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Forum Presses Trump And Clinton On Voters' Key Concerns


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were on the same stage last night. First one, then the other took questions from NBC's Matt Lauer at a presidential campaign forum focused on national security issues. So let's do a little tasting - get a taste of what they said and what it meant. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line.

Hi, Mara.


INSKEEP: What caught your ear?

LIASSON: What was really interesting was this was a commander-in-chief forum. Hillary Clinton went first and a full one third of her segment was devoted to questions about the email controversy. This has clearly become a central character issue for her. She described herself as rock steady and ready to be commander in chief. But a questioner stood up and told her that she had, quote, "clearly corrupted national security with her handling of the emails." Here's what she had to say in that forum on NBC News last night.


HILLARY CLINTON: 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 emails sent or received by me had such a header.

LIASSON: According to the FBI notes of her interview, she didn't realize that some of the markings on those emails meant some of them were confidential. I think this just shows how hard it is for her to come up with a satisfying answer on these questions and how much she is still on the defensive at this point in the race.

INSKEEP: How did she answer on another subject, her vote in favor of the Iraq War?

LIASSON: Well, let's take a listen to what she said about Donald Trump on that.



CLINTON: 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.

MATT LAUER: Let me go to another...

CLINTON: He refuses to take responsibility for his support.

LAUER: Let me go to another question.

CLINTON: That is a judgment issue.

INSKEEP: Mara, what do you make of that?

LIASSON: Trump later denied that he was for the war, even though there is audio of him saying, at the time, that he was for it. But this is Hillary Clinton's essential argument against Donald Trump, that he doesn't tell the truth. She has the character and temperament to be commander in chief, and he doesn't.

INSKEEP: And we should just note because they had a difference of fact there, PolitiFact, the fact-checking organization, has come out repeatedly and said that Trump's claim that he was against the Iraq War before it happened was false. Now, what did they say about fighting ISIS, Mara? - I'll ask you. There is a dog bark somewhere the distance. We'll get the dog into this eventually.


INSKEEP: But what did they say about fighting ISIS?

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton was categorical about this. She said destroying ISIS is her top anti-terrorism goal. But it's going to happen without putting more U.S. troops on the ground. And this is one of the challenges for Hillary Clinton. She wants to project strength. She knows she has a high bar because she's running to be the first woman as commander in chief. She knows voters are worried about ISIS, but they're also sick of sending U.S. men and women to fight what looks like endless, futile wars. And she's running against an opponent who runs to the left and right of her at the same time. He accuses her of being trigger-happy, too quick to intervene abroad. But at the same time, he says, I'll get rid of ISIS right away.

INSKEEP: Well, what was the big challenge for Donald Trump on that stage talking about commander-in-chief issues?

LIASSON: He was asked, right off the bat, about whether the country can afford to have Trump as president when a president's words can spark a war and he has said so many controversial things. He pointed to the trip he took to Mexico last week as an answer. And here's what he said.


DONALD TRUMP: I let them know where the United States stands. I mean, we've been badly hurt by Mexico, both on the border and with taking all of our jobs, or a big percentage of our jobs. And if you look at what happened, look at the aftermath today where the people that arranged the trip in Mexico have been forced out of government. That's how well we did.

LIASSON: It's unclear what he was trying to say there, except the default position of Donald Trump always is that whatever he does is a success and he wins at everything. What actually happened is he went to Mexico. He gave a relatively restrained performance in the press conference there. But then, within hours, he was in a Twitter war with the president of Mexico.

INSKEEP: I just want to ask about one other thing here, Mara Liasson. Trump has said repeatedly he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS. Then he gave a speech the other day saying he was going to tell the generals, once elected, to come up with a plan to fight ISIS. Let's listen to an exchange on that last night.


LAUER: So is the plan you've been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?

TRUMP: No. But when I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine, or maybe doesn't, I may love what the generals come back with. I will...

LAUER: But you have your own plan?

TRUMP: I have a plan, but I want to be - I don't want - look, I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again - we're going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don't want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.

LAUER: But you're going to...

TRUMP: And let me tell you - if I like, maybe, a combination of my plan and the generals' plan, or the generals' plan - if I like their plan, Matt, I'm not going to call you up and say, Matt, we have a great plan. This is what Obama does. We're going to leave Iraq on a certain date...

LAUER: But you're going to...


LIASSON: Wow. In the past, Donald Trump has referred repeatedly to his secret plan as a, quote, "foolproof plan" that would, quote, "quickly and effectively achieve total victory against ISIS." Now we still don't know what his plan is other than to ask the generals, the same generals he also said last night had been, quote, "reduced to rubble" and that maybe he would be replacing all of them.

INSKEEP: One foolproof way to keep up on the campaign is to listen to NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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