Clinton, Trump Prep To Face Off For First Time


Commander-in-Chief Forum leaves many wanting more.

It was the first time the two main presidential candidates had performed in the same venue: Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump were guests of NBC/MSNBC for a forum on national security.

The event – a preview of the first presidential debate set for Sept. 26 – was held at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan. It provided an opportunity for both candidates to begin to delineate their differences, as well as hone specifics about issues related to national security, foreign policy and veterans affairs.

A tall order for one hour split between the two. In attendance were a myriad of service people – all of whom seemed to be supporters of Trump and/or leery of a female commander in chief, which made for a somewhat lopsided event as Clinton’s half hour was eaten up by 12 minutes of discussion of the email controversy that has subsumed her actual policy, while Trump was never asked any serious questions about his adversarial and disrespectful attitude toward the military.

At the end of the hour many viewers came away frustrated by the exchanges, if social media was any indicator. Both sides found NBC’s Today Show anchor Matt Lauer singularly uninspired, but reviews were mixed on the candidates themselves. What seemed clear was no new converts were made to either candidate. If you were undecided coming in – a stance few can comprehend at this late stage in the campaigns – you likely remained so going out.

Body language was part of the process. While Trump remained seated and somewhat slumped over in his chair, Clinton stood and addressed the military in attendance, often quite forcefully. Trump’s half hour was more of a chat between him and Lauer with a nod to those in attendance, whereas Clinton was focused on the audience and less so on Lauer.

The forum was perhaps most notable for what was not discussed: While Clinton was given a dressing down by both Lauer and a career member of the military who was also a staunch Republican for her use of a private email server and by a Sanders supporter for her Iraq War vote, Trump did not face similar questions about his own stance on Iraq. Although myriad journalists in addition to myself called Trump out while live-tweeting the forum, Lauer did not.

Trump said he – unlike his opponent–had been against the Iraq War from the outset. This has been debunked as false numerous times, but Lauer let it slide.

Nor did Lauer raise several serious points about Trump’s record with regard to the military, most notably his attack on Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who was a POW for five years during the Vietnam War and who Trump, who had five deferments, called a “coward.” Lauer also made no mention of Trump’s weeks’ long attack on a Gold Star family, the Kahns, who appeared at the Democratic National Convention.

These seemed glaring errors even a novice reporter would not make.

Lauer did call Trump out on his assertion that he had more knowledge of ISIS and how to handle the terrorist group “than the generals,” but when pressed, Trump just dug in rather than disavowing his previous statement. Trump reiterated what he had said in a speech earlier in the day in Philadelphia, where he said on day one he would organize an attack on ISIS with “his” generals.

During the speech at the conservative Union League Club in Philadelphia Trump spoke to a mostly white, mostly male, wholly Republican audience about how he would pump up the U.S. military. He referred to Clinton as “weak” and “unfit” and “trigger happy,” while also stating that he was going to “rebuild” the military he asserts President Obama and Clinton have “destroyed.”

For her part, Clinton was grilled on her response to various conflicts during her term as Secretary of State. She stated several times that diplomacy was always the first option and armed conflict the last. Clinton also said there would be no incursion into Syria, which Trump supports doing.

Perhaps Clinton’s most thoughtful response came over the issue of suicide and the alarming number of veteran suicides that are happening in America – a startling average of 20 per day. She noted September is Suicide Prevention Month and laid out her plan to address mental health issues for veterans. (Last week Clinton rolled out what has been termed by mental health professionals as the most comprehensive plan in American history to deal with the growing problem of mental illness in America.)

Trump was asked one of the more disturbing questions of the forum: what to do about sexual assault in the military. It’s a shame Clinton didn’t get this question as it’s an issue she’s been working on since she was a senator. Trump’s response was less than stellar and appeared to blame women for being in the military at all, as evidenced by a tweet from Trump a few years ago on the subject.

Trump told Lauer, “Well, it is a correct tweet. There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct.”

But Trump said the prosecution of rape in the military must remain in the military, which is exactly why so few cases are prosecuted.

Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta responded, “Trump sputtered his way through the forum, making clear his secret ISIS plan is no plan at all, doubling down on the idea that the military should have known better than to have men and women serve together and lying yet again about his early support for the war in Iraq.”

Overall, Clinton was heavy on specifics in her customary wonky way and Trump was vague, as usual. On the key topic of ISIS, Trump said he had a secret plan but he wasn’t going to reveal it because that was the problem with Clinton and President Obama – they talk too much about details and “inform the enemy.”

Clinton focused on her experience. She laid out her mental health care and job creation provisions for veterans as well as touting her extensive foreign policy experience as Secretary of State and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She referenced being in the Situation Room during the time Osama bin Laden was assassinated and under other intense matters of national security.

For his part, Trump said the Obama administration had been “all wrong” with the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Obama of course inherited from George Bush, who Trump did not mention. Lauer also did not correct Trump when he said Obama retreated from Iraq inappropriately, forgetting the time table was set in an agreement between Iraqi officials and then-President Bush. Most startling was Trump insisting America should have “taken the oil” in Iraq – but there was no explanation of how.

Those of us who have been listening to the candidates over the course of what often seems an endless and relentless election cycle have heard much of what Clinton discussed previously. She was forthright, albeit somewhat testy at the outset when the subject of emails seemed to derail the conversation. Clinton told Lauer that to be a good president “What’s required is steadiness–an absolute rock steadiness.”

We’ve seen this in Clinton and of course, Obama. Trump…not so much.

After the forum, both candidates used it to fundraise. Clinton was blunt. In an email she wrote: “We’re less than nine weeks away from Election Day, so we’re using every opportunity to talk about the kind of future Americans deserve: one in which we’re fighting for each other — and against bigotry and divisiveness.”

Trump was just straightforwardly asking for money for the campaign. His sole tweet post-forum was praise of veterans–ignoring that he had spent a half hour explaining how they hadn’t done their job correctly.

Clinton had a mini-tweetstorm of tweets from herself and others flaying Trump for his performance. One of Clinton’s retweets was this:

and another:

Both of which referenced Trump’s belief that Russian President and former KGB operative Vladimir Putin is better and more presidential than President Obama – a shocking, wrong and inflammatory statement.

Trump also detailed a national security briefing he had–something that is simply not discussed in public, but then this is Trump – no secrets, even if they aren’t his.

The New York Times detailed it succinctly noting: “One of the most surprising moments of the night came when Mr. Trump chose to answer a question about the confidential national security briefings that he has recently begun to receive — a topic that presidents and presidential candidates rarely discuss with any openness.

“Mr. Trump, asked if he learned anything alarming, said, ‘There was one thing that shocked me’ and suggested that it involved a decision by President Obama and Mrs. Clinton that amounted to ‘a total disaster.’

“He then went further, asserting that Mr. Obama ‘did not follow what our experts said to do,’ and even claimed that the government officials who provided the briefing were ‘not happy’ with Mr. Obama. Explaining the basis of that assessment, Mr. Trump said, ‘I was pretty good with the body language.’”

There’s no question Clinton was overwhelmingly the better prepared and more thoughtful candidate—despite constant interruptions by Lauer and reminders to “be brief, Mrs. Clinton,” a chiding Trump never received. She spoke declaratively about ISIS and has policy to back it up:

Former national security spokesman for Obama, Tommy Vietor, noted:    

While when Trump called Putin “a popular guy, the polls say so,” Charles P. Pierce noted:

Clinton ended her half hour calling for inclusion and embrace of Muslim Americans in order to “prevent another San Bernardino,” as Lauer referenced. She also renewed her repeated call for assault weapons being banned for all people on terror watch lists.

Trump ended his time clearly satisfied he had won the forum.

But after all that was heard at the forum, only one takeaway made sense:

The first debate looms: Sept. 26. And with it, more questions about what it means to really be presidential.