It is now widely agreed that Mat Lauer did a poor job in hosting the presidential candidates’ national security forum on Wednesday. Word is that even at NBC, the host network, the assessment is that the forum was a “disaster.” Lauer certainly deserves to be skewered for his unbalanced questioning—very tough on Clinton, much less so on Trump.
But I don’t think the event was a disaster. I expect its result will be a net positive for the Clinton side. Hillary, I thought, was excellent. Her thorough knowledge of policy was on full display. She was confident and, to my mind, quite convincing in her responses to the grilling she got (yet again) on her e-mails.
Trump did his best to look and sound presidential: no shouting or ranting and raving or gesticulating. I was afraid he might have helped himself just by demonstrating that he could avoid being an obvious jerk. Yes, his performance was at various times nonsensical or at best blatantly unconvincing, and he showed his typical indifference to the truth, but I didn’t think that these shortcomings would be picked up by average viewers. (Absurdly, he touted the canning of a Mexican cabinet member as evidence of the success of his trip, while in fact it was just the opposite. Do the viewers realize that? Did they see through the idiocy of his assertion that we should have just “taken” Iraq’s oil to keep it from ISIS?)
Lauer surely knew that Trump was lying when he claimed to have opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, but Lauer didn’t call him on it. Trump’s assertion that the intelligence analysts who recently briefed him somehow expressed opposition to Obama was also almost surely a lie, but who can say? The lie that I liked best, that Trump will certainly get away with, is his “correction” of the cited statistic of 20 veteran suicides a day. The actual number is 22, according to Donald. But no, in fact the actual number really is 20. Where did Trump get 22? He probably just invented it, to show that he knows more than Hillary, who had correctly cited 20. But it would be petty to complain about a little lie like that, wouldn’t it? As Paul Krugman points out today, Trump’s routine mendacity keeps the media off balance, “unable to believe, or at least say openly, that the candidate of a major party lies that much.”
And yet, Trump couldn’t help shooting himself in the foot. Most notably, his preference for Putin’s “strong” leadership over Obama’s will not go over well with the American public. (Lauer could have asked him if he would have preferred Hitler and Stalin’s leadership to FDR and Truman’s.) Nor did he help himself by doubling down on his fatuous tweet on the folly of mixing men and women in the military. And most Americans are probably not inclined to believe that the president of the United States has reduced his generals to “rubble.”
So, I think the evening was a slight plus for Hillary, a slight negative for the Donald. Another good thing that may come out of this forum: the firestorm of negative reviews for Lauer should serve as fair warning to the moderators of the real presidential debates, which will have far greater impact.
Correction: I have just learned that the number 22 has been widely given for daily suicides by veterans. So, even though it is not currently the correct number, it is reasonable to suppose that Trump honestly thought it was. Trump is a shameless serial liar, but that doesn’t mean that he lies all the time.