Last Night’s Commander-in-Chief Candidate Forum

Ken AshfordElection 2016Leave a Comment

Last night, the two presidential candidates — Trump and Clinton — met with NBC’s Matt Lauer for a live interview on the U.S.S. Intrepid in front of an audience of military veterans to discuss issues of interest to those veterans.

It was, by most accounts, a shitstorm.

Matt Lauer was not biased, so much as he was unprepared.  Jonathan Chait said it best:

Matt Lauer’s Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I’ve Seen in This Campaign

I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major-party candidates. Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.

Lauer focused a third of his questioning time on Clinton’s private email server. Her decision to follow Colin Powell’s advice is a legitimate blot on her record. But Lauer did not move the ball forward on the question in any meaningful way

The word judgment has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year and a half. And in particular concerning your use of your personal email and server to communicate while you were secretary of state. You have said it’s a mistake.

You said you made not the best choice.

You were communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying, if you want to be commander-in-chief?

Lauer followed up with four more email-related questions. The impression an uninformed or even moderately informed viewer would receive from this interview is that the email issue represents a sinister crime, perhaps completely disqualifying from office, rather than an unjustifiable but routine act of government non-transparency.

The email exchange would not by itself be so alarming except when viewed in juxtaposition with Lauer’s hapless interview of Trump. Trump began the interview by boldly insisting, “I was totally against the war in Iraq. You can look at Esquire magazine from 2004. You can look at before that.” This is a lie. Trump has been quoted supporting the invasion beforehand and even afterward. Nobody has produced any evidence of Trump contradicting his support for the war before it started. His line to Lauer was transparently ridiculous – how could a 2004 interview supply evidence of having opposed a war that began in 2003? But Lauer did not try even a single follow-up.

Trump went on to make a series of wild and dangerous statements. He praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong, effective, and popular leader. Lauer did press him on this point, and when he did, Trump offered the astonishing rebuttal, saying President Obama had done equivalently brutish things. Lauer did not press Trump on his claim that the president of the United States behaves in a fundamentally similar way to a dictator who imprisons and kills political critics and journalists. Trump likewise reiterated his belief that “to the victor go the spoils” is the proper basis for American foreign policy, specifically with regard to his long-standing lament that the United States failed to steal Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion.

Lauer’s attempt to press Trump was the completely ineffectual technique of asking repeatedly if he is ready to serve as commander-in-chief. Lauer probably believes the answer is no, but nothing about this question would drive home Trump’s extraordinary lack of knowledge. Instead it allowed him to performatively demonstrate his confident, alpha-male reality-show character as a prospective chief executive.

Both of these beliefs stun and appall foreign-policy experts in both parties, as readers of the Washington Post or the New York Times know. But the average undecided voter isn’t reading those newspapers. The average undecided voter is getting snippets of news from television personalities like Lauer, who are failing to convey the fact that the election pits a normal politician with normal political failings against an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian.

Chait didn’t even hit all the low points.  For example, when Trump claimed, “We’re going to have to set up a court system within the military,” Lauer let the comment slide – instead of asking Trump if he knew the military already has its own court system.

And this goes to a common complaint coming from me and many many others.  What is the role of the press here?  Are they just mouthpieces for the campaigns, or are they obligated to correct misstatements IN REAL TIME?  Most people expect the latter.  But the press — well, the lower the bar.  He’s not SUPPOSED to know foreign policy because he’s an outsider, so the media treats him with kid gloves.

Does that make sense?

Here;s some related thoughts from the New York Times:


Yup.  So, in summary:


On the other hand, perhaps Lauer not challenging Trump was a good thing:

But there’s a cliché about giving a person enough rope to hang himself. Lauer, our timid little woodland creature, may have inadvertently done something akin to that last night, mutely standing by with a big old basket as Trump crapped out enough falsehoods and grotesqueries to generate weeks of headlines, analysis, attack ads — and debate questions.

Will more of our media urchins join the hunt and find those Easter eggs? That’s always been the question, and the smart money is usually on “no.” But today they’re ass-deep in them — anyone who watched last night’s forum is.

None of this excuses Lauer’s incompetence, of course, but I choose to see this as good news rather than bad. Take a spin through the mainstream media sites today. The “both sides” religion is still in evidence, but now the focus is on Trump, and not in a good way for him. Could the tide be turning? I think maybe it is.

It’s true.  Trump was scary bad last night with the things he said (quoted at the top).  He would have conquered Iraq (taking its oil) rather than liberating it.  That, of course, would be a… a…. what do you call it…. oh yeah…. a WAR CRIME.  Also, kind of impossible to “take the oil”.  These are huge oil fields — you can’t box them up.


Furthermore, Trump seems to be content to be Putin’s butt boy.

And calling the current generals under Obama “rubble”, he seemed to suggest that he would just bring in his own generals (as if that is how it works).  And on getting rid of ISIS?


What were the criticisms of Clinton?  Well RNC chairman Reince Priebus tweeted this:

It’s the “no smile” thing that many are latching on to this morning.  Women are told to smile a lot.  Trump didn’t smile either, but that made him seem sober and serious.

The Clinton campaign, of course, had the perfect response:

*Sigh* 60 more days.