The “Commander-in-Chief Forum” with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that NBC’s Matt Lauer moderated Wednesday night was billed as a way to interrogate the presidential candidates on substantive veterans’ and national security issues.
But from the questions chosen to the format, the event served as little more than a class on how not to hold the candidates accountable.
In the 25 minutes devoted to Clinton, nearly half was spent by Lauer grilling her about her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state (one veteran also asked about the issue). That left little room for questions on policies she presided over while in office.
Lauer repeatedly failed to fact-check candidates on their responses to questions. When Hillary Clinton explained her anti-ISIS plan by saying “we are not going to have ground troops in Iraq,” he failed to point out that we already do have those troops. When Donald Trump claimed to have opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya from the beginning, Lauer failed to correct him and tell the audience that wasn’t true.
The forum was co-sponsored with the veterans group the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and some of the strongest questions came from veterans themselves — such as one question about how war veterans can trust a candidate with hawkish tendencies to end U.S. wars (Clinton) and another about how we can de-escalate tensions with Russia (Trump).
Unfortunately, those veterans received little airtime. Despite the fact that this is the only general election presidential forum so far focused exclusively on veterans’ and national security issues, NBC limited it to one hour. In that hour, a total of three minutes was spent taking questions from 10 questioners (four veterans asking questions of Clinton and six for Trump). The veterans were not allowed to ask follow-up questions or to offer any audible evaluation of the answers they elicited.
Lauer chose to ask Trump about his preparedness and past remarks, rather than question his actual plans. “I’d like you to tell our veterans and our people at home why you are prepared for the role of commander in chief,” said Lauer. Lauer would go on to further question Trump about his “preparedness,” his “temperament,” and his receptiveness to intelligence briefings.
It was left to the veterans to ask Trump about how to defeat ISIS, how to bring stability to the Middle East, how to stop veteran suicides and sexual violence in the military, and whether undocumented immigrants can serve in the armed forces. Lauer offered no meaningful challenges to any of his answers.
Lauer could have challenged Trump on his previous proposals, like “bombing the shit out of ISIS,” or on how tonight’s suggestions — like “leave a certain group behind and take various sections where they have the oil” – were supposed to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. But he did not.
On Wednesday afternoon, just eight hours before the forum, Trump proposed a dramatic expansion in the size of the military, increasing the army from 475,000 active duty soldiers to 540,000 — roughly the amount deployed at the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars — and adding roughly 100 ships and fighter jets to the Navy and Air Force. But Trump did not explain how he intended to pay for those hundred-billion-dollar proposals, or even attempt to show how they would help defeat ISIS.
Lauer failed to raise many of the most controversial national security issues in the post-9/11 world. For Lauer, the issue was whether Clinton’s emails contained information on the covert drone program, not whether the covert drone program was legal or ethical. He never to pressed her about the surveillance implications of her “intelligence surge,” or what “working with experts in Silicon Valley” meant. Trump was never asked to defend his proposals to infiltrate American mosques and spy on predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. At no point was either candidate pressed for their stance on the drone war, torture, Guantánamo Bay, or mass surveillance.
“This forum was an absolute disgrace. Matt Lauer treated this forum less as a chance to educate voters about the real differences in temperament and policy between the candidates and more as a chance to do clickbait trolling. Instead of asking about big ideas, he asked small-bore questions that voters aren’t asking at their dinner tables,” Adam Green’s Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is pushing for a debate format where Americans generate and rank questions to be asked of the candidates, said in response to NBC’s forum.