My Take on the Nat Sec Forum

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Like many of you, I just watched the MSNBC candidates’ forum and here are my thoughts, presented in bullet points.

1. The audience questions to Hillary Clinton were tougher and Lauer was more aggressive with her. But I still think she came out of it better. The first audience question for Clinton especially was pretty rough. But she answered it well. And I thought she held up pretty well with Lauer as well. (At least from memory, I don’t think any of the questions Trump got were actually critical of him or addressed to his vulnerabilities.) Trump had it easier but I think he did worse.

2. I had an eye on Twitter as I was watching and I saw lots of people saying that Lauer went easier on Trump than Clinton. I follow many different people but certainly my follow list leans toward people who are not Trump supporters. Still, I think this was an exaggerated response. I thought Lauer actually went at Trump too. And in many cases Trump’s statements were so nonsensical that a) it was probably a bit hard to know how to respond and b) Trump’s ignorance spoke for itself.

3. Trump said a lot of stuff that should and I suspect will get scrutinized going forward – like literally time bombs lit tonight and exploding over the coming hours. He claimed again that he opposed the Iraq War; tons of evidence to the contrary. He essentially said the same about Libya; not true. He suggested that the current general staff and upper officer corps is a “rubble” and that he could and would fire the top military leadership. That’s not how our system works. The top military leaders are not political appointees. You can’t make General Flynn COO Commander-in-Chief.

4. He doubled down on the inane idea that we “should have taken the oil with us” and deprived ISIS of oil revenue. Setting aside international law and morality, which I’m not naive enough to believe entirely govern American elections, how on earth do you take the oil with you? It’s really big. It’s in the ground. You can put it in a box or a hundred boxes and ship back home. Sure we could have topped off the tanks before we left and even spent a couple years pumped and shipping as much as we could haul out. But it would barely make a dent. It takes a lot longer than that. This is an idea that isn’t so much wrong as ridiculous in a way that transcends ideology and politics. It is the kind of nonsense that can be repeated and make Trump look like a buffoon.

5. He praised Putin, took at face value state polls which show him with approval ratings in the 80s. He also continued to express what is clearly an instinctive belief that Putin is a great leader. Autocrats are not leaders in a sense we value or respect leadership in a democracy. It’s not like he’s Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln and just a bit more leader-y. He’s an autocrat who silences opponents and rules the state with an iron hand.

Trump said a number of really weird, disquieting things. In praising Putin he said admiringly that Putin “has strong control over his country.” What does that mean? Yes, he has incredibly strong control over that country. He’s destroyed basically every independent sector of power in business, rival political leaders. He dominates the press. He’s if not a dictator than an authoritarian strongman pretty much out of central casting. It’s one thing that Trump is vain enough that he just likes being called “brilliant” or whatever it is. But there’s something deeper there: Trump admires Putinism. I don’t think that looks attracts to the majority of Americans. That won’t wear well and Americans – for better or worse – do not like Vladimir Putin.

6: He affirmed a tweet in which he suggested that of course there are lots of rapes in the military because that’s what happens when you put men and women together. In other words, that’s what men do. Not good. I think we’ll hear more about that. Indeed, there are a half a dozen points that can and I think will at least to an extent be dissected.

7. The last point is I think the big one. You couldn’t watch Trump and be under any illusion that he has any idea what he’s talking about about really anything. I think we can dispense with any idea that Trump is going to bone up on a handful of policy points and use them during the debates. He totally winged and it showed. Someone I respect greatly said on Twitter that watching the debate we should dispense with the idea that Clinton will mop the floor with Trump in the debate. I’ve never thought she’d mop the floor with him. But I thought my friend greatly misjudged Trump’s performance. The exchange where Lauer kept asking him why he wouldn’t discuss his ISIS plans and then asked why he had to ask the generals if he had a plan and then Trump said well, maybe I’ll combine the two plans … this is a case where people are selling Lauer a bit short. That made Trump look like a jackass. People know from a young age when someone is trying to bullshit their way out of question. Trump has no idea what he’s going to do about ISIS. It was just nonsense and word salad. I think that was clear in a way that would transcend ideology.

Many people will say, well, people don’t listen closely, they’re easily snowed. Look how well George Bush did and he obviously knew nothing. I think the truth is a bit different about Bush. He was green and ill-versed in policy. But he went into the debates with a handful of broad themes and stuck to them. That’s not what happened here with Trump. He was all over the place and I think his ignorance and boastfulness was on a display in a not at all helpful way.

8. Lauer’s devoting a third of Clinton’s time to emails was terrible. But on question after question Clinton – clearly by design – tried to bury everyone in policy detail and command of the issues. She was smothering us with experience and we were smothered. You can think she’s a liar and a crook and the worst person in the world. But you couldn’t watch that segment and not realize she knows basically all the relevant issues inside and out. She’s prepared. Whether you support her or like her is another matter. But she’s prepared. I think Trump came off as cocky and ignorant. And I don’t mean to me – I know he’s cocky and ignorant. My best guess is that people who are wary of Trump but open to supporting him will not be reassured by that performance.

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