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Jeb Bush defends Medicare 'phase out,' talks Trump 'phenomenon'

Jeb Bush defended his remark that he would “phase out” Medicare in a wide-ranging interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt on Friday.

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush defended his remark that he would “phase out” Medicare in a wide-ranging interview with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt on Friday, saying Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton deliberately misinterpreted his point when she quoted it in a speech earlier in the day.

“First of all, I’m not for phasing out Medicare,” Bush said. “I said that we needed to reform it so that it exists for people who are anticipating getting it later on, and then I laid out exactly what that would look like. It’s not phasing it out, and she knows better than that.”

Bush spoke to NBC News shortly after the two presidential candidates delivered dueling speeches at the National Urban League conference in Florida, which promotes economic opportunity in African-American communities.

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“I don’t think you can credibly say that everyone has a right to rise, and say you’re phasing out Medicare or for repealing Obamacare,” Clinton said in her remarks.

Bush, who made the “phase out” remark at a town hall in New Hampshire, indicated through his campaign afterward that it referred to proposed reforms that include raising the retirement age and charging higher income seniors more for care.

“This is the really tired old campaign style of the left, to not engage, to try to find a problem,” Bush said on Friday. He noted he did not attack Clinton in his own speech.

“She can be critical,” he said. “I was not critical of her, I don’t think that’s the appropriate thing to do at an Urban League speech.”

As for another top presidential rival, Bush told Holt that Donald Trump’s candidacy was a “phenomenon” that caught him off guard, but Bush attributed its momentum to real concerns over immigration.

“I was surprised Donald Trump has surged,” Bush said. “I think he’s captured the deep frustration that people feel. I mean, I get that -- I get the lack of rule of law, the sanctuary cities, the open borders, all those things. He’s, in a very graphic way, appealed to people’s anger about those things. And I think it’s important to be respectful of that, make the case that we can fix these things, and over time the Trump phenomena will either succeed or fail based on his policies.”

In his speech to the Urban League on Friday, Bush took credit for appointing more African-Americans to Florida's judiciary as governor, reforming drug laws to emphasize treatment for non-violent offenders over prison and for promoting charter schools that he argued had improved education options for minority families. 

“I think it’s important if you’re going to aspire to be president of the United States you should aspire to be president of all people,” Bush told NBC News.

Democrats have their own story to tell about Bush and race, however, and Holt brought up one frequent attack: His decision to sign “Stand Your Ground” legislation that critics claim has disproportionately been used to defend white defendants in shootings.

Bush said he would sign the legislation again if he had the chance, “as long as there was prosecutorial discretion and more definition of how it was to be used.” 

Turning to foreign policy, Bush faulted President Obama for not having a clear strategy to defeat ISIS and said he would emphasize training Iraqi and Syrian forces rather than order American troops to directly confront ISIS forces on the ground.

Pressed by Holt as to whether ISIS would exist without the 2003 invasion of Iraq authorized by his brother, Bush conceded that the group’s formation might be a consequence of the war. 

“ISIS would not have formed necessarily [without the Iraq War],” Bush said. “Out of chaos, ISIS was formed.”

At the same time, Bush argued that Obama could have prevented the rise of ISIS by keeping troops in Iraq after the end of the war and pressuring Iraqi leaders to avoid stoking tensions between the majority Shia and minority Sunni population.