The Commander in Chief forum, hosted by IAVA and broadcast by MSNBC, promised to be an event in which military veterans would be able to question presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about veteran’s issues and military affairs. Instead, it was a canned, staged event in which television host Matt Laurer did most of the talking. The candidates were lobbed softball questions and gave predictably vague answers in a non-event which presented no new information to the audience and voting public.
The President in waiting
Mrs. Clinton was the first to appear on stage, agreeing with Lauer that there would be no personal attacks on her opponent before moving on. When asked what the most important quality is in a commander in chief, Hillary didn’t hesitate with her answer for a moment. “Steadiness,” she said, adding that the President has to make difficult decisions, requiring an individual who listens, processes information, and that temperament and judgement are the key.
As I sat in the audience, I was struck by how different Hillary Clinton comes across in person. Although I never found her to be very impressive on television, when seen in person she does in fact have a certain poise and grace about her that I never picked up on from seeing her in the media going back to when I was in grade school to today.
Lauer then launched into Clinton’s email scandal and frankly, Mrs. Clinton ran circles around him, explaining some nuances about classified information, classification headers, and how it is possible to talk about certain programs without going into classified details. Lauer, no doubt unfamiliar with the classification system was left with little rebuttal.
While I was personally disappointed that Clinton was not indicted by the FBI for mishandling classified information, and Lauer’s question as to how we can trust someone who cannot safeguard classified data, it was still pretty amazing to see her tap dance her way out of the question. Likewise, when the host asked about Clinton’s private server being hacked by foreign powers, Clinton had a rehearsed answer about how there is no proof but that there is proof that official State Department servers have been hacked. There is a certain amount of mental gymnastics here as the question many veterans have is why should we trust Clinton with classified information. Cyber-security is a whole other can of worms.
It was nearly nine minutes in to the hour long event (a half hour devoted to each candidate) before an actual veteran got to ask a question. John Lester who had served as a Naval aviator, asked a further question about Clinton endangering national security by playing fast and loose with classified information, actions that would have any military member stripped of his or her security clearance for at a minimum.
Meanwhile, let me explain some of the behind the scenes stuff going on here. I was asked to fill out a questionnaire for NBC by a friend who invited me to the event. The questions asked name, race, gender, age, units I served in, and then what question I would like to ask the candidates. I had been standing behind Lester in line and saw him get rushed up ahead of everyone. This was a curated event, with all questions pre-screened and approved by producers if not campaign managers. I realized at that moment just how canned this entire thing was and knew that there wouldn’t be any tough questions tonight. I can’t say that I’m surprised though.
As far as Clinton’s answer, I think it revealed a snap shot of why the public doesn’t trust her. She responded that none of the emails she sent included a classified header, something that we know to be false.
Lauer launched into his next bit against Clinton, fairly bringing up her support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and asking why the OIF veterans in the audience should trust her judgement, especially since she has flip flopped on this issue with the benefit of hindsight. Clinton said she supported the war at the time but now does not, then launched into an attack on Trump saying that he supported the war and still does, refusing to take responsibility for his poor judgement. Trump later denied this.
Next, a young veteran describing herself as a “progressive” asked why she should vote for Clinton who has a history of ill-conceived military interventions around the world from Iraq to Libya. “I view force as a last resort not as a first choice,” Clinton answered. This is all well and good, but her reply lacks specifics. How does she define “last resort” and what would be her threshold for deploying military forces? We don’t know, because Clinton again tap danced around the answer. Libya and Iraq were certainly not wars of last resort but wars of choice. In many ways it feels as if the military, particularly Special Operations, are viewed as a tool on the president’s utility belt almost as if they are a toy to be deployed at will to any and all foreign policy disputes. In the end, the American soldier has fought and died in 15 years of war with very little to show for it.
Now it was Lauer’s turn to interject again. It some ways it seemed that Lauer was jumping in as a kind of spacer between questions, but because all of the veterans who were allowed to talk had been pre-screen and pre-selected, they were all sitting right next to each other. There was no reason for Lauer to spot light himself over and over again with his own questions. I’m not the only one who felt this way as a New York Times journalist tweeted, “This #NBCNewsForum feels like an embarrassment to journalism.”
He asked about the Iran nuclear deal and Clinton replied that the Iranians may be up to no good but they will at least honor the nuclear deal and while we will still have to deal with shenanigans coming out of Iran, at least we don’t have to worry about them getting the bomb.
A former Marine then asked about problems with Veterans Affairs and if Clinton thinks the problems with VA are as serious as many veterans believe they are. Clinton replied that it is a serious issue but that she will not let VA be privatized as Donald Trump would like to do. In fairness, Trump later made himself very clear in saying that he would not privatize VA. Clinton was however knowledgeable in saying that there is a big problem in military records not making it from DOD to VA, but like most of her answers she did not get into any specific actions that she would take to reform the system.
Lauer’s next question was about veterans committing suicide. Clinton went into another vague response, mentioning how veterans are handed “bags of opiates” to deal with psychological issues which would be a funny comment if the issue wasn’t so serious.
A former Army Captain then asked about ISIS, to which Lauer pleaded with Clinton to keep it brief. By this point we were running out of time with Mrs. Clinton because we had wasted it talking about boiler plate topics in nothing more than glittering generalities. Clinton said that, “ISIS is my highest counter-terrorism goal.” Not Al Qaeda, who are alive and well in Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, you know that group that actually attacked America. Clinton promised facilitators and enablers to help the Kurds and Iraqis to fight ISIS but said, “they are not going to get ground troops” which is a blatant lie.
There are already around 300 US Special Operations soldiers in Syria and many more in Iraq. The deaths of Delta operator Joshua Wheeler and Navy SEAL Charles Keating are the clearest example that the wider American public can reflect upon. Clinton’s no ground troops comment is duplicitous at best and again relates back to what her threshold is for deploying military forces. Our soldiers are at war, and it is an insult to them when politicians play word games to say that we don’t have boots on the ground. We need to acknowledge the fact that we do, and Americans need to make informed choices based on this fact. I would also add that it is no secret that we have soldiers in Syria and Iraq, as it has been announced in White House press conferences.
Clinton then referenced a “residual force” we have in Afghanistan. What does that mean? Our soldiers who are fighting and dying there? Circling back to ISIS, she said that we are going to focus on the public face of ISIS, Al-Baghdadi, as the centerpiece of our anti-ISIS strategy. According to her, this worked when we targeted Osama Bin Laden. This shows her superficial understanding of counter-terrorism, one that is devoid of historical facts. Al Qaeda did not die off after Bin Laden was killed and it took us over a decade to track him down. Our counter-terrorism policy has to be a lot smarter than following some simplistic “cut the head of the snake” type doctrine which does not work.
Responding to one of Lauer’s questions, Clinton talked about a propaganda war against terrorist ideology but of course this was also non-specific and vague. Last but not least, she than said that people on the terrorist watch list should be barred from purchasing a firearm, depriving Americans of their civil rights without any due process. I’m not the only one who thinks this idea is hogwash, even the ACLU has come out against it.
Okay, good lord that was painful. Moving on…
During the commercial break, Trump’s entire entourage came out to take their seats. Retired General Flynn sat next to Melania Trump, and all of Trump’s children sat in the second row. I have to say that they were all well dressed if nothing else. When the show began again, Lauer asked Trump the same way he asked Clinton to keep attacks against his opponent to a minimum. Clinton did a poor job at honoring this but Trump agreed.
Lauer opened up with a lame duck fill in the blank question, asking Trump what would make him a good commander in chief. With no real experience in the arena of international politics, Trump predictably cited his business experience and his self proclaimed great judgement. He also took the opportunity to refute Clinton’s claim that he supported the Iraq war. Trump said that was never true and Lauer just let that one fly.
Trump has a talent for playing the strong man, or more accurately the paper tiger. When Lauer asked him if we can afford to have a President who makes regrettable comments, as Trump concedes he has been guilty of on occasion, he replied with a non-answer that he beat 16 other Republican candidates to get this far. Frankly, he sounded like a used car salesmen as he attempted to brag about his run at the White House.
For some reason Lauer kept talking and talking and talking. I guess no one told him that this was supposed to be a veteran’s forum not the Matt Lauer show. When asked if he really knows more about ISIS than military Generals (as he had claimed) Trump backpedaled, trying to shift his comments from being about the military to being about Obama. Apparently Lauer was challenging Trump on a previous comment he made regarding Generals becoming too politically correct by the time they get promoted to high level positions. I think that is fair to say, but characteristically, Trump did not stick to his guns and instead deflected by talking about how much he respects our military.
Referencing the fact that Clinton has been in politics for 30 years, he said, “we need change Matt, we have to have it, and we have to have it fast,” almost echoing Obama’s campaign slogan.
Finally, a veteran got to say something. This time the question came from a former Officer in the Marine Corps. It seemed as if the vast majority of the veterans in the audience were Marines from those I met and spoke with. The former Marine asked a great question, asking what Trump’s plan is for the dealing with the Middle East as a region and ensuring that we don’t have to keep going back as groups like ISIS sprout up again and again. In short, he asked: After ISIS, what next?
Trump’s answer was bat shit crazy. He blamed Obama for the mess in the Middle East, which was a theme of his entire interview that night, and went on to say that we should, “take the oil.” As a friend pointed out to me, this has been the plan of every British colonial leader for the last 100 years. Trump claimed that ISIS was formed with the power and wealth of that oil and if we annexed the oil fields than we wouldn’t be in this position. “It used to be that to the victor belongs the spoils,” Trump said, laying out a plan for outright colonialism in Iraq.
In fact, this sounds suspiciously like the fever dreams of empire cooked up by General Flynn, who sat in the crowd nodding his head. Flynn looks like one of those officers who grew up running five miles a day at 5AM every morning at West Point. Hawkish and stone faced, he cut a image similar to a North Korean General. His look was intense and focused as his listened to the candidate whom he advises on military affairs. What Flynn’s strategic gambit in all of this is remains unknown, but surely he has a plan which will go into action, when Trump leaves politics behind and goes back to reality television.
Trump also touched upon his laughable “secret plan” to deal with ISIS. Please tell me that I’m not the only one who sees right through this nonsense? You get it, right? He doesn’t actually have a plan. This is like school yard bluster and bluffs. I found it hard to watch Trump slog through this like a lost child.
Lauer asked Trump about the two intelligence briefings he had recently received and if he was shocked by anything he heard. It wasn’t on camera, but Lauer almost touched Trump on the thigh as he reminded him not to reveal any classified information on the forum, which was being broadcasted live. For some reason Trump went on another tangent saying, “first of all I have great respect for the people that do those briefings, they were terrific people.” Thanks, but who cares if they were terrific people or not?
With that over with, NBC was nice enough to let a veteran say something, this time a former Signal Corps officer. She asked if a undocumented worker who wants to serve in the armed forces should be able to remain in the United States. In fairness, Trump answered clearly and said that yes they should be allowed to stay.
Next a Staff Sergeant with a Special Operations background at Fort Bragg (cannot confirm myself), asked about escalating tensions with Russia and what Trump would do to bring Putin to the negotiation table. “I think I would have a very good relationship with many foreign leaders,” Trump said before launching into another attack on Obama. Trump once again managed to use a lot of words, but said nothing. Perhaps the one relevant thing he brought up was building a relationship with Russia to fight ISIS. Whether Trump realizes it or not, Obama has been working on that, but how this relationship would fundamentally change under a Trump presidency is unclear.
Things got more surreal when Lauer asked about Putin complimenting Trump in the press. Trump replied that Putin is a great leader because he has a 82% approval rating. I guess someone forgot to tell him that Russia is not exactly a stellar democracy and that those approval ratings are not the same as the ratings for his latest reality television show. When confronted with the fact that Putin annexed Crimea, supported Assad, supported Iran, and undermines American national interests the best reply Trump could come up with was a “Thanks Obama” in another attempt at misdirection. The Republican presidential candidate than told us he was a great negotiator and that we’re going to take back our country, as if anyone really knows what that means. But that is the point, to be vague enough that voters can project any meaning they want onto Donald Trump’s policy positions.
An OIF veteran asked about what Trump would do to support veterans. Trump boasted about his great relationship with veterans and promised to reduce wait times at VA. He said that he would let veterans see doctors that the choose, but refuted Clinton’s claim that he wanted to privatize VA. “I would never do that,” Trump promised.
Another veteran asked about veteran suicides. Trump said he would speed up the process of helping veterans and described VA as a corrupt enterprise. “We are going to make it efficient and good,” but failed to say how. Another audience member brought up sexual assault in the military and asked specifically what he would do to support victims. Trump said he wanted to keep the court system in the military and that perpetrators should be made to feel the consequences of their actions. Lauer quoted a Tweet from Trump saying that this was inevitable when men and women serve together, a claim that Trump stuck with during the interview.
Trump rightly called out Clinton for bumbling into Libya when questioned by Lauer, but again we’re not sure how he would do any better. We got a couple more soft ball questions from Lauer, and then the forum was over. I think anyone in attendance or watching on television would admit that it was a complete waste of their time. No new information or positions was brought to light. Instead we got a lot of childish sentimentality.
The theme of the night was evasive, vague, non-answers followed by mis-direction and general statements of affection for the US military without any actual political content or focus on policies. Frankly, it was embarrassing. IAVA, NBC, and Matt Lauer should be ashamed of themselves for wasting such an important opportunity.
Maybe next year, they should invite third party candidates so we can hear something other than hot air.