The much-anticipated debut debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place on Monday night at Hofstra University. In a conversation moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt, the candidates began by discussing economic issues and race relations before concluding with a back-and-forth on national security. The most extensive discussions on security topics covered the candidates’ plans related to the Islamic State, domestic terrorism, cybersecurity, NATO, nuclear weapons, the nuclear deal with Iran, and their support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Trump first broached the topic of national security by criticizing Clinton for being too transparent with her plans to combat the Islamic State, claiming that she was telegraphing American strategy to the enemy. He abstained from outlining concrete measures and argued that Clinton should be held responsible for the rise of the Islamic State because of her position as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. In contrast, Clinton described her proposals to counter the Islamic State as including efforts to counter online radicalization, intensify airstrikes, target the group’s leadership, and support local forces. She countered that the George W. Bush administration set the timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, which the Iraqi government then refused to extend during negotiations over a new Status of Forces Agreement.
The candidates also briefly addressed domestic terrorism. Clinton proposed an “intelligence surge” that would include more intensive cooperation with U.S. allies, as well as closer collaboration with Muslim nations and communities.
When the debate turned to cybersecurity issues, Clinton outlined the importance of deterring state-sponsored cyber operations and implied that further attacks would be met with reciprocal retaliation in the cyber domain. Trump used the topic to reference the DNC attack and criticize Democratic leadership for conspiring to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination for president. He also refused to acknowledge Russia’s involvement in the incident, citing that it could very well “be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
In responding to a question on NATO, Trump reiterated his core critiques of the alliance—that American partners are not meeting their defense spending benchmarks and that the institution is obsolete because it is ill equipped for counterterrorism operations. Clinton defended the importance of NATO and of upholding Article 5, which she noted has only ever been invoked in response to 9/11.
The candidates also discussed several issues related to nuclear weapons. Clinton presented her accomplishments in cobbling together the sanctions regime against Iran, while Trump criticized the subsequent nuclear deal as disastrous. Notably, Trump seemed to come out against first use of nuclear weapons when asked if he would adopt a “no first use” posture, saying, “But I would certainly not do first strike. I think once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over.” It remains slightly unclear how certain he is, though, given his subsequent remarks: “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.” Clinton reiterated her support for the Obama administration’s decision not to rule out first use and expressed her support for upholding America’s security guarantees.
Finally, the candidates sparred over Trump’s support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Trump insisted that he opposed the invasion while Clinton supported it. After moderator Lester Holt pressed him on the issue, Trump slightly backtracked by saying that any support he expressed on a 2002 taping of a Howard Stern show was done “very lightly.”
The New York Times provides a full transcript of the debate here. Below are the portions of the debate relevant to national security, organized by topic.
The Islamic State
TRUMP: And look at her website. You know what? It’s no difference than this. She’s telling us how to fight ISIS. Just go to her website. She tells you how to fight ISIS on her website. I don’t think General Douglas MacArthur would like that too much.
HOLT: The next segment, we’re continuing...
CLINTON: Well, at least I have a plan to fight ISIS.
HOLT: ... achieving prosperity...
TRUMP: No, no, you’re telling the enemy everything you want to do.
CLINTON: No, we’re not. No, we’re not.
TRUMP: See, you’re telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you’ve been fighting—no wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.
CLINTON: Well, I think there are a number of issues that we should be addressing. I have put forth a plan to defeat ISIS. It does involve going after them online. I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the Internet to radicalize, even direct people in our country and Europe and elsewhere.
But we also have to intensify our air strikes against ISIS and eventually support our Arab and Kurdish partners to be able to actually take out ISIS in Raqqa, end their claim of being a Caliphate.
We’re making progress. Our military is assisting in Iraq. And we’re hoping that within the year we’ll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria.
But we have to be cognizant of the fact that they’ve had foreign fighters coming to volunteer for them, foreign money, foreign weapons, so we have to make this the top priority.
And I would also do everything possible to take out their leadership. I was involved in a number of efforts to take out Al Qaida leadership when I was secretary of state, including, of course, taking out bin Laden. And I think we need to go after Baghdadi, as well, make that one of our organizing principles. Because we’ve got to defeat ISIS, and we’ve got to do everything we can to disrupt their propaganda efforts online.
TRUMP: Well, first I have to say one thing, very important. Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS. “We will take out ISIS.” Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out—what, they shouldn’t have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.
So she talks about taking them out. She’s been doing it a long time. She’s been trying to take them out for a long time. But they wouldn’t have even been formed if they left some troops behind, like 10,000 or maybe something more than that. And then you wouldn’t have had them.
Or, as I’ve been saying for a long time, and I think you’ll agree, because I said it to you once, had we taken the oil—and we should have taken the oil—ISIS would not have been able to form either, because the oil was their primary source of income. And now they have the oil all over the place, including the oil—a lot of the oil in Libya, which was another one of her disasters.
HOLT: Secretary Clinton?
CLINTON: Well, I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard. Donald supported the invasion of Iraq.
CLINTON: That is absolutely proved over and over again.
TRUMP: Wrong. Wrong.
CLINTON: He actually advocated for the actions we took in Libya and urged that Gadhafi be taken out, after actually doing some business with him one time. But the larger point—and he says this constantly—is George W. Bush made the agreement about when American troops would leave Iraq, not Barack Obama.
And the only way that American troops could have stayed in Iraq is to get an agreement from the then-Iraqi government that would have protected our troops, and the Iraqi government would not give that.
HOLT: You mention ISIS, and we think of ISIS certainly as over there, but there are American citizens who have been inspired to commit acts of terror on American soil, the latest incident, of course, the bombings we just saw in New York and New Jersey, the knife attack at a mall in Minnesota, in the last year, deadly attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando. I’ll ask this to both of you. Tell us specifically how you would prevent homegrown attacks by American citizens, Mr. Trump?
CLINTON: But let’s talk about the question you asked, Lester. The question you asked is, what do we do here in the United States? That’s the most important part of this. How do we prevent attacks? How do we protect our people?
And I think we’ve got to have an intelligence surge, where we are looking for every scrap of information. I was so proud of law enforcement in New York, in Minnesota, in New Jersey. You know, they responded so quickly, so professionally to the attacks that occurred by Rahami. And they brought him down. And we may find out more information because he is still alive, which may prove to be an intelligence benefit.
So we’ve got to do everything we can to vacuum up intelligence from Europe, from the Middle East. That means we’ve got to work more closely with our allies, and that’s something that Donald has been very dismissive of.
We’re working with NATO, the longest military alliance in the history of the world, to really turn our attention to terrorism. We’re working with our friends in the Middle East, many of which, as you know, are Muslim majority nations. Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community.
They’re on the front lines. They can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else. They need to have close working cooperation with law enforcement in these communities, not be alienated and pushed away as some of Donald’s rhetoric, unfortunately, has led to.
Cybersecurity and the DNC Hack
HOLT: Our next segment is called “Securing America.” We want to start with a 21st century war happening every day in this country. Our institutions are under cyber attack, and our secrets are being stolen. So my question is, who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?
Secretary Clinton, this answer goes to you.
CLINTON: Well, I think cyber security, cyber warfare will be one of the biggest challenges facing the next president, because clearly we’re facing at this point two different kinds of adversaries. There are the independent hacking groups that do it mostly for commercial reasons to try to steal information that they can use to make money.
But increasingly, we are seeing cyber attacks coming from states, organs of states. The most recent and troubling of these has been Russia. There’s no doubt now that Russia has used cyber attacks against all kinds of organizations in our country, and I am deeply concerned about this. I know Donald’s very praiseworthy of Vladimir Putin, but Putin is playing a really...
CLINTON: ... tough, long game here. And one of the things he’s done is to let loose cyber attackers to hack into government files, to hack into personal files, hack into the Democratic National Committee. And we recently have learned that, you know, that this is one of their preferred methods of trying to wreak havoc and collect information. We need to make it very clear—whether it’s Russia, China, Iran or anybody else—the United States has much greater capacity. And we are not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information, our private-sector information or our public-sector information.
And we’re going to have to make it clear that we don’t want to use the kinds of tools that we have. We don’t want to engage in a different kind of warfare. But we will defend the citizens of this country.
And the Russians need to understand that. I think they’ve been treating it as almost a probing, how far would we go, how much would we do. And that’s why I was so—I was so shocked when Donald publicly invited Putin to hack into Americans. That is just unacceptable. It’s one of the reasons why 50 national security officials who served in Republican information—in administrations...
HOLT: Your two minutes have expired.
CLINTON: ... have said that Donald is unfit to be the commander- in-chief. It’s comments like that that really worry people who understand the threats that we face.
HOLT: Mr. Trump, you have two minutes and the same question. Who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?
TRUMP: I do want to say that I was just endorsed—and more are coming next week—it will be over 200 admirals, many of them here—admirals and generals endorsed me to lead this country. That just happened, and many more are coming. And I’m very proud of it.
In addition, I was just endorsed by ICE. They’ve never endorsed anybody before on immigration. I was just endorsed by ICE. I was just recently endorsed—16,500 Border Patrol agents.
So when Secretary Clinton talks about this, I mean, I’ll take the admirals and I’ll take the generals any day over the political hacks that I see that have led our country so brilliantly over the last 10 years with their knowledge. OK? Because look at the mess that we’re in. Look at the mess that we’re in.
As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t—maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don’t know who broke in to DNC.
But what did we learn with DNC? We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. That’s what we learned.
Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don’t know, because the truth is, under President Obama we’ve lost control of things that we used to have control over.
We came in with the Internet, we came up with the Internet, and I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much, when you look at what ISIS is doing with the Internet, they’re beating us at our own game. ISIS.
So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is—it is a huge problem. I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.
But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing. But that’s true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.
TRUMP: The secretary said very strongly about working with—we’ve been working with them for many years, and we have the greatest mess anyone’s ever seen. You look at the Middle East, it’s a total mess. Under your direction, to a large extent.
But you look at the Middle East, you started the Iran deal, that’s another beauty where you have a country that was ready to fall, I mean, they were doing so badly. They were choking on the sanctions. And now they’re going to be actually probably a major power at some point pretty soon, the way they’re going.
But when you look at NATO, I was asked on a major show, what do you think of NATO? And you have to understand, I’m a businessperson. I did really well. But I have common sense. And I said, well, I’ll tell you. I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO. But two things.
Number one, the 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren’t paying their fair share. Number two— and that bothers me, because we should be asking—we’re defending them, and they should at least be paying us what they’re supposed to be paying by treaty and contract.
And, number two, I said, and very strongly, NATO could be obsolete, because—and I was very strong on this, and it was actually covered very accurately in the New York Times, which is unusual for the New York Times, to be honest—but I said, they do not focus on terror. And I was very strong. And I said it numerous times.
And about four months ago, I read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that NATO is opening up a major terror division. And I think that’s great. And I think we should get—because we pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO. It’s a lot of money to protect other people. But I’m all for NATO. But I said they have to focus on terror, also.
And they’re going to do that. And that was—believe me—I’m sure I’m not going to get credit for it—but that was largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO.
I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS, and we have to do it fast, when ISIS formed in this vacuum created by Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton. And believe me, you were the ones that took out the troops. Not only that, you named the day. They couldn’t believe it. They sat back probably and said, I can’t believe it. They said...
TRUMP: When they formed, when they formed, this is something that never should have happened. It should have never happened. Now, you’re talking about taking out ISIS. But you were there, and you were secretary of state when it was a little infant. Now it’s in over 30 countries. And you’re going to stop them? I don’t think so.
CLINTON: ...Let’s talk about two important issues that were briefly mentioned by Donald, first, NATO. You know, NATO as a military alliance has something called Article 5, and basically it says this: An attack on one is an attack on all. And you know the only time it’s ever been invoked? After 9/11, when the 28 nations of NATO said that they would go to Afghanistan with us to fight terrorism, something that they still are doing by our side.
CLINTON: And, in fact, his [Trump’s] cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons is so deeply troubling. That is the number-one threat we face in the world. And it becomes particularly threatening if terrorists ever get their hands on any nuclear material. So a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes, as far as I think anyone with any sense about this should be concerned.
TRUMP: So I just want to give a lot of things—and just to respond. I agree with her on one thing. The single greatest problem the world has is nuclear armament, nuclear weapons, not global warming, like you think and your—your president thinks.
Nuclear is the single greatest threat. Just to go down the list, we defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries. They do not pay us. But they should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune. That’s why we’re losing—we’re losing—we lose on everything. I say, who makes these—we lose on everything. All I said, that it’s very possible that if they don’t pay a fair share, because this isn’t 40 years ago where we could do what we’re doing. We can’t defend Japan, a behemoth, selling us cars by the million...
HOLT: We need to move on.
TRUMP: Well, wait, but it’s very important. All I said was, they may have to defend themselves or they have to help us out. We’re a country that owes $20 trillion. They have to help us out.
HOLT: Our last...
TRUMP: As far as the nuclear is concerned, I agree. It is the single greatest threat that this country has.
HOLT: Which leads to my next question, as we enter our last segment here (inaudible) the subject of securing America. On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation’s longstanding policy on first use. Do you support the current policy? Mr. Trump, you have two minutes on that.
TRUMP: Well, I have to say that, you know, for what Secretary Clinton was saying about nuclear with Russia, she’s very cavalier in the way she talks about various countries. But Russia has been expanding their—they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.
I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they’re old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not—we are not keeping up with other countries. I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike.
I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.
And by the way, another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal. Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea.
And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea. And they should have done something with respect to Yemen and all these other places.
And when asked to Secretary Kerry, why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you add other things into the deal? One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million in cash. Nobody’s ever seen that before. That turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion in cash, obviously, I guess for the hostages. It certainly looks that way.
So you say to yourself, why didn’t they make the right deal? This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don’t have to do much.
HOLT: Your two minutes is expired.
TRUMP: And they’re going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he’s not a happy camper.
HOLT: All right. Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, you have two minutes.
CLINTON: Well, let me—let me start by saying, words matter. Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.
It is essential that America’s word be good. And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. I’ve talked with a number of them. But I want to—on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.
It’s also important that we look at the entire global situation. There’s no doubt that we have other problems with Iran. But personally, I’d rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program than still to be facing that.
And Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran? If he’s going to criticize a deal that has been very successful in giving us access to Iranian facilities that we never had before, then he should tell us what his alternative would be. But it’s like his plan to defeat ISIS. He says it’s a secret plan, but the only secret is that he has no plan.
So we need to be more precise in how we talk about these issues. People around the word follow our presidential campaigns so closely, trying to get hints about what we will do. Can they rely on us? Are we going to lead the world with strength and in accordance with our values? That’s what I intend to do. I intend to be a leader of our country that people can count on, both here at home and around the world, to make decisions that will further peace and prosperity, but also stand up to bullies, whether they’re abroad or at home.
We cannot let those who would try to destabilize the world to interfere with American interests and security...
TRUMP: And it’s a big problem. And as far as Japan is concerned, I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world...
The Iran Deal
CLINTON: ...With respect to Iran, when I became secretary of state, Iran was weeks away from having enough nuclear material to form a bomb. They had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle under the Bush administration. They had built covert facilities. They had stocked them with centrifuges that were whirling away.
And we had sanctioned them. I voted for every sanction against Iran when I was in the Senate, but it wasn’t enough. So I spent a year-and-a-half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran.
And we did drive them to the negotiating table. And my successor, John Kerry, and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot. That’s diplomacy. That’s coalition-building. That’s working with other nations.
The other day, I saw Donald saying that there were some Iranian sailors on a ship in the waters off of Iran, and they were taunting American sailors who were on a nearby ship. He said, you know, if they taunted our sailors, I’d blow them out of the water and start another war. That’s not good judgment.
TRUMP: That would not start a war.
CLINTON: That is not the right temperament to be commander-in-chief, to be taunted. And the worst part...
TRUMP: No, they were taunting us.
CLINTON: ... of what we heard Donald say has been about nuclear weapons. He has said repeatedly that he didn’t care if other nations got nuclear weapons, Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia. It has been the policy of the United States, Democrats and Republicans, to do everything we could to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He even said, well, you know, if there were nuclear war in East Asia, well, you know, that’s fine...
CLINTON: ... have a good time, folks.
TRUMP: It’s lies.
Support for the Invasion of Iraq
HOLT: Mr. Trump, a lot of these are judgment questions. You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion. What makes your...
TRUMP: I did not support the war in Iraq.
HOLT: In 2002...
TRUMP: That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her, because she—frankly, I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.
HOLT: My question is, since you supported it...
TRUMP: Just—would you like to hear...
HOLT: ... why is your—why is your judgment...
TRUMP: Wait a minute. I was against the war in Iraq. Just so you put it out.
HOLT: The record shows otherwise, but why—why was...
TRUMP: The record does not show that.
HOLT: Why was—is your judgment any...
TRUMP: The record shows that I’m right. When I did an interview with Howard Stern, very lightly, first time anyone’s asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows? Essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto. We talked about the economy is more important. I then spoke to Sean Hannity, which everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity. I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox. And Sean Hannity said—and he called me the other day—and I spoke to him about it—he said you were totally against the war, because he was for the war.
HOLT: Why is your judgment better than...
TRUMP: And when he—excuse me. And that was before the war started. Sean Hannity said very strongly to me and other people—he’s willing to say it, but nobody wants to call him. I was against the war. He said, you used to have fights with me, because Sean was in favor of the war.
And I understand that side, also, not very much, because we should have never been there. But nobody called Sean Hannity. And then they did an article in a major magazine, shortly after the war started. I think in ’04. But they did an article which had me totally against the war in Iraq.
And one of your compatriots said, you know, whether it was before or right after, Trump was definitely—because if you read this article, there’s no doubt. But if somebody—and I’ll ask the press—if somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said, it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that’s exactly what it’s done. It’s been a disaster.
HOLT: My reference was to what you had said in 2002, and my question was...
TRUMP: No, no. You didn’t hear what I said.
HOLT: Why is your judgment—why is your judgment any different than Mrs. Clinton’s judgment?
TRUMP: Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?
TRUMP: I have a much better—she spent—let me tell you—she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising—you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names — oh, temperament, let’s go after—I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not have a...
TRUMP: The AFL-CIO the other day, behind the blue screen, I don’t know who you were talking to, Secretary Clinton, but you were totally out of control. I said, there’s a person with a temperament that’s got a problem.