NEW YORK — It was the first time Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had squared off on the same stage since accepting their parties’ presidential nominations in July for the Nov. 8 election.
Clinton was grilled over her handling of classified information while using a private email server during her tenure at the State Department. FBI Director James Comey had declared her “extremely careless” in her handling of sensitive material but did not recommend charges against her.
“I did exactly what I should have done and I take it very seriously, always have, always will,” she said.
Trump’s praise of Putin and his suggestion that the United States and Russia form an alliance to defeat Islamic State militants could raise eyebrows among foreign policy experts who feel Moscow is interfering with efforts to stem the Syrian civil war.
Trump also flirted with revealing what he had been learning in classified intelligence briefings given to him by U.S. officials because he is the Republican nominee.
“There was one thing that shocked me,” Trump said. “What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts … said to do, and I was very, very surprised. …Our leaders were not following what they recommended.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump pledged to launch a new U.S. military buildup, saying America was under threat like never before from foes like Islamist extremists, North Korea and China.
The event offered a prelude to how Clinton and Trump will deal with questions on national security issues in their three upcoming presidential debates later in September and in October.
Clinton began the forum saying her long experience in government as a U.S. senator and secretary of state made her uniquely qualified to serve as president.
She said she had “an absolute rock steadiness” to be able to make tough decisions, a not so subtle dig at Trump, who Democrats say is temperamentally unfit for the White House.
Moderator Matt Lauer pressed her about her handling of emails from a private server while secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. The issue has raised questions about whether she can be trusted to serve as president.
Clinton said none of the emails she sent or received were marked top secret, secret or classified, the usual way such material is identified.
Appearing in the second half of the hour-long show, Trump faced questions about his fitness for office. Asked if he would be prepared on Day One to be commander in chief, Trump said: “One hundred percent.”
Trump quickly focused on his opponent.
“She’s been there for 30 years,” Trump said. “We need change, and we need it fast.”
The event brought together Clinton, 68, the wife of former President Bill Clinton, and Trump, 70, a New York businessman whose freewheeling style has allowed him to dominate the headlines during his campaign.
Clinton said she regretted her decision as a U.S. senator from New York to vote in favor of the much-criticized 2003 Iraq war and that Trump had been in favor of it as well. Trump has condemned the war during his campaign and said he would avoid lengthy conflicts in the Middle East.
On the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011, Clinton rejected Trump’s criticism of her support for the effort as secretary of state.
“Permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya would be as threatening and as dangerous as what we are seeing in Syria,” she said.
Trump said Clinton’s handling of Libya proved disastrous. Republicans have made much of the fact that the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed in an Islamist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
“She made a terrible mistake in Libya,” said Trump.
Clinton said U.S. policies under her leadership at the State Department had helped promote security.
“We made the world safer,” she said.
— by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason | Reuters
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Alana Wise in Washington and Gina Cherelus and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)