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FactChecking the NBC Forum

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made some inaccurate claims during an NBC “commander-in-chief” forum on military and veterans issues:

  • Clinton wrongly claimed Trump supported the war in Iraq after it started, while Trump was wrong, once again, in saying he was against the war before it started.
  • Trump said that President Obama set a “certain date” for withdrawing troops from Iraq, when that date was set before Obama was sworn in.
  • Trump said that Obama’s visits to China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba were “the first time in the history, the storied history of Air Force One” when “high officials” of a host country did not appear to greet the president. Not true.
  • Clinton said that Trump supports privatizing the Veterans Health Administration. That’s false. Trump said he supports allowing veterans to seek care at either public or private hospitals.
  • Trump said Clinton made “a terrible mistake on Libya” when she was secretary of state. But, at the time, Trump also supported U.S. action that led to the removal of Moammar Gadhafi from power.
  • Trump cherry-picked Clinton’s words when he claimed Clinton said “vets are being treated, essentially, just fine.” Clinton had said the problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs were not as “widespread” as some Republicans claimed, but she went on to acknowledge problems, including the issue of wait times for doctors.

The forum, sponsored by NBC News and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was held Sept. 7 at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. “Today” show host Matt Lauer, and members of the military and veterans in the audience, questioned the candidates separately.

Trump and the Iraq War

Trump said he “was totally against the war in Iraq,” while Clinton claimed that he supported the Iraq War before and after it started. The facts don’t support either candidate’s strong assertions.

Our review of Trump’s statements before and after the Iraq War started found no evidence that Trump opposed the war before it started. In fact, he expressed mild support for invading Iraq when asked about it on the Howard Stern radio show on Sept. 11, 2002 — about six months before the war started.

Stern asked Trump if he supported a war with Iraq, and Trump responded, “Yeah, I guess so.”

In the NBC commander in chief forum, Trump cited an Esquire article that appeared in August 2004 to show his opposition to the war. But that article appeared 17 months after the war started.

As for Clinton, who as a senator voted in October 2002 to authorize the war in Iraq, the Democratic nominee claimed that Trump “supported it before it happened, he supported it as it was happening and he is on record as supporting it after it happened.”

But just as there is no evidence that Trump opposed the Iraq War before it started, the Clinton campaign offered no evidence that Trump supported the war “after it happened.”

The Clinton campaign cited Trump’s interview on March 21, 2003, with Neil Cavuto of Fox Business just two days after the war started.

Cavuto asked Trump about the impact of the war on the stock market. Trump said the war “looks like a tremendous success from a military standpoint,” and he predicted the market will “go up like a rocket” after the war. But Cavuto does not ask Trump whether the U.S. should have gone to war with Iraq or whether he supports the war, and Trump doesn’t offer an opinion.

As early as July 2003, Trump expressed concern on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” about money being spent in Iraq rather than in the U.S. Two months later, Trump told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “I guess maybe if I had to do it, I would have fought terrorism but not necessarily Iraq.”

Clinton invited her audience to read Trump’s comments on the Iraq War. They can read our timeline, “Donald Trump and the Iraq War.”



Withdrawal from Iraq

Trump said President Barack Obama set a “certain date” for withdrawing troops from Iraq, but that date was actually set by President George W. Bush.

NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Trump about his tendency to respond, when pushed for details on his military proposals, that he’s not going to give details because he wants to be “unpredictable.” Trump responded, “Absolutely,” and went on to criticize Obama for revealing the withdrawal date.

Trump: If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is. … This is what Obama does — “we’re going to leave Iraq on a certain date.”

Trump made a similar claim in August.

As we said then, Republicans and Democrats disagree on whether Obama or Bush is to blame for withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. But that date was set when Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement on Dec. 14, 2008. It said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

In the NBC forum, Trump also called the withdrawal of troops “a terrible decision.” As we’ve explained before, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state, later wrote that Bush wanted an agreement for a residual force to remain, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki objected.

Once Obama took office in January 2009, he had three years to renegotiate the deal, which his administration tried to do, to leave a residual American troop force. But Maliki still didn’t agree. Negotiations broke down in October 2011 over the issue of whether U.S. troops would be shielded from criminal prosecution by Iraqi authorities. Whether Obama did enough is a matter of opinion: His then defense secretary, Leon Panetta, later wrote that the president didn’t press hard enough for a deal. But some experts say Iraq was more closely aligned at the time with Iran and there wasn’t a deal to be made with Maliki.

So, both presidents had a role in the withdrawal of troops. But Trump wrongly said that Obama was the one who set a “certain date” for withdrawal and let U.S. enemies know about it, when that date was set before Obama was sworn in.

It’s worth noting that Trump said in a March 16, 2007, interview on CNN that the troops should be withdrawn quickly from Iraq.

Trump, March 16, 2007, on CNN: You know how they get out? They get out. That’s how they get out. Declare victory and leave, because I’ll tell you, this country is just going to get further bogged down. …  And there’s nothing — by the way, we’re keeping the lid on a little bit but date we leave anyway it’s all going to blow up. … So, I mean, this is a total catastrophe and you might as well get out now, because you just are wasting time.


Air Force One

Trump said that Obama’s visits to China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba were “the first time in the history, the storied history of Air Force One” when “high officials” of a host country did not appear to greet the president.

That’s not true. Other presidents have encountered similar low-key greetings on foreign trips aboard the presidential aircraft.

Trump referred to the fact that Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, did not greet Obama at the airport on his historic visit to Cuba in March, that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman did not meet Air Force One at the start of Obama’s trip to Riyadh in April, and he referred to China’s handling of the president’s arrival in Hangzhou last Saturday for a Group of 20 meeting.

Whether or not those arrivals constituted snubs of a U.S. president as Trump claims is a matter of debate. But Trump is wrong on the facts when he claims it has not happened before. It has.

In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan landed in Beijing and was received by China’s foreign minister rather than the president, whom he met only later. Similarly, on a 1985 trip to West Germany, Reagan was met by the foreign minister and not Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

These and other examples were dug up by our friend Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post‘s “Fact Checker,” who researched a Trump claim in April that Cuba’s and Saudi Arabia’s handling of Obama’s visits were “without precedent.” Kessler said of Trump, “once again he’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Kessler also noted that during Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China he was greeted at the airport by the country’s number two man, Premier Zhou Enlai. His boss, Chairman Mao, didn’t even agree to meet with Nixon until after he had arrived at a guest house.


Trump Not Privatizing the VA

Clinton said that her plan to overhaul the Veterans Health Administration would not include privatization, which she said Trump supports.

Clinton: I will not let the VA be privatized. And I do think that there is an agenda out there — supported by my opponent — to do just that. I think that would be very disastrous for our military veterans.

But Trump refuted that statement when it was his turn to discuss his plan to help veterans. “I would not do that,” Trump said, referring to Clinton’s claim that he supports privatization.

Trump: And by the way, I never said take the VA, the Veterans Administration, private. I wouldn’t do that. Too much respect for our people. I heard it was said that I said that. I would not do that. But I do believe, I do believe, when you’re waiting in line for six, seven days, you should never be in a position like that. You go out, you see the doctor, you get yourself taken care of.

Trump’s campaign published “The Goals Of Donald J. Trump’s Veterans Plan” on its website last October. It doesn’t call for the VA to be completely privatized.

One of the biggest changes that plan would make to the current VA health care system is allowing veterans to get care at any non-VA medical center that accepts Medicare.

“Under a Trump Administration, all veterans eligible for VA health care can bring their veteran’s ID card to any doctor or care facility that accepts Medicare to get the care they need immediately,” the plan states.

“The power to choose will stop the wait time backlogs and force the VA to improve and compete if the department wants to keep receiving veterans’ healthcare dollars,” the plan says.

Trump’s proposal would seemingly go further than the Non-VA Medical Care Program, which allows eligible veterans to access care outside of the VA under certain circumstances, such as when VA medical centers cannot provide services. The program requires pre-approval for veterans to receive care at a non-VA facility in non-emergency situations.

Trump’s proposal would also go further than the bipartisan Veterans Choice Act of 2014 that President Obama signed into law, creating a temporary program, separate from the Non-VA Medical Care Program, that allows eligible veterans to receive health care at a non-VA facility if they would have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment at a VA medical center, or if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA hospital.

Trump stuck to the idea of allowing veterans to choose between public and private hospitals when he released his most recent “Ten Point Plan To Reform The VA” in July.

Point 10 of the plan says: “Mr. Trump will ensure every veteran has the choice to seek care at the VA or at a private service provider of their own choice. Under a Trump Administration, no veteran will die waiting for service.”

Trump reinforced that part of his plan during the NBC News forum as well.

Trump: Under a part of my plan, if they have that long wait, they walk outside, they go to the local doctor, they choose the doctor, they choose the hospital, whether it’s public or private, they get themselves better.

To be clear, Trump supports giving veterans a choice between VA hospitals and private ones. That’s not the same thing as supporting the complete privatization of the system that provides care to veterans.



Agreement on Libya

Trump criticized Clinton for making “a terrible mistake on Libya” when she was secretary of state. But, at the time, Trump also supported U.S. action that led to the removal of Moammar Gadhafi from power.

Trump made his claim in response to a question posed by Lauer on whether Trump will be “prepared on Day One,” if elected president, to tackle “complex national security issues.”

Trump, Sept. 7: 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.

This isn’t the first time Trump has ignored his past support for the U.S. intervention in Libya.

During the 10th GOP debate, Trump said he had “never discussed that subject” when Sen. Ted Cruz called him out on supporting U.S. action in the country. But, as we wrote, Trump said in 2011 that the U.S. should go into Libya “on a humanitarian basis” and “knock [Gadhafi] out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively and save the lives.”

Trump made that comment in a video posted to his YouTube channel in February 2011:

Trump, Feb. 28, 2011: I can’t believe what our country is doing. Gadhafi, in Libya, is killing thousands of people. Nobody knows how bad it is and we’re sitting around. We have soldiers all over the Middle East and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage. And that’s what it is, a carnage. … Now we should go in. We should stop this guy which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it and save these lives. This is absolute nuts. We don’t want to get involved and you’re going to end up with something like you’ve never seen before. Now, ultimately the people will appreciate it and they’re going to end up taking over the country eventually. But the people will appreciate it and they should pay us back. But we have to go in to save these lives. These people are being slaughtered like animals. … We should do it on a humanitarian basis. Immediately go into Libya, knock this guy out very quickly, very surgically, very effectively and save the lives.

Even though Trump now says Clinton’s support for intervention in Libya was a “terrible mistake,” it doesn’t change the fact that five years ago he supported Gadhafi’s removal.



VA ‘Just Fine’?

Trump twisted Clinton’s words when he claimed Clinton said “vets are being treated, essentially, just fine.” Clinton said the problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs were not as “widespread” as some Republican supporters of privatization of the VA claim, but she went on to acknowledge problems in the VA system — including the issue of wait times for doctors —  and what she would do to address them.

Trump highlighted the issue of wait times to see a doctor as “one of the big problems” in the VA, and then suggested Clinton doesn’t think the VA has problems.

Trump: And by the way, Hillary Clinton six months ago said the vets are being treated, essentially, just fine, there’s no real problem, it’s over-exaggerated.

Lauer interrupted, noting that Clinton “went on after that and laid out a litany of problems within the VA.”

Trump insisted his version was accurate, adding, “I’m telling you … she said she was satisfied with what was going on in the Veterans Administration.”

That’s not accurate. The comments in question from Clinton came during an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Oct. 23, 2015. Maddow asked about talk among some Republicans of abolishing the VA and privatizing it. “The reason they are able to propose something that radical is because the problems at the VA seem so intractable,” Maddow said.

Maddow asked if Clinton had any “new ideas for trying to fix” the VA. Here was Clinton’s response, with the part Trump is referring to in bold.

Clinton: Yeah, and I don’t understand that. You know, I don’t understand why we have such a problem, because there have been a number of surveys of veterans, and overall, veterans who do get treated are satisfied with their treatment. … Now, nobody would believe that from the coverage that you see, and the constant berating of the VA that comes from the Republicans, in part in pursuit of this ideological agenda that they have.

Maddow: But in part because there has been real scandal.

Clinton: There has been. And – but it’s not been as widespread as it has been made out to be.

Now, I do think that some of the reforms that were adopted last year should be given a chance to work. If there is a waiting period that is just unacceptable, you should be able to, in a sense, get the opportunity to go out, have a private physician take care of you, but at the cost of the VA.

But I think it goes deeper than that, because if you look at not only VA health care, but the backlog on disability determinations, there’s something not working within the bureaucracy. And I have said I would like to literally appoint a SWAT team to bring in people and just tackle the disability, have an ongoing review of the care that is being given, do more to make sure that every VA hospital is delivering care to the highest standard of the community, because, unfortunately, some are doing a lot better job than others are.

Clinton accused Republicans of underfunding the VA because they “want it to fail” so they can privatize it.

Clinton added, “But we have to be more creative about trying to fix the problems that are the legitimate concern, so that we can try to stymie the Republican assault.”

Indeed, the Clinton campaign website states that Clinton wants to “fundamentally reform veterans’ health care to ensure access to timely and high quality care.” The campaign says Clinton “was outraged by the recent scandals at the VA, and as president, she will demand accountability and performance from VA leadership.” The site specifically mentions Clinton’s dissatisfaction that “[m]any veterans have to wait an unacceptably long time to see a doctor or to process disability claims and appeals” and promises she will “[b]uild a 21st-century Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver world-class care.”

Trump cherry-picked the part of Clinton’s response that said problems in the VA have “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be,” to make the blanket claim that Clinton is “satisfied with what was going on in the Veterans Administration” and that “vets are being treated, essentially, just fine.” But Trump is leaving out the parts of Clinton’s answer that acknowledged problems in the VA — including the wait time issue Trump highlighted as one of his biggest concerns.