There appears to be near universal agreement that Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator at the Commander In Chief Forum was a disaster. Lauer certainly failed to fact check multiple false statements from Donald Trump, who was once again confused and incoherent when trying to discuss matters of policy. He also did a poor job in fact checking Hillary Clinton, or at holding her responsible for her long history of poor decisions on foreign policy.
Trump had so many false statements it is difficult to list them all. Perhaps that is his strategy–make it hard to stay focused on any particular falsehood or foolish statement. Factcheck.org and PolitiFact have lists of falsehoods by both candidates. This doesn’t include matters of poor judgment from each candidate. The full text of the forum can be found here.
Among the lowlights from Trump was once again claiming to have opposed the Iraq war before it started, his false claims to have opposed the intervention in Libya at the time, his threat to get rid of the top generals, and his distortion of Clinton’s statements about the problems at the VA. Plus there’s his secret plan to defeat ISIS.
Matt Lauer spent a lot of time on Clinton’s email but did so poorly. He brought up some of the problems but allowed Clinton to get away with the same distortions she has used in the past. This provided nothing new on the issue, and wasted time which would have been better spent on Clinton’s dreadful foreign policy record.
Clinton tends to make lawyerly statements which on the surface are nearly true, but which skirt the real issue. During the forum she said:
“Classified material has a header which says ‘top-secret, secret, confidential.’ Nothing, and I will repeat this and this is verified in the report by the Department of Justice, none of the emails sent or received by me had such a header.”
There were a few emails which were found to have a designation of c, but Lauer really should have pointed out the more important problem as stated by James Comey:
There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.
As Reuters explained, some types of information are “born classified” and are classified regardless of whether there is a classified header. Clinton is just distorting the issue when concentrating on how the email was labeled.
Another problem for Clinton’s claim is that she was found to have instructed an aide to remove the “identifying heading” and send information trough non-secure channels.
Other falsehoods from Clinton include falsely claiming that Trump wants to privatize the VA when he has actually advocated allowing patient’s in the VA system to obtain care from physicians outside the VA system when necessary–an idea which even some Democrats have supported.
The bigger problem was the limited discussion of actual policy. As Alex Emmons has also pointed out, NBC’s Military Forum Was a Master Class on How Not to Hold Candidates Accountable. For example:
When Hillary Clinton explained her anti-ISIS plan by saying “we are not going to have ground troops in Iraq,” he failed to point out that we already do have those troops. When Donald Trump claimed to have opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya from the beginning, Lauer failed to correct him and tell the audience that wasn’t true…
Lauer chose to ask Trump about his preparedness and past remarks, rather than question his actual plans. “I’d like you to tell our veterans and our people at home why you are prepared for the role of commander in chief,” said Lauer. Lauer would go on to further question Trump about his “preparedness,” his “temperament,” and his receptiveness to intelligence briefings…
Lauer failed to raise many of the most controversial national security issues in the post-9/11 world. For Lauer, the issue was whether Clinton’s emails contained information on the covert drone program, not whether the covert drone program was legal or ethical. He never to pressed her about the surveillance implications of her “intelligence surge,” or what “working with experts in Silicon Valley” meant. Trump was never asked to defend his proposals to infiltrate American mosques and spy on predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. At no point was either candidate pressed for their stance on the drone war, torture, Guantánamo Bay, or mass surveillance.
Clinton avoided true accountability regarding her support for the Iraq war, even twisting this into a reason to support her over Trump, with some rather dubious logic and distortions of the facts:
CLINTON: Now, my opponent was for the war in Iraq. He says he wasn’t. You can go back and look at the record. He supported it. He told Howard Stern he supported it. So he supported it before it happened, he supported it as it was happening, and he is on record as supporting it after it happened. I have taken responsibility for my decision.
LAUER: Let me go to another…
CLINTON: He refuses to take responsibility for his support. That is a judgment issue.
While Trump’s claims of opposing the war before it started do not hold up, there is a huge difference between Trump sounding rather unsure and going along when asked about it, as opposed to Clinton actively promoting going to war based upon false claims of ties between Saddam and al Qaeda. She was incorrect about Trump continuing to support the war.
While she admits Iraq was a mistake, she made the same mistakes on both Libya and Syria. That is the real judgment issue. Plus, on Libya, while both originally supported regime change, Clinton continues to defend that disastrous decision, while Trump has come out in opposition. To take Clinton’s own words, it was Clinton who supported it before it happened, supported it as it was happening, and is on record as supporting it after it happened.
Trump was again incoherent with regards to his man-crush on Putin, but I also wish that Lauer had asked Clinton about the danger that her belligerent views towards Russia risks getting us into a war with them. He might have also asked her about her threats to obliterate Iran, her past refusal to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against terrorists (a view similar to the view Trump has rightly been criticized for), her unwillingness to accept a diplomatic solution over war in Syria, and her siding with Republicans to oppose a ban on the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.
While it was partially due to the candidates only wanting to face questions for a half hour, Lauer does deserve criticism for not taking advantage of the time to further probe the failings of both candidates on foreign policy. The real loser, however, is not Matt Lauer. It is the American people who will be stuck with one of these candidates as president. Neither has the judgment to be Commander In Chief, and both have serious difficulties with telling the truth.
Update: Late night comics on the forum.