Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face questions Wednesday night about the most sacred part of a president’s job description: service as the Commander in Chief of the nation’s armed forces. But both major party candidates vying for the Oval Office must contend with significant skepticism from swathes of America’s active and retired military communities – although for very different sets of reasons.
Military veterans at the NBC News Commander-in-Chief forum, hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, will ask both candidates to outline their qualifications to serve as the nation’s leader, but the event is also sure to highlight each nominee’s vulnerabilities with those who serve and their families.
A segment of the electorate that has traditionally favored Republicans, veterans now must weigh their comfort with a Republican nominee who has no previous military or government experience and whose past comments about the armed forces have often drawn blistering criticism.
Their other main choice: Hillary Clinton, an experienced foreign policy hand who voted for the Iraq War, led the State Department at the time of the 2012 Benghazi attacks and has wrestled with accusations that her use of a private email server jeopardized national security.
So far, more military voters are choosing Trump. An NBC News |SurveyMonkey poll out Wednesday morning shows that Donald Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 19 points -- 55 percent to 36 percent -- among voters who are currently serving or have previously served in the military.
Additionally, an NBC News analysis of NBC/WSJ poll data from the summer of 2016 shows that, in counties with large populations of military families, Trump has led Clinton, 49 percent to 34 percent.
That’s about the same margin won by Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, who bested President Barack Obama by a margin of 14 percentage points in the same counties four years ago.
The Trump Record
A real estate mogul who avoided military service himself by seeking medical and educational deferments, Trump has earned the ire of military leaders for repeated comments belittling some of the most revered members of the Armed Forces.
In July 2015, not long after he launched his presidential bid, Trump was widely reprimanded for suggesting that Vietnam Veteran John McCain “is not a war hero.”
“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said of McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war and declined special treatment despite his father’s high military rank. “ I like people that weren’t captured.”
Months later, Trump assured an audience in Iowa that his military knowledge surpassed that of top brass, saying “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”
The GOP nominee again enraged critics in early August of this year, when he repeatedly took aim at a Gold Star family after Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention.
And amid the Khan imbroglio, Trump drew further attention to his lack of military experience when he told a veteran who gave him his Purple Heart – the military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed in action – “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.”
Trump has also vacillated – or at least given muddied responses – to questions about the deployment of U.S. troops abroad.
In March, he indicated that he would be willing to install a significant military presence of U.S. troops on the ground in the Middle East to fight ISIS, saying “I'm hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000.” He later clarified that he advocates for “very few” troops on the ground, whom he says should be assisted by regional allies.
He’s also exaggerated his early opposition to the Iraq War. Despite repeated claims that he opposed the war before the March 2003 invasion, he offered at least tepid support for the operation six months before the start of the war in an interview with shock jock Howard Stern. (By the following November, he was deriding the “very, very unpleasant surprises” in Iraq.)
Trump has also caused confusion about his relationship with Russia, one of America’s most vexing rivals. He has praised Russian president Vladimir Putin, at times professing that he does and does not have a relationship with the notorious strongman.
While Trump still performs better than Clinton among rank-and-file veterans, the military community remains deeply split by his candidacy. In August, fifty senior Republican national security experts signed a letter indicating that they cannot support Trump, saying he would be “the most reckless President in American history.” This week, another 88 retired generals and admirals signed a letter of support for Trump, calling him the best candidate to reverse “the hollowing out of our military and the burgeoning threats facing our country around the world.”
The Clinton Record
While Hillary Clinton has made her experience as a once-popular Secretary of State the centerpiece of her presidential campaign, her record on key national security issues – particularly the email and Benghazi scandals that have dogged her campaign nearly since its genesis -- has dented her support among military voters as well.
As she was eight years ago, Clinton is still haunted by her support for the Iraq War in 2002, a vote that then-presidential rival Barack Obama used to tar Clinton as a poor judge of the long-term consequences of a war in the Middle East.
Now, instead of only warning off war-weary liberals, Clinton’s Iraq vote could also serve to repel veterans of the conflict who saw firsthand the suffering of U.S. troops in a region where much of the ground gained has been ceded to radical forces in the war’s aftermath.
While Clinton has since apologized for her 2002 vote, she has defended her support of the intervention in Libya in 2011. In her role as Secretary of State – and a top adviser to a president reluctant to intervene - Clinton feared that the nation was poised for a humanitarian disaster at the hands of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But the power vacuum resulting from Gadhafi’s ouster plunged the country into a breeding ground for extremism.
The president has done Clinton few favors on the Libya issue, telling an interviewer in April that the lack of planning for the aftermath of the Libyan intervention was the worst mistake of his presidency.
It was against the backdrop of chaos in Libya that Clinton faced the event that may have prompted the most vitriol against her from her political foes. Republicans have suggested that Clinton should be held personally responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi after the 2012 attack on American outposts there. The administration’s initial explanation for the attack – which was originally mischaracterized as the result of a spontaneous protest rather than as a planned assault -- was seen by foes as politically-motived, while Clinton blamed “the fog of war” for the error.
A series of congressional and administrative investigations of the incident yielded no bombshells placing direct blame on Clinton, but the scars of her involvement with the tragedy endure, and they could resonate with those who know the pain of the loss of a loved one serving abroad. During the Republican National Convention in July, the mother of one of the victims tearfully ascribed responsibility to the former secretary of state, saying “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son -- personally."
A candidate who has long struggled to assure voters that she is honest and trustworthy, the clouds of mistrust surrounding her use of a private email server could be particularly damaging among veterans, whose knowledge of the stakes involved with the mishandling of classified information are particularly vivid.
Clinton maintains that she did nothing wrong by communicating with staff on a server housed outside the federal government, and she escaped the threat of an indictment by the Department of Justice this summer. But FBI Director James Comey also publicly excoriated Clinton and her staff for being “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Still, while she lags Trump among military voters, Clinton does enjoy better standing with current and former servicemembers on one of the central questions of the presidency: Her ability to navigate a crisis involving nukes. Among military voters, Trump and Clinton are virtually tied on the question of which candidate would make “better decisions about the use of nuclear weapons.”