.
Trump renewed his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Republican, who has wavered on whether he would commit to defending NATO allies under attack by Russia, argued that Putin was more effective than President Obama and that the Russian leader’s compliments of Trump would not affect their relationship.
“The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact,” Trump said. “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.… 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.”
Trump also stood by his 2013 comment on Twitter about the frequency of sexual assault in the military: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military — only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
“It is a correct tweet,” Trump said when Matt Lauer, the “Today” show anchor who moderated the forum, asked about it. “There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct.”
Trump was immediately slammed on social media for defending the tweet.
Asked whether the solution was to keep women from serving in the military, Trump said no.
Trump also stood by his inaccurate claims that he opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Libya, and he defended his comment that he understands the Islamic State terrorist group better than U.S. generals do.
“Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble,” Trump said. “They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing to our country.”
Islamic State never would have gained power in Syria and Iraq if the U.S. had occupied Iraq’s oilfields at the end of the Iraq war, he argued.
“We spend 3 trillion dollars, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is we get nothing,” Trump said. “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.”
Asked how that could be done, Trump said: “You would leave a certain group behind, and you would take various sections where they have the oil.”
Clinton, who appeared before Trump, spent the better part of her half-hour explaining how she handled classified materials during her four years as secretary of State. The Democratic presidential nominee expressed regret about using a private email server and insisted she never compromised national security.
“There is no evidence my account was hacked,” she said.
When traveling abroad, Clinton said, she took precautions including ducking into a portable tent to view classified materials to ensure no cameras were snooping.
“I take it very seriously,” she said. “Always have, always will.”
After months of casting Trump as reckless and dangerous, Clinton argued that “rock-solid steadiness” was one of the most important characteristics of a good commander in chief, along with strength and judgment.
Laying out her strategy for combating Islamic State, Clinton said she would not allow the U.S. to be mired in another war in the Middle East.
“We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria,” she said.
Asked about her vote for the Iraq war while she was a U.S. senator from New York, Clinton reminded the audience that she regretted the decision, while Trump still insists he was opposed to the invasion despite evidence to the contrary.
“I have taken responsibility for my decision,” Clinton said. “He has refused to take responsibility for his support.”
Clinton reiterated her support for the nuclear deal with Iran, saying enforcing the agreement would give her a freer hand to deal with the country’s ballistic missile tests and support for terrorism.
“I would rather be dealing with Iran on all of those issues, without having them racing to a nuclear weapon,” she said.
Clinton pledged to hold weekly meetings in the Oval Office to ensure veterans were receiving adequate healthcare, but said she would oppose any attempts to privatize hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“There is an agenda out there ... to do just that,” she said. “I think that would be disastrous for our military veterans.”
The event, televised live, was organized by the nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It was held aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, now home to a museum on the Hudson River in New York.
Some of Trump’s highest-profile controversies have centered on the military and veterans. Last year, he insulted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, by saying he prefers heroes who “weren’t captured.” Trump refused to endorse McCain last month against a primary challenger who was a vocal Trump supporter.
Trump also lashed out at the family of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who died in Iraq, after Khan’s father criticized Trump in an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention. Trump’s repeated attacks on the Khan family were widely criticized and came amid a stretch of behavior so erratic, even by the standards of his unorthodox campaign, that top Republicans were said to be exploring alternatives should he leave the race.
Since then, Trump has overhauled his campaign leadership and appears to have moved on from the Khans and begun sticking to his core issues of immigration and trade on the campaign trail.
Polls show Trump has more support from the military community.
Trump leads 55% to 36% among veterans and active-duty service members, according to a new NBC/SurveyMonkey poll. The same poll showed Clinton with an overall lead among registered voters, 48% to 42%.
Clinton had the advantage when registered voters were asked which candidate was better equipped to handle nuclear weapons, leading 44% to 24%. Trump has caused alarm among nuclear experts with his loose talk about nuclear war.
It’s a message Clinton’s campaign and her allies have tried to hammer home, portraying Trump as too unstable and erratic to oversee the country’s arsenal.
Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Clinton, is spending $5 million on a new television advertisement in swing states to criticize Trump’s statements on war and nuclear weapons.
7:30 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump’s appearance at the town hall.
5:55 p.m.: This story was updated with Clinton’s appearance at the town hall.
4:40 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump’s speech in Philadelphia.
This story was originally published at 6:45 a.m.