Perhaps Matt Lauer’s brain was fried by too many years of “Today Show” happy chat, but it’s likely that whoever got tapped to host last night’s travesty would’ve similarly hewed to the phony dictates of “balance” and false equivalence.
The so-called “Commander-in-Chief Forum” was precisely what I and others have long predicted the autumn campaign would become: a tortured exercise in faux objectivity, a protracted attempt by the supposedly “liberal” media to savage Hillary Clinton and normalize Donald Trump, and thus pretend that a manifestly qualified woman is on a par with a manifestly ignorant pathological liar.
The appetizer in the toxic meal was Lauer’s opening 30 minutes with Clinton. He spent one-third of his time nagging her about the emails – give it a rest already; overclassification of materials has long been rampant, and people in the diplomatic service often use private email accounts – and as a result, he had to rush her answers about ISIS, with no time left for anything else (climate change, Russia, China, nuclear deterrence, anything). And it’s darn lucky she didn’t cough, because Lauer probably would’ve asked her if the idiotic trolls are right when they say she has early Alzheimer’s.
But the main event was Lauer’s abject subservience to Trump. Here’s the gist of what happened.
Q: Are you prepared to be commander-in-chief?
Q: But are you really prepared to be commander-in-chief?
A: The best!
Q: Thank you sir, may I have another?
Seriously, I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps the best route is chronological. The unchallenged lies began at the opening bell, when Trump insisted at length that he’s well-prepared to own the nuclear codes and command our military because “I’ve built a great company…I’ve had great experience dealing on an international basis” – Lauer didn’t ask, what international experience? – and besides, “I have great judgment. I have good judgment.” For instance, “I was totally against the war in Iraq.”
Again, for the umpteenth time, he uttered that lie. To repeat what has been proven over and over, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Trump “totally” opposed the war; in fact, during the runup to war in ’02, Howard Stern asked Trump if he’d support an invasion and Trump replied, “Yeah, I guess so.” This fact-checked material has been out there for months, but Lauer just indulged the lie.
Minutes later, same thing. Trump recycled his usual lie that President Obama founded ISIS (last night’s version: Obama pulled troops out of Iraq, “and, really, ISIS was formed”), but Lauer didn’t deem it prudent to point out that ISIS was formed in 2004 when Obama was a state senator in Illinois.
By the way, Trump repeated that lie in the midst of a meandering non-answer to an audience question about whether he has a plan to beat ISIS. Try to navigate the incoherence: “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 like maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan, or the general’s plan, if I like their plan, Matt, I’m not going to call you up and say, ‘Matt we have a great plan.'”
But hey, Trump said that he’s qualified because “I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today.” Lauer could’ve pointed out that some of Trump’s endorsers are badly tainted – one commander has demanded that Obama produce his birth certificate, another was reprimanded for a deadly crash that killed the U.S. Commerce Secretary, another was reprimanded for releasing classified material, another was a Navy lawyer who defended Navy officers charged with sexual assault in the Tailhook scandal – but nah. That wouldn’t have been “balanced.”
Trump’s most bizarre remark – which Lauer naturally failed to challenge – concerned the intelligence briefings that Trump is now receiving. If you can abide his gibberish, you’ll see what I mean: “There was one thing that shocked me….What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly – when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason – what our experts said to do. And I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance. And I could tell you. I have pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.”
Translation: The intelligence briefers, who are tasked to discuss confidential matters without partisan favor, confided to Trump that they’re ticked off with the President of the United States. That’s quite an incendiary allegation, impuging the briefers’ professionalism. Lauer needed to follow up. Did the briefers actually say something to that effect? Or is Trump so brilliant “with the body language” – he not only has the best brain, he’s the best judge of body language – that we should simply trust his reading of vibes? Or was Trump simply lying, the same way he lies about so much?
But here was Lauer’s follow up, in its entirety:
Time to go to NBC correspondent Hallie Jackson, who had a question from the peanut gallery.
Let’s see, what else – ah yes, the Putin fanboy stuff. No Trump riff on foreign policy is complete without a shout out to the Russian thug. When Lauer asked about Putin, he replied: “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating….He is really very much of a leader….In that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
It would’ve been nice if Lauer had pointed out that Putin owes his boffo rating to the fact that he suppresses dissent and murders opponents; that, as one recent study warned, Russians tell pollsters they love the guy because they’re afraid to say they don’t. But by the time Trump was lauding Putin’s polls, I’d long given up getting pushback from a morning show entertainer who was deft with a cooking skillet.
Plus, I was fixated on the fact that Trump knew more about Putin’s polls than he did about our military court system. This became clear minutes later, when he was asked to comment about sexual assaults in the military. He said that “part of the problem is, nobody gets prosecuted…You have the report of rape and nobody gets prosecuted.” Therefore, “the best thing we can do is set up a court system within the military.”
Well, guess what: America’s very best brain apparently doesn’t know that we already have a court system within the military – and, as Senate investigations have long proven, that’s precisely the reason why there have been so few prosecutions. The rape allegations go up the chain of command, and the male officers protect their own. It’s a blatant conflict of interest. Which is why reformers have argued for years that, at minimum, rape allegations be removed from the chain of command.
Don’t bother to ask whether Lauer challenged Trump’s ignorant answer. He was too busy setting up his final question: “What kind of homework are you doing? What kind of things are you reading as you prepare…?”
Response: “Right here is a list that was just printed today of 88 admirals and generals….I’m doing a lot of different things….We’re doing very well….I’m also partially running a business….We’re doing very well.”
Courageous follow up: “Will you be prepared on day one…?”
Response: “One hundred percent.”
Moments later, a second courageous follow up: “But you are prepared?”
Response: “And I have to tell you, totally prepared.”
There you have it. As last night’s designated Lord of Balance, Lauer apparently didn’t realize that by abetting Trump’s lies and ignorance, he furthered our dangerous flirtation with tinpot despotism. How sickening it was.
In the first half hour, Lauer pointed out the people in the audience who had served in Iraq. He then asked Clinton: “How do you think these people feel when the person running to be their commander-in-chief says her vote to go to war in Iraq was a mistake?”
Fine. But this would’ve been just as relevent in the second half hour: “Mr Trump, how do you think these people feel when the person running to be their commander-in-chief took four deferments during the Vietnam war, mocked John McCain’s years in captivity, spent a week attacking a Gold Star family, and accepted a veteran’s Purple Heart because it was ‘easier’ than fighting for it in wartime?”
Natch, there was no such question.