The 2016 election season has been characterized by its uniqueness, polarization, bravado and potential for history in the making, regardless of who moves into the White House in January. What’s been lost in most media coverage is an examination of where the presidential nominees of the two major political parties stand on the issues, particularly those of greatest interest to the nation’s largest wartime veterans organization.
The American Legion conducted exclusive one-on-one interviews with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump in August. (While some third-party candidates have received more support than in previous elections, The American Legion followed the lead of the presidential debate committee on inclusion of other candidates. At deadline, however, no third-party candidates had reached the threshold to be included in the debates and therefore are not in this question-and-answer coverage.)
The interviews with Clinton and Trump, which were conducted while both candidates visited Florida, focused on issues of importance to American Legion members, other veterans, U.S. servicemembers and their families. Both shared their views on VA health care, defense spending, border security and more.
Here are excerpts from the interviews:
Veterans have faced long wait times and other problems while trying to receive health care or benefits decisions at VA. What is your recommendation to solve this?
Clinton:I am outraged at the long waits and other scandals that emerged over the last several years that have really disadvantaged veterans and broken the bond that we should be treasuring between ourselves and our vets. I am going to do everything I can to accelerate efforts under way to fix problems in the system. I’m going to create a President’s Council for Veterans because we need that emphasis. I want to be sure we are fixing the problems, but not creating an opening for those who have advocated for the privatization of the VA health system. That would be a terrible mistake and would make access to treatment, particularly specialized treatment, even more difficult for a significant number of our vets.
I want to do a better job linking up DoD, TRICARE and VA. This remains a big stumbling block because people who leave the service often don’t even get their records, and if they do, it’s often disorganized. It’s not as seamless as it should be.
I take this as a high priority at the beginning of my presidency and will work on it every single day until we get it in as strong shape as possible.
Trump: Veterans have so many problems with VA. I’ve never seen anything like it. They are not being treated right. Their wait times – five, six, seven days, maybe even longer. Sometimes they don’t even get to see a doctor. The guiding principle of the Trump Veterans Plan is ensuring veterans have convenient and timely access to top-quality care. The veterans health system will remain a public system because it’s a public trust. But never again will we allow veterans to suffer or die waiting for care. One of the things we’re going to do is that if they can’t see a VA doctor, they are going to find a local doctor. It can be private – most likely it will be private – or they can go to a hospital outside that’s different from where they can’t get in or where they can’t go through the lines. This could be a public or private hospital, and we will pay the bills and take care of them. These are great people and we will take care of them properly.
Many servicemembers are returning from the current wars with PTSD, military sexual trauma (MST) and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI). If elected, what would you recommend DoD and/or VA do to address and improve treatment in these areas?
Trump: A recent VA comprehensive study placed the number of veterans who die by suicide at 20 per day. We must do better for those who suffer the invisible wounds of war. First, we must make sure that the VA Office of Suicide Prevention is staffed, resourced and placed on equal footing with its DoD counterpart. In addition, I will increase the number of mental health care professionals, and allow veterans to be able to see mental health care outside the VA if they so choose. We will also increase investments in researching, treating and diagnosing traumatic brain injury. This is a top priority for me.
Clinton: As a senator, I was on the Armed Services Committee and we were already recognizing that PTSD and TBI were the new injuries of these wars in ways that were qualitatively different from what we had seen before. The PTSD that we were seeing not only included direct combat experience but sexual assault.
We’ve made progress but not near enough. Therefore I want to invest heavily in the best techniques, doing a comprehensive landscaping of what is working. Different things will work for different people. Can we create profiles that will give us more guidance as to how to deal with these very serious problems?
I’m going to approach this like we would approach some terrible epidemic that was killing people, maiming people, because that’s the mentality I think we have to bring to this. We are losing 20 vets a day to suicide and a lot of them are just giving up. They feel such despair because they can’t get any help that really works to get them through the emotional trauma that they have suffered.
It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s psychological, it’s spiritual, it’s cultural, and we need to treat it on all of those grounds and do a better job.
The armed forces are all suffering from cutbacks due to sequestration and budget reductions. How will your recommendations to Congress balance the need for a strong national defensewith the need for a budget that reflects the realities of today’s economy?
Clinton: I want to end sequestration, both on the defense and civilian side. I think it has been destructive to both. Clearly we know that on the defense side, there have been enough reports and investigations about how we’re falling behind in preparedness, and it’s unacceptable.
On the civilian side, we have shut labs that were making promising breakthroughs and treating Alzheimer’s, for example, and many other issues that have to be addressed, because of sequestration.
On the defense side, I am committed to a robust defense budget that will provide what we need to be prepared for the threats and adversaries we face today. Therefore, I want to get the best possible advice about what more we need to do to be prepared, and what it’s going to cost. We’re going to have a top-to-bottom review about what’s working (and) what’s not working, but I know we can’t meet the demands that we face without getting rid of sequestration.
Trump: First of all, we have no choice. It’s not like, “Oh, gee, we can just delay it.” President Obama has delayed it. We have fewer ships than we have had in decades. We have arms that are old and airplanes that are very old. We can’t even get parts anymore. They don’t make them anymore. We get parts from the plane graveyards.
Cuts should instead be made to wasteful domestic spending and bloated bureaucratic budgets. But it’s not a question of how we do it. We have no choice. These are very dangerous times, possibly as dangerous as we have ever had. We have a military that is depleted and we are going to take care of it.
The Islamic State is conducting terrorist attacks and inspiring others to commit violence worldwide. What’s your strategy to defeat ISIS?
Trump: We must bring all of our allies into the fold who share our goal of defeating and destroying ISIS. Instead of nation-building like in Libya that creates operating and breeding grounds, we must work with all nations that want to eliminate this scourge to destroy them.
This means aggressive military strikes. It also means we must improve our intelligence-gathering operations and make huge investments in this crucial arena. It means we must change our immigration policy to keep ISIS from attacking here. Working with our military commanders, we must give our servicemembers the resources, strategies and policies they need to get the job done. Our military goal is not to spread democracy worldwide but to defeat ISIS and destroy terrorist organizations.
Clinton: I believe strongly that we have to defeat them and destroy them. We’ve got to have a multi-pronged strategy.
First, we have to continue and intensify our efforts to drive them from the territory that they occupy in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made progress. American-led airstrikes have really helped. Our training of the Iraqi army has taken back territory. Our use of special forces to partner with Arab and Kurdish fighters has also been promising.
We have to keep working on that. We can’t walk away from doing everything possible to destroy their headquarters in Raqqa, drive them out of Iraq and then destroy them in Syria.
That’s not enough because they are a sophisticated enemy. They are fighting us online as well as on the ground, and we’re not doing yet enough to combat and defeat them online. I am absolutely adamant that we need to get the best support we can from our tech companies and experts from Silicon Valley ... (and) the Route 128 corridor in Massachusetts. Everybody needs to help us disrupt their sites, interfere with and end their recruitment and radicalization online.
We also have to have what I call an intelligence surge. There is not enough good sharing of the intelligence we have. We have seen that, unfortunately, in Europe, where ISIS has been successful in launching attacks. There is not the kind of seamless sharing of intelligence even across borders in Europe and between countries and the United States.
China is a threat with its terraforming program and involvement in cyber attacks. Given our debt situation with China, how should the United States strategically handle this relationship?
Clinton: It became apparent (to me) as secretary of state how aggressive the Chinese intended to be in making territorial claims in the South China Sea. I was the first to confront them and try to put together a strategy that will contain them and prevent them from not only intimidating their neighbors but also interfering with the free flow of commerce and international laws of navigation.
We strongly supported the Philippines in bringing their international legal challenge to China’s claims, and I was quite surprised at how far the decision went in repudiating China. We’ve got a strong legal basis, which we did not have before, to use diplomatically in confronting China.
We also have to ensure that our fleet is still present in the Pacific. It’s important that we demonstrate our commitment to our mutual defense treaties, of which we have five in Asia. We have a preexisting obligation to protect our friends and allies. China needs to understand there’s plenty of ocean to go around; there’s enough space for everybody to benefit from commerce in the region. We should look for multinational resolution for some of China’s claims that interfere with the rights of the Philippines, Vietnam and others, particularly when it comes to their desire to explore for oil, gas and other valuable commodities.
Trump: We have tremendous economic power over China. They have been ripping off our country for many, many years. They need us more than we need them. As strong as that sounds, it is 100 percent factual. We are going to have a trade deficit this year with China: 500 billion – with a ‘b’ – dollars. It’s from the money, jobs and the products they have taken out of our country, meaning their access to our markets is the bulwark of their economy. We hold all the cards. We are going to deal with China very strongly.
I have very good relationships in China. I’ve made a lot of money in China. One of the biggest banks in the world is a tenant of mine in one of my buildings in Manhattan. I do a lot of business with China. China is tough to deal with but you can do very well if you know what you are doing. They have been ripping us left and right. We will be able to handle China. But we don’t use our cards; we don’t play to our strengths. When they built that military complex in the South China Sea, they weren’t allowed to do that. We’ll have to deal with them. We’ll deal with them on an economic basis.
What is the best – and most realistic – solution for protecting our borders?
Trump: (A wall along the U.S. southern border) is part of the solution, part of a complex puzzle. We have people pouring across the border. We have drugs pouring across the border. And I’m talking about a real wall, not a toy like they have now that is 7 feet tall. I’m talking about a real wall, like the Great Wall of China, which they built 2,000 years ago. It’s 13,000 miles long. We need 1,000 miles.
It’s a very easy thing to do. It will happen and, by the way, Mexico will pay for the wall. And the reason they will pay for it is because they could have stopped this horrible situation long ago between the drugs and the illegal immigrants pouring across the border. It’s probably our country’s fault; we never told them to stop it.
The National Border Patrol Council’s 1,650 border patrol agents endorsed me. It’s the first time they’ve done that in their history for a presidential election. Sheriff (Joe) Arpaio endorsed me. I know a lot about borders. We’re going to have strong borders. We’re going to let people come in but they are going to have to come in legally.
(The northern border) is a very long stretch. You’re talking about a stretch that is much, much longer – much more complex. And, in all fairness, we have had much less of a problem with it.
Clinton: We are spending billions of dollars right now along our southern border with Mexico. We have dramatically increased the numbers of border guards and defensive equipment along our southern border.
In fact, there has been a slowdown and even reversal of migration from Mexico. What we’re facing now are people coming from Central America primarily to escape horrific violence and drug gangs. We have to be vigilant and we need to be sure that we do whatever is necessary to protect our borders.
But our southern border is not our only border. Our northern border, which is the longest peaceful border in the world, is largely unprotected. Alert border guards captured the “millennial bomber” coming across the border around New Year’s in 2000. We know that some of the 9/11 hijackers went back and forth from Canada.
When people talk about our borders, they are often only talking about our southern border. I’m talking about all of our borders, and I’m talking not only about car traffic, but also airplane traffic, ships, etc. We need more technology to protect our ports and our airports, and we have to be really clear about what it is we’re looking for. There’s a difference between children fleeing violence in Central America and drug traffickers, gun traffickers, human traffickers, and terrorists coming into our country, either legally or illegally. We have to upgrade our borders’ security systems and use more technology.
I’m intent on comprehensive immigration reform and tightening our borders.
As president, how would you reinvigorate the U.S. economy, cultivate a culture of job growth, and help veterans and others launch small businesses?
Clinton: I have a very robust plan to get our economy going. I want to have the biggest increase in new jobs since World War II. We are going to do that with big infrastructure investments, advance manufacturing, clean energy, technology, all of which could create millions of new jobs.
I also want to be a small business president. I want to clear away the obstacles and give more people a chance to follow their dreams and start small businesses. That’s going to require looking at taxes and regulations, and see what more help we can provide.
I’m particularly focused on veterans. I want to start at a much earlier stage than we do now and do a much better job of helping counsel people who are leaving the service. A lot of people have told me that, literally, they were called into a meeting, given a brochure, given a website, and somebody said, “Do you have any questions?” They didn’t even know what questions to ask. And then they leave the service.
Trump: We’re going to bring jobs back. The jobs are going to Mexico. The product is being made in many countries all over the world. We’re losing our jobs. We’re losing our manufacturing. We’re going to stop. We’re going to reset. We’re going to bring jobs back to this country.
We’re not going to let our companies go so easily. If they want to go, despite our efforts, and want to sell their product in our country, without having a little bit of difficulty, to put it mildly, they are wrong. Once they know that, they won’t be leaving. We’re going to bring jobs back and we’re not going to let companies leave very easily.
I have proposed changing our visa rules to ensure veterans get priorities for jobs. I also want financial reforms that make it easier for veterans, and aspiring entrepreneurs, to get credit.
There is no shortage of ideas – nuclear, coal, solar, wind, etc. – on how the United States should handle energy and rely less on imported resources. What is the federal government’s role in guiding the United States to become more energy-independent?
Trump: I believe in unleashing the power of innovation through regulatory reform to make energy cheaper, cleaner, less expensive and more efficient. This will make our nation energy independent and add trillions in wealth to our economy. We have such massive regulations right now that the energy people aren’t allowed to do what they have to do. Coal is being wiped out by this government; coal can be a powerful weapon, in terms of defense.
We want clean air, immaculate air. We want fantastically clean water. But we are going to get rid of some of these regulations that are putting companies out of business. The problem with wind and solar is that they need subsidies. Everything has its place, and I’m a fan of all forms of energy. We can’t rely on the Middle East.
Clinton: I am adamant that we will be energy independent. We’ve made real progress thanks to natural gas, which has been a great boom in recent years.
The federal government has to lead the way, but we have to coordinate with states. I have something called the Clean Power Challenge to work with states. Some states are going full steam ahead. They are investing in clean energy. Iowa gets a third of its electricity from wind. Texas gets a big percentage of its electricity from wind. We’ve got other states investing in solar. We’ve got states looking at how to use more hydro. Then we have states which haven’t done anything. We need to incentivize more states because we’ve got tremendous resources in the United States. I want us to deploy half a billion more solar panels by the end of my first term. I want enough clean energy to power every home in America within 10 years. These are all doable, and it will put people to work. The United States has to lead the world in this area. Some country is going to be the 21st century clean energy superpower, and it’ll probably either be China, Germany or us. I want it to be us.
As president, how would you ease the racial tensions that have gripped America?
Clinton: I’m deeply concerned about the divides in our country, and certainly some of what we’ve seen in terms of racial divides should concern every American. There are several approaches we have to take. We need to work with our police forces so they can do the best job on the ground as they are protecting communities. The police should be respected, and the police should respect the communities they serve. We need to do more to bring that about. Some places are doing a terrific job and we can learn from them.
We have to do some criminal justice reform, providing more support for training and the understanding of other ways to de-escalate tensions in difficult situations besides just reaching for one’s gun. That is necessary in some instances, but those should be the exceptions – not the rule.
It’s up to every American, not just our police. After the terrible murders of the five police officers in Dallas, the police chief there, Chief Brown, made a really important point. He said police are expected to deal with so much: mental health, failing schools, domestic disputes. That’s a big burden to dump on our police forces. My view is everybody should be part of this: our faith communities, our business communities, our governments at all levels. Everybody should be asking themselves, “What more can I do to bridge these divides?”
Trump: It’s two things: jobs and spirit. Our country doesn’t have spirit. And we certainly don’t have jobs. Look at the people who have looked for jobs. They have looked for months and months, and they have just given up. We need jobs, and we need spirit in our country. It is essential that we restore the bond of trust between citizens, and to have
leaders who emphasize what we have in common – not apart.
Americanism brings us closer, as it is based on the trust that we are all equals, that we are all in this together, and that all Americans are united in common purpose and entitled to common protections. I want to emphasize our unity as one people under one flag.
Henry Howard is deputy director of The American Legion’s Media and Communications Division.