- The Washington Times
Monday, July 25, 2016

The U.S. is an exceptional nation that stands with every ally, rebukes foreign strongmen and prefers leaders who don’t “trash-talk” America, Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton told veterans Monday in a series of thinly veiled swipes at Republican rival Donald Trump.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, cast herself as a thick-skinned leader who will take a balanced, collaborative approach to war policy and a much-needed overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs, where a waitlist scandal has become a black eye for President Obama and could saddle the former secretary of state’s bid to replace him.

Without invoking his name, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly criticized Mr. Trump’s brash and outspoken style, saying efforts to rebuff Russian aggression and defeat the Islamic State require a “firm but wise” hand.

“I have confidence. I have optimism,” the former secretary of state said. “I don’t understand people who trash-talk about America, who talk about us as being in decline, who act as though we are not yet the greatest country that has ever been created on the face of the Earth for all of history. If you want somebody who will scapegoat other people, peddle fear and smear, I’m not your candidate.”

The U.S. will work with Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles but stand up to its aggression in Eastern Europe, she said, pushing back at the GOP nominee’s insistence that NATO states pay their fair share before they receive the full protection of American military power.

Mrs. Clinton also rebuked Mr. Trump’s comfort with waterboarding, saying she’d never direct soldiers to commit war crimes, and scoffed at the mogul’s pledge last week to rebuild a “depleted” military.

“I believe the United States of America is an exceptional nation with capabilities that no other country comes close to matching, and we have the world’s greatest military,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Mrs. Clinton addressed the VFW just days before she is slated to accept her party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where pushback from primary-race supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont is already roiling the festivities.

Three prominent polls showed Mr. Trump, who will address the VFW on Tuesday, leading Mrs. Clinton by 1 to 4 percentage points after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week.

Mr. Trump said a Clinton administration would amount to a third term for Mr. Obama, so she is not the agent of change needed to beat back America’s enemies or reform the VA, where veterans were placed on secret wait lists in order to boost production numbers and earn bonuses. Dozens of veterans died while waiting on the lists in Phoenix.

“We will take care of our great veterans like they have never been taken care of before,” Mr. Trump said in his convention speech Thursday. “We will guarantee those who serve this country will be able to visit the doctor or hospital of their choice. My opponent dismissed the VA scandal — one more sign of how out of touch she really is.”

In October Mrs. Clinton told MSNBC that the problem at the VA has “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be,” though her campaign walked those comments back.

On Monday she called the VA situation “heartbreaking and absolutely unacceptable.”

Mrs. Clinton has praised the Choice Card program, passed in 2014, that allows veterans who live far from a VA hospital or who have been waiting for too long for an appointment to seek care at a private clinic, with the government reimbursing the cost.

However, she said it should not be used as a catalyst to take government out of veterans’ care altogether.

“I will tell you this,” she told the VFW, “we are not going to privatize the VA. We are going to reform it and make it work for every veteran in America.”

She pledged to make sure that veterans get timely care, expand services for female veterans and improve mental health care for veterans at risk of suicide, though her remarks didn’t offer the level of detail that some were hoping for.

“We are glad to see that Secretary Clinton now acknowledges the serious problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs after originally downplaying them last fall,” said Dan Caldwell, a spokesman for Concerned Veterans for America. “However, we are disappointed that Secretary Clinton did not outline a vision of reform for the VA which would greatly expand health care choice for veterans and increase accountability for employees guilty of misconduct.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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