NBC Shows America How Not to Interview Presidential Candidates About the Military
The Commander-in-Chief Forum was a wasted opportunity
by MATTHEW GAULT
Americans will pick their next president in 60 days, and it still feels as if the electorate is picking over each candidate’s packaged statements and off-the-cuff madness for anything resembling a substantive policy.
NBC promised to change that. In the run up to the first presidential debate at the end of September, the network proposed a great idea — get Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to sit before a group of military veterans and ask them questions about how they’d lead.
“In two short months, Americans are going to vote in a critical election,” host Matt Lauer told us during the Commander-in-Chief Forum. “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are vying not only to become president of the United States, but one of them will become the leader of the most potent military force the world has ever seen.”
OK. Let’s do this. I’ve been waiting for this. Let’s ask Clinton about the drone program, shadow operations in Africa and what the war in Iraq taught her about foreign policy and the limits of military force. Let’s press Trump on NATO commitments and get specifics on his plan to deal with the Islamic State.
I want to know what both candidates think of ballooning military budgets, nuclear modernization and growing tensions on Russia’s borders.
That’s not what happened. Instead, Lauer and the veterans grilled Clinton on her emails for 10 of her 30-minute time slot, and Trump said a bunch of bizarre things that, in any other election cycle, would disqualify him from office.
So business as usual.
NBC set the stage for what could’ve been a great show. The network filmed the forum aboard the decommissioned World War II aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, floating off the coast of New York City in sight of Ground Zero. A small crowd of military veterans surrounded the candidates.
Lauer led by getting Clinton to promise to avoid attacking Trump as much as possible, then used her rambling response to lead her into questions about her email server. Really.
Look, I get it, the email server scandal isn’t going away. Clinton will be battling questions about her emails for the rest of the election and, possibly, her presidency. It’s fair game, but during the Commander-in-Chief Forum, where she had only 30 minutes to communicate her plans for the U.S. military, I’m not interested in spending a third of the time on an already much-dissected subject.
But it wasn’t to be.
She fared well during the questioning and tried to move past it, but Lauer and the crowd wouldn’t let her. She did look presidential, standing to face the veterans who asked her questions and responding to them directly, always meeting their eyes. It was a small thing, but respectful and it stuck with me.
Lauer and the veterans asked Clinton few questions, because Clinton is adept at speaking at length. She’s been a politician for so long that even short answers become long-form stump speeches.
“I view force as a last resort, not a first choice,” she said when questioned by a progressive veteran about her hawkish foreign policy. Later, she claimed she’d defeat the Islamic State without putting troops on the ground, and target I.S. leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Pundits and critics claim that a Clinton presidency will be an extension of Barack Obama’s policies. When she tells the audience that she’ll avoid large troop commitments and continue to pursue high value targets — with implied drone strikes — it’s hard to argue the point.
“We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops,” Clinton said.
Apparently, as is often the case with both politicians and the Pentagon, Special Operations Forces do not count as boots on the ground.
Trump fared worse. The real-estate mogul slouched in his chair, twisted and babbled through Lauer’s kid-glove questions. Both Clinton and Trump took cheap shots at each other, despite telling Lauer they’d hold off, but Trump also dumped on Obama every chance he got.
“It has absolutely been a disastrous war,” Trump said when asked about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “And by the way, perhaps almost as bad, was the way in which Obama got out.”
He got his first dig in at the administration in under two minutes. Impressive. Trump then claimed his trip to Mexico had gone so well that the Mexican politicians who organized the visit had been forced out of office. In reality, Mexican finance minister Luis Videgaray resigned after advocating Trump’s visit.
That a foreign government had to shake up its cabinet because an American presidential candidate visited the country is a sign of things to come should the public elect Trump. It’s grotesque to call it a victory.
Then, in a confusing rant, Trump claimed that “under Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble.” Showing how deeply he misunderstands the military, he promised he’d get better generals.
The most frustrating thing, for me, about Trump is when he stumbles his way into a deep truth only to stick his foot into his mouth.
A canny Iraq war veteran stood and asked Trump what he’d do after he defeats the Islamic State, and the answer was both enlightening and frustrating. “Part of the problem that we’ve had is that we go in, we defeat somebody and we don’t know what we’re doing after that,” Trump said.
Which is true. The idiot savant of American politics stumbled into the greatest problem of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the U.S. government achieved two military victories, but shattered these countries in the process. America failed at reconstruction in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
Trump then blamed Obama for the Islamic State and advocated imperial, blood-and-treasure foreign policy as a solution for Islamic extremism. “Take the oil,” he said. “If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS.”
“How are we going to take the oil,” a bewildered Lauer asked. “How are we going to do that?”
Trump didn’t have a clear answer. “It used to be that to the victor belonged the spoils,” he said after rambling about the beauty of Iraq’s oil. “I always said take the oil. One of the benefits we would have had if we had taken the oil is ISIS wouldn’t have had the oil to fuel themselves.”
Trump crafts tautology into digestible pop art. It’d be impressive to watch if he weren’t trying to become the most powerful person on the planet.
Trump went on to claim that the people briefing him on national security matters obviously disliked Obama, based on their body language, and he further lauded Russian potentate Vladimir Putin.
It’s all more of the same from both candidates. There was a chance here to do something interesting. NBC created an amazing event, picked the perfect location and set up an intelligent audience who asked thought-provoking questions.
But the network scheduled only half an hour for each candidate, which was far too short — and flanked the program with an hour of talking heads speculating what the candidates might say, and dissecting what they did say, before and after.
I would have preferred to hear both candidates discussing the issues at length during those wasted hours, instead of NBC filling the screen with bloviating.
Lauer politely tried to wrangle the pair, but did a poor job and didn’t have the time or competence to press either on tough questions. The NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum was just another in a long line of tepid media events where the press let the candidates lead the circus, instead of holding their feet to the fire.