With the first formal debate between the two major-party candidates only two weeks away, viewers were treated (if that’s the right word) to a preview of what to expect last night, during a town hall–style event dedicated to military and national-security issues.
The event showed, if nothing else, that the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, will say just about anything to win in November. It also became painfully clear that the moderator of the event, NBC’s Matt Lauer, is clearly more comfortable doing cooking segments with Giada than he is grappling with the minutiae of US foreign policy.
This was a big missed opportunity for the network—not to mention viewers—because the timing for the forum was appropriate; after all, over the past month or so both Clinton and Trump have rolled out dueling sets of endorsements by, in Clinton’s case, scores of neoconservative national security and other former military officials and, in Trump’s case, 88 former generals and admirals.
And only hours before the grandiosely titled Commander-in-Chief Forum took place, Trump made an address in Philadelphia where he kowtowed to the Republican foreign-policy establishment, pledging to lavish tax dollars on the military.
Trump also unveiled his “plan” to defeat ISIS which amounts to giving the military 30 days to come up with… a plan. Yet in reality Trump’s non-plan is no worse than what Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta once said was “Hillary’s strategy to defeat ISIS: Defeat Isis in Syria & Iraq; Disrupt & dismantle terrorist infrastructure; Harden our defenses.”
At the the Forum yesterday evening, when Lauer asked Trump about his new “plan” Trump responded:
I may love what the generals come back with. I will convene… I have a plan. But I want to be—I don’t want to—look. I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.
Trump castigated President Obama for setting “a certain date” for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, which he implied gave rise to the chaos currently enveloping that country. Lauer might have pointed out that it was George W. Bush who signed the Status of Forces Agreement that set the terms of withdrawal, not Obama. But no. Lauer also failed to follow up on two other Trump comments that would have sunk the candidacies of any other major-party candidate for president.
In a rambling answer to a question about Iraq, Trump noted (again) that the biggest mistake made in Iraq was that the United States did not “take the oil.” He then observed: “They have—people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves the world, in the entire world.” Then, in what was ostensibly an answer to a question about ISIS, Trump observed that under President Obama, “the generals have been reduced to rubble.”
What exactly did he mean here? No one knows, and Lauer didn’t press him on any of it.
Still worse, Lauer failed to question Trump on his repulsive immigration plan, which would include an ideological (read: religious, ethnic) “screening” of immigrants.
Indeed, the only time Lauer seemed somewhat less than somnolent was when Trump began his usual spiel about how well and he and Vladimir Putin might get along. This roused an indignant Lauer to remind Trump that Putin is “also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world…”
For her part, Hillary Clinton came out appearing more presidential, but that isn’t saying much given the competition. If Republican primary voters had not bequeathed the gift of Donald Trump to her candidacy, she might well be facing the scrutiny some of her own comments deserve.
Last night she claimed “we are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again.” Odd. There are currently roughly 5,000 troops in Iraq. Is she suggesting that she plans to withdraw them should she win in November?
She assured one veteran in the audience that “I view force as a last resort not as a first choice.” Yet does her record of urging military action in Kosovo (as first lady), Iraq (as senator), Libya and Syria (as secretary of state) back that up?
Clinton also claimed that before she was secretary of state, Iran was on a “fast track” toward building a nuclear weapon. But a 2011 IAEA report indicated that Iran had not in fact decided to build a nuclear weapon. In 2007 a US intelligence estimate said Iran stopped work on its nuclear weapons program as far back as 2003.
Clinton also claimed that she was right to support the use of force against Libya because Col. Gaddadi was about to commit a wholesale massacre on the citizens of Benghazi. And yet, as a report from Harvard’s Belfer Center pointed out, “there was virtually no risk of such an outcome if he [Qaddafi] had been permitted to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi.”
It hardly needs saying that the moderator did not press Clinton on any of this. The befuddled Lauer simply allowed Clinton and Trump to play to type: she was mendacious, he was ridiculous.
We have 60 more days of this. God help us.