Let’s dispel with the fiction that Matt Lauer’s embarrassing performance at the big, prime-time presidential forum was the problem.
Yes, he was awful. No, it didn’t make any difference.
The real problem is that this forum was a preview of the presidential debates and, as such, was the starkest possible reminder that we must take seriously the otherwise completely unserious notion that Donald Trump could become president.
On any other night, in any other time, Trump said at least a half-dozen things that would have turned any other race completely sideways. But this isn’t any other time, and so Trump can say, with apparent admiration, that strongman Vladimir Putin is a far better leader than Barack Obama and then offer as documentation Putin’s polling numbers — and still he not only survives, but presumably thrives.
Yes, he actually cited polls showing Putin’s approval ratings at 82 percent as if Putin were just your everyday political leader and not an ex-KGB thug who punishes, purges and even kills both his political opponents and the journalists who write about them. That will get your numbers up.
I’m pretty sure Trump would kill – at least metaphorically – for those kinds of numbers, but let’s put that House of Cards episode aside. When Lauer mentioned to Trump some of Putin’s more obvious flaws – like, you know, invading sovereign neighbors and hacking DNC computers –Trump countered by saying he could recite a similar list of Obama sins. I wish he had, but Lauer didn’t take the bait.
Still, it’s not about Matt Lauer and whether he lingered too long over Clinton emails or failed to counter Trump when Trump lied about being against the Iraq war from the beginning. It’s about Trump. It’s always about Trump.
Which isn’t to say Clinton had a good night. She didn’t. She’s dependably at her worst trying to answer the email question, and so she looked defensive from the start. And the headline sound bite from her performance was a vow never again to put ground troops in Iraq and Syria when she knows, and we know, that there are thousands of special forces troops in Iraq right now. Is she planning to pull them out? Um, Lauer didn’t ask.
But for those who say Clinton is spending too much time criticizing Trump, the truth is there no such thing as too much time spent criticizing Trump.
The danger has always been in normalizing Trump. Lauer did his part, but there were still so many abnormal moments in Trump’s 26 minutes before the camera.
We’ve covered Putin. (The essential Trump quote: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”) But there’s so much more.
Trump attempted to defend a 2013 tweet about sexual assault in the military in which he wrote: “What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” He said it was a “correct” tweet and that “many” thought it was “absolutely correct.” And then he said the way to solve the problem was to “set up a court system within the military.” What in the name of Lindsey Graham was he talking about?
There’s more. When trying to reconcile his year-long promise of a “secret” plan to decimate ISIS with his latest non-secret plan to call together top generals to come up with their own plan to decimate ISIS, Trump insisted that he really did have a secret fool-proof plan but just wanted to make sure there wasn’t an even more fool-proof plan that he should also consider.
Of course, on the same night, he had to answer for his statement that he knew more about ISIS than the generals — yes, he has said this – by contending that the generals under Obama and Clinton had been “reduced to rubble” and were “embarrassing.” And he added that when he called together his generals for their ISIS plan, there’d be a bunch of new generals, as if he plans to fire all the old generals. Maybe he thinks this is just another episode of The Apprentice, which, God knows, we could only wish were true.
Wait, there’s still more. My personal favorite moment — other than reliving Trump’s assertion that we should have taken Iraq’s oil without him ever having to explain how you’d get the oil out of Iraq without keeping troops there — came when Lauer asked Trump about the security briefings he now receives. These are classified briefings. And the typical answer to all questions about classified briefings is that, hey, sorry, they’re classified. But that’s not Trump’s style. And so, after saying he hadn’t learned anything in these briefings that would affect his approach to ISIS, he offered up this: that what he did learn was that Obama and Clinton and John Kerry had ignored their intelligence briefings and that his briefers were pretty upset about it. How did he know this? He said he was “pretty good with the body language.”
I’ll have to admit that Trump’s body language wasn’t bad. He seemed relaxed throughout the interview – so relaxed, in fact, that RNC chief Reince Priebus thought it would be a good idea to win over suburban women by tweeting that an “angry” Hillary Clinton failed to smile as she discussed matters of war and peace.
And so tweet he did. And so the race continues. And so, as we await the first debate on Sept. 26, Nate Silver puts Trump’s chances of winning at 31 percent, which doesn’t come close to Putin’s presumed 100 percent. But still, close enough.
Flickr photo by Donkey Hotey