Analyzing Trump And Clinton’s Missteps At NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum

Last night Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took the stage at the Intrepid Air And Space Museum in New York to talk about the military, foreign policy and America’s standing in the world. Here is a breakdown of the most puzzling, inaccurate and downright questionable moments from the NBC sponsored forum.

Here you can watch part one and part two of the forum. The War Zone commentary is seen in italics below the transcripted exchanges.

Trump answering questions aboard the USS Intrepid. , AP

Trump on what has prepared him to be Commander-in-Chief:

LAUER: But what have you done in your life that prepares you to send men and women of the United States into harm’s way?

TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that.

And I was against the war in Iraq because I said it’s going to totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has. It has absolutely been a disastrous war, and by the way, perhaps almost as bad was the way Barack Obama got out. That was a disaster.

TWZ: Saying you were against the war in Iraq in 2004 is like saying you are not a fan of Bill Cosby today. For a long time Trump claimed he was quoted as being against the war before the invasion began. This is not accurate.

Trump on the rise of ISIS and what he would do to keep won-back territory from devolving back into extremist hands:

QUESTION: Mr. Trump, over the past 15 years, a lot of U.S. troops have bled and died securing towns and provinces from Iraq to Afghanistan, only to have insurgent groups like ISIS spring back the moment we leave. Now, you’ve claimed to have a secret plan to defeat ISIS. But you’re hardly the first politician to promise a quick victory and a speedy homecoming. So assuming we do defeat ISIS, what next? What is your plan for the region to ensure that a group like them doesn’t just come back?

TRUMP: Sure. I mean, part of the problem that we’ve had is we go in, we defeat somebody, and then we don’t know what we’re doing after that. We lose it, like as an example, you look at Iraq, what happened, how badly that was handled. And then when President Obama took over, likewise, it was a disaster. It was actually somewhat stable. I don’t think could ever be very stable to where we should have never gone into in the first place.

But he came in. He said when we go out — and he took everybody out. And really, ISIS was formed. This was a terrible decision. And frankly, we never even got a shot. And if you really look at the aftermath of Iraq, Iran is going to be taking over Iraq. They’ve been doing it. And it’s not a pretty picture.

The — and I think you know — because you’ve been watching me I think for a long time — I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil. If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil.

LAUER: How were we going to take the oil? How were we going to do that?

TRUMP: Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. They have — people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves in the world, in the entire world.

And we’re the only ones, we go in, we spend $3 trillion, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then, Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, 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.

One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is ISIS would not have been able to take oil and use that oil to fuel themselves.

TWZ: This was a very convoluted reply, even for Trump. Not having a plan for when the fighting stops has dogged America’s foreign excursions abroad for a decade and a half, but Trump offers no solution of his own. Nor does he address the question he was asked. Leaving Iraq in 2011 was a disaster, but it did not really create ISIS. ISIS mutated out of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s brutal ideology, which has taken many guises. At one time it was famously called Al Qaeda in Iraq; a group turbocharged by very disgruntled Sunnis that were once Saddam loyalists. 

The exodus of US ground forces, air power and surveillance gave ISIS the vacuum it needed to expand across Iraq. But their seat of power is in Syria, and the pullout of US forces in Iraq has had little effect on the instability in Syria over the past half decade, where the Islamic State was incubated. Nor was it a major factor in the civil war in Syria that has turned into a proxy battle among global powers.  

As for “keeping the oil,” well that is nothing new from Trump and is maybe the biggest tell regarding his lack of foreign policy knowledge. The idea that the US should be some sort of conquering super-power is exactly the opposite image we need when it comes to enhancing our security. This is especially true since the war in Iraq was one of choice, not necessity. 

Trump on his “secret” war plan to eliminate ISIS:

LAUER: Let me stay on ISIS. When we’ve met in the past and we’ve talked, you say things like I’m going to bomb the expletive out of them very quickly. And when people like me press you for details like that gentleman just said on what your plan is, you very often say, I’m not going to give you the details because I want to be unpredictable.

TRUMP: Absolutely. The word is unpredictable.

LAUER: But yesterday, you actually told us a little bit about your plan in your speech. You said this. Quote, “We’re going to convene my top generals and they will have 30 days to submit a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” 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 convene…

LAUER: But you have your own plan?

TRUMP: I have a plan. But I want to be — I don’t want to — 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 day.”

LAUER: But you’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do.

TRUMP: Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m looking at the generals, today, you probably saw, I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today.

TWZ: Trump has no plan today just as he had no plan over a year ago. Pure snake oil. “Make me President and I will fix all your problems. I will tell you how, once you make me President!” 

The idea that keeping a broad idea of how he would confront the most pressing foreign policy issue of our time secret because he wants to be “unpredictable” is such a low-end excuse for having no solution it would be comical, if it weren’t so unnerving.

As for the makeup of Trump’s list of 88 generals and admirals that support him, well that too is questionable.

Trump on getting along with Russia:

QUESTION: Mr. Trump, as you know, tensions between the United States and Russia have been at the highest level since the Cold War. In your first 120 days of presidency, how would you de-escalate the tensions? And more importantly, what steps would you take to bring Mr. Putin and the Russian government back to negotiating table? 

TRUMP: I think I would have a very good relationship with many foreign leaders. I think it’s very sad, when you look at Barack Obama, as an example, lands Air Force One in China, and they don’t want to put out stairs to get off the plane. And he has to use the stairs that mechanics use to get up and down to fix the plane. They wouldn’t give him stairs.

I think it’s very sad, when he lands in Saudi Arabia, and he lands in Cuba, and there aren’t high officials to even greet him. This is the first time in the history — the storied history of Air Force One.

I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin. And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.

As I said, take a look today. Take a look at what happened with their fighter jets circling one of our aircraft in a very dangerous manner. Somebody said less than 10 feet away. This is hostility.

And I saw, just two or three days ago, they looked like they were not exactly getting along, but I looked at President Obama and Putin staring at each other. These were not two people that were getting along.

And, you know, the beautiful part of getting along, Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

TWZ: Trump’s claim that Russia just wants to destroy ISIS is a grotesque simplification of the situation in Syria and Russia’s actions related to it. 

Russia is all about propping up the Assad regime, and that means taking out anyone who challenges it, and yeah ISIS is in that pool. For instance, Russia’s primary air campaign in Syria that ran from October of last year through March of this year focused almost entirely on anti-Assad Syrian rebels, not on ISIS, although they were all referred to as either ISIS or terrorists by the Kremlin.

There is also a larger strategy put in play by Moscow to greatly increase Russian influence in the region. This includes establishing deeper ties with Iran, Turkey, Egypt and other countries, with goals that are not necessarily aligned with those of the US. So no it is not necessarily a “the more the merrier” when it comes to Russia’s use of military power in the region, it is one more of an “us or them,” choosing of sides mentality.

Yes, Russia states that it wants to work with the US in Syria, but there are major tactical issues that make doing so nearly impossible. Russia’s almost exclusive use of dumb bombs, even in urban areas, is a particular sticking point for instance. And really, Russia wants American intelligence above all else, including the whereabout of all the different players on the Syrian battlefield, including those that pose a threat to the Assad regime. Russia seems willing to do nearly anything to get this info, even staging bogus air raids on US-backed anti-ISIS rebels stationed nowhere near Assad’s forces. 

So no, Russia’s is not simply in Syria, or the region for that matter, to destroy ISIS. Not even close. 

Trump's silhouette against the NBC peacock. , AP

Trump on his bromance with Vladimir Putin:

LAUER: Let me ask you about some of the things you’ve said about Vladimir Putin. You said, I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said it’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond.

TRUMP: Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here. Look, look…

LAUER: He’s also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world, and according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers…

TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?

LAUER: But do you want to be complemented by that former KGB officer? 

TRUMP: Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK? The fact is, look, it’s not going to get him anywhere. I’m a negotiator. We’re going to take back our country. You look at what’s happening to our country, you look at the depleted military. You look at the fact that we’ve lost our jobs. We’re losing our jobs like we’re a bunch of babies. We’re going to take back our country, Matt. The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.

LAUER: But the fact that you say you can get along with him, do you think the day…

TRUMP: I think I’d be able to get along with him.

LAUER: Do you think the day that you become president of the United States, he’s going to change his mind on some of these key issues?

TRUMP: Possibly. It’s possible. I don’t know, Matt. It’s possible. And it’s not going to have any impact. If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country.

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. We have a divided country. We have a country where you have Hillary Clinton with her e-mails that nobody’s ever seen where she deletes 33,000 e-mails, and that’s after getting a subpoena from Congress. If you do that in private business, you get thrown in jail.

TWZ: Trump seems to judge people almost exclusively on the compliments they pay him and he is willing to send compliments right back regardless of the circumstances.The fact that Trump greatly admires Putin’s leadership and how strong a grip he has on his country is alarming as can be but it makes total sense. Like Putin, Trump would also like to go after media outlets that write negative things about him and be a strong man that can pretty much do whatever he wants. The harsh reality is that Putin is not that special in Trump’s eyes as he has a clear soft spot for many tyrants. But who cares right? Because his hats say he will make America great again!

Trump on preparing to be Commander In Chief:

LAUER: You’ve had a very different background, in business. So nobody would expect you to have taken over the last 20 years really deep dives into some of these issues. But I’m curious about what you’re doing now. What kind of research are you doing now? What kind of homework are you doing? What kind of things are you reading as you prepare for the day in two months where you might be elected the next president of the United States?

TRUMP: Sure. Well, in the front row, you have four generals. You have admirals. We have people all throughout the audience that I’m dealing with. Right here is a list that was just printed today of 88 admirals and generals that I meet with and I talk to.

LAUER: How much time are you spending on this?

TRUMP: I’m also — a lot. A lot. And I’m doing a lot of different things. Don’t forget, we’re running a big campaign. We’re doing very well. I’m also, you know, and I’m very much giving it to my children and my executives to run, I’m also partially running a business. I’m campaigning, I’m running a business. I’ve got a lot of hats right now.

But we’re doing very well. But in the meantime, I am studying. And I’m meeting constantly — you see — you see General Flynn and you see some of the folks that we have, and they’re scattered throughout the audience. So we have admirals, we have generals, we have colonels. We have a lot of people that I respect.

And I think I’ve learned a lot. But I think, also, I certainly — I really feel I have a common sense on the various issues that you’re talking about, Matt.

LAUER: You said in the speech today, you said history shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is the greatest.

TRUMP: And we’re not prepared.

LAUER: Will you be prepared on day one, if you’re elected president of the United States, to tackle these complex national security issues?

TRUMP: One hundred percent. Hey, Matt, again, she made a mistake on Libya. She made a terrible mistake on Libya. And the next thing, I mean, not only did she make the mistake, but then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you know what out of Gadhafi. I mean, she made a terrible mistake on Libya. And part of it was the management aftereffect. I think that we have great management talents, great management skills. LAUER: But you are prepared?

TRUMP: And I have to tell you — totally prepared. But remember this. I found this subject and these subjects of interest all of my life, Matt. This hasn’t been over the last 14 months. I’ve found these substantiates of tremendous interest. That’s why they were asking me about Iraq 14 years ago. They were asking me these questions. They don’t ask businesspeople those questions.

TWZ: When Trump announced well over a year ago I was jolted by how little he knew about foreign policy issues. Simple questions were replied to in some of the oddest “talk arounds” I have ever heard, often followed by statements of how well he knew the subject matter when clearly he didn’t. Still, he was a new candidate, and although I personally think you should have crammed enough to at least answer basic foreign policy and military related questions before asking the American populous to make you leader of the free world, I figured he would note this deficiency and rapidly get briefed on what he needed to know. 

This never happened. 

If anything else, it is amazing how little growth Trump has shown on this issue over the last year. Clearly he has not done his homework and figures he will just figure it all out if he is elected. If I am wrong, then he retains nothing of substance from any briefs or studying he has done or the material presented to him is of very poor quality. 

There is a systemic problem that likely aggravates Trump’s sedentary foreign policy knowledge base. It has become clear that Trump has a tiny inner circle, and reads news clippings from selected sources and watches TV to gain the vast majority his foreign policy info. The FP team he had, at least for show, was questionable too. 

General Michael Flynn, once in the running for his VP, has not lived up to expectations as Trump’s primary national security surrogate. The General also comes with his own baggage, but despite that, Trump even stated he planned on making Flynn Secretary of Defense were he elected, something that is impossible under federal law. 

Many will respond saying that Trump will rely on “the best generals” to make foreign policy calls. That is great! Having good people by your side is absolutely key. But if Presidents just took the advice of their highest ranking military advisors and ran with it every time throughout post WWII history we would have have used nuclear weapons many times, and cockroaches and mice would likely be about the only things running Washington DC today.

Sure, Trump will say “I am a businessman, nobody asks these questions of a businessman!” The problem is he has had his toes in the political arena for many years, and at the very least, he has had over a year to brush up. That has not happened and it shows a cavalier approach that is truly alarming.

Hillary Clinton addressing veterans on the USS Intrepid during the NBC Commander-in-Chief forum., AP

Clinton on classified emails:

LAUER: The word “judgment” has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year-and-a-half, and in particular concerning your use of your personal e-mail and server to communicate while you were secretary of state. You’ve said it’s a mistake.

CLINTON: Mm-hmm.

LAUER: You said you made not the best choice. You were communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying, if you want to be commander-in- chief?

CLINTON: Well, Matt, first of all, as I have said repeatedly, it was a mistake to have a personal account. I would certainly not do it again. I make no excuses for it. It was something that should not have been done.

But the real question is the handling of classified material, which is I think what the implication of your question was. And for all the viewers watching you tonight, 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 e-mails sent or received by me had such a header.

TWZ: This is inaccurate. Some of the emails, albeit a small number that we know of, were marked as some form as sensitive information. Additionally, many others contained information about classified programs, and we still don’t know about tens of thousands of other emails that were deleted prior to the investigation.

Clinton on learning by her mistakes:

LAUER: Obviously, it was not something you said you would do again. I asked before for people to raise their hand if you served in Iraq. Can you do it again? How do you think these people feel when the person running to be their commander-in-chief says her vote to go to war in Iraq was a mistake?

CLINTON: Look, 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. I also believe that it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes, like after-action reports are supposed to do, and so we must learn what led us down that path so that it never happens again. I think I’m in the best possible position to be able to understand that and prevent it.

TWZ: This is quite the statement, considering she went on to be the architect of the failed interventionist strategy in Libya – another war that seemed to have no solid plan as to what to do after a dictator had been toppled. Today Libya is a failed state, seething with factional hatred and violence. It is also a thriving operating area for Islamist groups like ISIS. So much so that the US has reengaged there militarily on a sizeable scale in recent weeks. The truth is that we had quietly conducted airstrikes and deployed special forces to Libya long before the recent series of kinetic actions. 

Libya is not only a mess but it has also destabilized the region, and has made northern Africa more unpredictable place than it once was. This is especially damning for Europe as Libya sits right across the Mediterranean from some of America’s closest allies. So Clinton’s claim that she learned the hard lesson from supporting the intervention in Iraq in 2003 rings hollow at best.

Clinton on her strategy to defeat ISIS:

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, as an Army veteran, a Commander-in- chief’s ability to empathize with service members and their families is important to me. The ability to truly understand implications and consequences of your decisions, actions, or inactions. How will you determine when and where to deploy troops directly into harm’s way, especially to combat ISIS?

LAUER: As briefly as you can.

CLINTON: We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. And we’ve got to do it with air power. We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They’ve taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They’ve got to hold them. They’ve got to now get into Mosul.

We’re going to work to make sure that they have the support — they have special forces, as you know, they have enablers, they have surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance help.

They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops. So those are the kinds of decisions we have to make on a case-by-case basis.

And, remember, when I became secretary of state, we had 200,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’m very grateful that we have brought home the vast majority of those. We have a residual force, as you know, in Afghanistan. We have built up several thousands of the folks that I’ve talked about who are assisting in the fight against ISIS.

But it is in our national security interest to defeat ISIS. And I intend to make that happen.

LAUER: Thank you very much for your question.

CLINTON: And as part of it, we’re going after Baghdadi, the leader, because it will help us focus our attention, just like going after bin Laden helped us focus our attention…

TWZ: First off, what does she think special operations forces are? I get it, she means regulars, infantry, artillery, logistics etc. but the truth is, those troops are also already deployed to Iraq and even dying in combat. So that statement is inaccurate to begin with even if she were to continue with Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy as-is.

The truth is that making such a blanket commitment could greatly hamper America’s options as the battle against ISIS continues to change. Air power has its limitations, especially without plenty of forward air controllers directing airstrikes from the ground. Additionally, even large groups of special operations forces need force protection under certain circumstances. Hillary Clinton above anyone else should know that relying on indigenous forces for this role exclusively can be disastrous (see: Benghazi). Also, why let the enemy know your limitations? Lay out a broad plan of what you would do, sure, but why take anything off the table by saying what you would not do? 

Oh and her comment about going after al Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s wily leader? The Obama Administration is almost certainly trying to snatch or kill this guy already. There is even a task force dispatched to Iraq for just this sort of operation, and they have been willing to go right into ISIS’s backyard before to go after lower ranking ISIS operatives

So what will a Clinton Administration do that the Obama Administration isn’t already doing in this regard? The answer is simple – nothing. But it sure sounds tough and really doesn’t commit anything that already isn’t in play. Truly a low-risk, high-reward statement. 

Gary Johnson appearing on Morning Joe today., Youtube Screencap

Finally, just to be fair, Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson, who is seen as a hopeful alternative to two candidates with historically high unfavorable ratings, had his own eyebrow raising moment while on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today.

Gary Johnson on the highly publicized war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo:

“What is Aleppo?”

Watch the whole crazy exchange below.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.