By Jeff Mason
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton slammed Republican rival Donald Trump on Thursday for talking about things he learned in classified intelligence briefings and for praising Russia's Vladimir Putin as a better leader than President Barack Obama.
Speaking to reporters the day after a New York security forum featuring separate appearances by the two candidates, Clinton also criticized the businessman for saying U.S. generals had been "reduced to rubble" by Obama's policies.
At the televised forum on Wednesday night, Trump said he was "shocked" by information he got during the briefing. "What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts ... said to do," Trump said.
Clinton, who was secretary of state during Obama's first term, said Trump's comments on the briefing were "totally inappropriate and undisciplined."
"I would never comment on any aspect of an intelligence briefing I received," Clinton said before boarding her campaign plane. As nominees for the Nov. 8 presidential election, she and Trump are entitled to receive intelligence briefings.
Clinton said Trump's praise of Putin as a better leader than Obama was "not just unpatriotic and insulting to the people of our country, as well as to our commander in chief, it is scary."
"It suggests he will let Putin do whatever Putin wants to do and then make excuses for him," Clinton said.
Trump fired back at Clinton, saying her comments were an effort to make up for a poor performance during the security forum.
"Hillary Clinton is always complaining about what's wrong," he said during a campaign stop in Cleveland, where he visited a charter school and proposed federal spending on "school choice" programs.
"I just watched her on the tarmac. She tried to make up for her horrible performance last night," Trump said.
The intensifying political combat came as Clinton's lead in opinion polls has slipped in recent days. The current average of polls by website RealClearPolitics puts her at 45.6 percent support, compared with Trump's 42.8 percent.
Obama also hit back at Trump for criticizing his foreign policy record, saying the Republican nominee was unfit to follow him into the Oval Office and the public should press Trump on his "outright wacky ideas."
The televised "Commander-in-Chief" forum on Wednesday, attended by military veterans, was the first time Trump and Clinton had squared off on the same stage since accepting their parties' White House nominations in July, although they did not appear at the same time.
A PRELUDE TO DEBATES
The forum offered a prelude to how Clinton and Trump will deal with questions of national security in their three upcoming presidential debates later in September and in October.
Clinton has said her experience in government as secretary of state and a U.S. senator makes her uniquely qualified for the White House, and that Trump's series of controversial comments make him temperamentally unfit for the office.
Some of Trump's foreign policy positions, such as his proposal to fight terrorism by imposing a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, have alarmed not just Democrats but many in his own party's leadership.
Trump, who has never held elected office, has criticized Clinton's judgment for backing the 2003 Iraq war and her support for the U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011. The Republican candidate was widely criticized recently when he called her a "co-founder," along with Obama, of the Islamic State militant group.
Clinton, who voted in favor of the 2003 Iraq war as a senator but has since said she regrets doing so, said she would convene a meeting of bipartisan security experts on Friday to discuss the fight against Islamic State.
"What you didn’t hear from Donald Trump last night was any plan to take on ISIS," Clinton told reporters, using an acronym for the group. "That’s not only dangerous, it should be disqualifying."
Trump and Clinton supporters went on the offensive on social media Wednesday night and Thursday morning, defending their candidates’ performances during the forum.
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway spoke with Trump supporters in Congress on Thursday morning, and Trump spoke with the group by phone to thank them for their support. Some supporters shrugged off his comments about Putin.
"I think he is being very smart in how he addresses Putin and you know, maybe he's playing with Putin's ego," said Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
Mike Pence, Trump's vice presidential running mate, told CNN it was "inarguable" that Putin had been a stronger leader of Russia than Obama had been in the United states.
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the top elected Republican official, who has frequently broken with Trump, took a sharply different view.
"Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries," Ryan told reporters at his weekly news conference.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters at the Cleveland rally that Trump was not endorsing Putin with his praise.
"He doesn't agree with his style of government. He wasn't saying that," he said.
Clinton said Republicans holding or seeking office across the country should be pressed on whether they agree with Trump's comments, including his views on Putin and U.S. generals that surfaced during the forum.
"Republicans are just in a terrible dilemma trying to support a totally unqualified nominee, I have no sympathy for them, it’s their nominee," she said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Cleveland, Ginger Gibson, Emily Stephenson and Susan Heavey in Washington, Amy Tennery in New York; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Andrew Hay and Leslie Adler)