Veterans’ Forum Follies: While Trump Heaps Praise on Russian Dictator, Matt Lauer Grills Clinton

At a televised forum before a live audience composed almost entirely of military veterans, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump sat for interviews Wednesday night with Matt Lauer of NBC News, which broadcast the event. The hour-long forum was sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and focused on national security issues.


While Clinton was made to spend much of her time talking about what she discussed with government officials over email, the former secretary of state also laid out ideas for how to combat ISIS, and promised not to put ground troops into Syria or Iraq. Trump found the opportunity in his segment to once again praise the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and seemed to promise to fire the generals currently presiding over the nation’s armed forces. 

Clinton was first on the schedule, and the first 10 minutes of her time was entirely taken up with a series of questions, both by Lauer (who repeatedly interrupted her), and an audience member about her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. As she has before, Clinton said using what she called “a private account” was “a mistake,” but she made the point that her personal server was never hacked like the email systems of the State Department and the White House were.

Asked by a veteran in the audience who identified herself as a progressive for assurance that Clinton would not bring her “hawkish foreign policy” to the White House, Clinton defended her advocacy for intervention in Libya, after telling the questioner, “I view force as a last resort, not a first choice.” Clinton was also challenged by Lauer for her vote, while serving in the U.S. Senate, to grant President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. Clinton responded that while she viewed her vote and the Iraq war as “a mistake,” she thought it important to study “what led us down that path” so that similar actions are not taken again. She noted that while she has "taken responsibility" for casting that vote, Trump continues to insist he never supported the Iraq invasion, despite evidence to the contrary.

On the question of combating ISIS, Clinton spoke not simply of ISIS as a military threat, but one that needs to be challenged in terms of the entity’s recruitment over the internet, and the need for the U.S. to win in "the arena of ideas.”

Throughout her appearance, Clinton maintained a stern tone, unlike the more conversational demeanor she displayed during her speech about her opponent’s alliance with figures from the white nationalist alt-right movement on August 25. She left no doubt that she has stores of knowledge when it comes to questions of foreign policy and security.

Trump, on the other hand, left no doubt of the great gaps in his knowledge of how the military functions, and even praised the leader of the country whose operatives are believed to have hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee and possibly the voter registration files of a couple of states.

Asked by Lauer to defend his compliments to Putin as “a man so highly respected within his country and beyond,” Trump doubled down. “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating according to the pollsters, some of whom, by the way, are based right here,” Trump replied. There was no followup reminder to Trump that dictators often have high approval ratings, on account of the people polled being afraid of meeting an unfortunate fate should they fail to express approval.

Lauer described Putin as a leader who is undermining American interests, and who, “according to our intelligence community, is probably the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers.”

“Well, nobody knows that for a fact,” Trump replied. “But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does?”

Wait—did Trump just imply that the Russian dictator is no worse than the U.S. president? Apparently, yes.

“But do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?” Lauer asked. 

Trump responded: “Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?”

Lauer did not issue a followup on Trump’s invitation to Russia to hack into Clinton’s email server; there was no grilling on whether it was in America’s interest for Trump to do so, or whether it was an act of near-treason.

A member of the audience asked Trump how he would address the epic and ongoing problem of sexual assault in the military. Trump replied, “The best thing we could do is set up a court system within the military”—apparently he never heard of courts martial. This was also left to slide. There was no followup on whether or not the adjudication of such crimes should be removed from the chain of command, a proposal for which U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been leading the charge for several years. 

To his credit, Lauer did remind Trump that in 2013, responding to a Department of Defense report estimating the number of sexual assaults on service members by their comrades to be 26,000, he tweeted: “What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?”

“Well, it is a correct tweet,” Trump replied. “There are many people who think that that’s absolutely correct.” He then amended his comment to say that he didn’t think women should be removed from the military.

Trump told Lauer that he has a plan for taking out ISIS, but it is a secret plan. When he convenes his generals as soon as he takes office, Trump said, he would demand their plan for taking out ISIS to be delivered within 30 days, and then he’d see how well it comports with his plan.

“But you’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do,” Lauer reminded him.

“Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you,” Trump replied. No telling where he plans to get these new general on his first day in office. He alleged that "under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble."

Trump was not asked about his rhetorical attacks on the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim army officer who was killed in Iraq. The dead officer’s father, Khizr Khan, challenged Trump from the stage of the Democratic National Convention for the candidate’s plan to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S. Trump accused the elder Khan of “viciously” attacking him, adding that Khan’s mother had likely been made to stand silently beside her husband because of religious dictates. 

Neither was Trump asked about the impact his proposed Muslim ban might have on national security. 

One might think those would be pertinent questions in a forum before an audience of veterans—an event devoted to the candidates’ qualifications for the role of commander-in-chief. 

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