US Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a better leader than US President Barack Obama, echoing previous praise for the Kremlin strongman.
Putin is "very much of a leader," Trump said in a televised interview, where he and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were separately grilled over their national security and military credentials. Putin "has very strong control over a country," Trump said.
"It's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system. But certainly in that system he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."
Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian leader, who in turn has described the US businessman as "oustanding" and "very talented".
"If he says great things about me. I am going to say great things about him," Trump told an audience of military veterans at NBC's Commander in Chief Forum in New York on Wednesday.
"Certainly in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been,"
Before Trump spoke, Clinton faced questions on the sprawling email scandal that continues to overshadow her White House run.
The interviewer, NBC's Matt Lauer, asked why it wasn't "disqualifying" for Clinton to have handled government emails on a private server while secretary of state.
"It was a mistake to have a personal account. I would certainly not do it again. I make no excuses for it," Clinton responded, stressing she had not improperly handled classified information.
The forum, held aboard historic aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid, docked off New York City, did not put the candidates head-to-head, and Lauer asked them not to waste time insulting each other.
For the most part they refrained, though Clinton said Trump had refused to take responsibility for his initial support for the Iraq War. Trump went on to attack Clinton over her emails.
The first debate between the one-time friends-turned-bitter rivals is scheduled for September 26.
Trump's military plans
Earlier Wednesday, Trump pledged to increase US military spending — already at levels far higher than any other nation — and to demand a plan to beat DAESH if he becomes president.
The Republican presidential candidate told supporters he would ask generals to craft a roadmap to the annihilation of the DAESH terrorist group.
Trump also outlined proposals for an active army of around 540,000 troops, an air force of at least 1,200 fighter aircraft, a 36-battalion marine corps and a navy of 350 surface ships and submarines — though he provided no details on how he would persuade Congress to pay for it all.
Apart from consulting with top generals, Trump remained vague on how he would defeat DAESH. "Is the plan you've been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?" Lauer asked.
Trump said he didn't want to broadcast to the enemy his plan.
The Republican presidential candidate had called President Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton "co-founders" of DAESH in stump speeches several weeks ago.
The statement drew broad criticism, prompting him to take a more disciplined approach to campaigning. He has since picked up ground on Clinton in national opinion polls.
The United States for more than two years has led a coalition bombing DAESH in Iraq and Syria, and training local partners on the ground to fight the terrorist group.
The air campaign started slowly, but DAESH now appears to be on a back foot, having suffered tens of thousands of casualties and losing many of the important towns it once controlled.
Clinton provided more specifics, stressing DAESH would be defeated without US ground troops being deployed.
Currently, the US has thousands of troops in Iraq and hundreds in Syria, but their mission is to train local forces and not engage in direct combat with DAESH.
Attacking the generals
In a move likely to enrage the brass in the Defense Department, Trump also blasted the current status of top US officers, saying they had been hamstrung by Obama and Clinton.
"The generals have been reduced to rubble," Trump said, before noting he had "faith in certain of the commanders."
Trump, who has campaigned on a platform railing against illegal immigration, also said he had no problem with existing US policy of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the US if they serve in the military.
Most national polls show a tight race with Clinton in the lead as the US presidential race enters its home stretch with just nine weeks until the November 8 election.
Thank you to our fantastic veterans. The reviews and polls from almost everyone of my Commander-in-Chief presentation were great. Nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 8, 2016
However, Trump is ahead by a wide margin of 19 percentage points among military and veteran voters, according to the latest NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll.
His 55 to 36 percent lead with the group comes despite recent remarks against the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, members of the so-called Gold Star families who have lost loved ones on duty.
Trump also angered many in the military community with mocking remarks against US Senator and former prisoner of war John McCain for being captured in Vietnam.