NBC held a one-hour Commander-in-Chief forum hosted by Matt Lauer. The first half-hour with Hillary Clinton, the second half-hour with Donald Trump. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for Lauer from both sides, but I thought he did manage to make a lot of news from an evening that wound up being bad for both candidates.
LAUER: Let me ask you something ahead of time that I’ll ask Mr. Trump in a half an hour. To the best of your ability tonight, can we talk about your qualities and your qualifications to be commander-in-chief and not use this as an opportunity to attack Mr. Trump, all right? And I’ll ask him the exact same thing.
CLINTON: I think that’s an exactly right way to proceed.
— When she got more uncomfortable as her time went on, she pulled Trump into it several times.
LAUER: What is the most important characteristic that a commander-in-chief can possess?
CLINTON: Steadiness. An absolute rock steadiness, and mixed with strength to be able to make the hard decisions. Because I’ve had the unique experience of watching and working with several presidents. And these are not easy decisions.
— Then a little later…
LAUER: So judgment is a key.
CLINTON: Temperament and judgment, yes.
LAUER: The word “judgment” has been used a lot around you, Secretary Clinton, over the last year-and-a-half, and in particular concerning your use of your personal e-mail and server to communicate while you were secretary of state. You’ve said it’s a mistake.
LAUER: You said you made not the best choice. You were communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying, if you want to be commander-in- chief?
CLINTON: Well, Matt, first of all, as I have said repeatedly, it was a mistake to have a personal account. I would certainly not do it again. I make no excuses for it. It was something that should not have been done. But the real question is the handling of classified material, which is I think what the implication of your question was. And for all the viewers watching you tonight, I have a lot of experience dealing with classified material, starting when I was on the Senate Armed Services Committee going into the four years as secretary of state.
— Her email server remains her weakest point, and she still can’t put it to bed because while she says she made a mistake and that she’s learned from it, she still justifies all of her actions.
LAUER: Some of the e-mails you sent and received happened while you were overseas. And Director Comey also said that while they have no proof, we assessed that it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail accounts.
CLINTON: Matt, there is no evidence. Of course anything is possible. But what is factual is the State Department system was hacked. Most of the government systems are way behind the curve. We’ve had hacking repeatedly, even in the White House. There is no evidence my system was hacked.
— You see? Her private email server wasn’t about convenience. It was about security. Then came the first question from the audience.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, thank you very much for coming tonight. As a naval flight officer, I held a top secret sensitive compartmentalized information clearance. And that provided me access to materials and information highly sensitive to our warfighting capabilities. Had I communicated this information not following prescribed protocols, I would have been prosecuted and imprisoned.
Secretary Clinton, how can you expect those such as myself who were and are entrusted with America’s most sensitive information to have any confidence in your leadership as president when you clearly corrupted our national security?
CLINTON: Well, I appreciate your concern and also your experience. But let me try to make the distinctions that I think are important for me to answer your question. First, as I said to Matt, you know and I know classified material is designated. It is marked. There is a header so that there is no dispute at all that what is being communicated to or from someone who has that access is marked classified.
— That last phrase from the questioner lingered and was never directly addressed. “When you clearly corrupted our national security.” Next it went to Hillary’s vote for the Iraq War, which she also said was a mistake. But she also points out Trump was for the Iraq War too, even though he claims he wasn’t. Then came another audience question.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Clinton, to your point, you have had an extensive record with military intervention. How do you respond to progressives like myself who worry and have concerns that your hawkish foreign policy will continue? And what is your plan to end wasteful war campaigns in which our peers, servicewomen and men, continue to be killed and wounded?
CLINTON: Well, I assume you’re talking about Iraq, because of my vote, and you probably are talking about Libya, because of the role that I played in the administration’s decision about whether to take on Gadhafi.
But before I get to that, let me say very clearly: I view force as a last resort, not a first choice. I will do everything in my power to make sure that our men and women in the military are fully prepared for any challenge that they may have to face on our behalf.
But I will also be as careful as I can in making the most significant decisions any president and commander-in-chief can make about sending our men and women into harm’s way. With respect to Libya, again, there’s no difference between my opponent and myself. He’s on record extensively supporting intervention in Libya, when Gadhafi was threatening to massacre his population. I put together a coalition that included NATO, included the Arab League, and we were able to save lives. We did not lose a single American in that action.
— Benghazi was a separate action.
LAUER: Let me ask you about the Iran nuclear deal. It was signed under Secretary Kerry; it was begun under you. You started those talks.
CLINTON: Right, I did.
LAUER: You have said you expect the Iranians to cheat, you think they’ll buy time, and perhaps stay along their course to building a nuclear weapon. If they cheat, Secretary Clinton, will you have any course of action other than a military course of action? Would you enter into negotiations with again? Would you go back to economic sanctions knowing they cheated and are then closer to a nuclear weapon?
CLINTON: Matt, look, let me put this in context, because this is one of the most important strategic questions we face. When I became secretary of state, the Iranians were on a fast track to acquiring the material necessary to get a nuclear weapon. That had happened the prior eight years. They mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, they built covert facilities, they stocked them with centrifuges, and they were moving forward.
— (Fast-forwards 15 seconds)
CLINTON: And after I left, we got the agreement. That agreement put a lid on their nuclear weapons program and imposed intrusive inspections. I have said we are going to enforce it to the letter.
LAUER: Do you think they’re playing us?
CLINTON: On the nuclear issue, no. I think we have enough insight into what they’re doing to be able to say we have to distrust but verify. What I am focused on is all the other malicious activities of the Iranians — ballistic missiles, support for terrorists, being involved in Syria, Yemen, and other places, supporting Hezbollah, Hamas.
But here’s the difference, Matt. I would rather as president be dealing with Iran on all of those issues without having to worry as much about their racing for a nuclear weapon. So we have made the world safer; we just have to make sure it’s enforced.
— “On the nuclear issue, no.” So in what areas is Iran playing? On to another audience question.
QUESTION: Yes, Secretary Clinton, last October you said that surveys of veterans show that they’re overall satisfied with their treatment and that the problems with the V.A. aren’t as widespread as they’re made out to be. So do you think the problems with the V.A. have been made to seem worse than they really are?
CLINTON: Look, I was outraged by the stories that came out about the V.A. And I have been very clear about the necessity for doing whatever is required to move the V.A. into the 21st century, to provide the kind of treatment options that our veterans today desperately need and deserve. And that’s what I will do as president.
But I will not let the V.A. be privatized. And I do think there is an agenda out there, supported by my opponent, to do just that. I think that would be very disastrous for our military veterans. So I’m going to do everything I can — I’m going to have a meeting every week in the Oval Office. We’re going to bring the V.A. people, we’re going to bring the DOD people, because we’ve got to have a better fit between getting mustered out and getting into the V.A. system, sometimes — and you probably know this, Sergeant — I’ve met so many vets who get mustered out, who leave the service, they can’t find their records from DOD, and those records never make it to the V.A. They feel like they’re living in a funhouse. They have to go over the same things over and over.
— That led to the discussion of veterans suicides.
LAUER: It’s an alarming, alarming story. The population of veterans has a rate of suicide far above the general population.
CLINTON: Twenty — twenty suicides a day.
LAUER: What are you going to do to stop it?
CLINTON: Well, this month is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. And I’ve spent a lot of time with family members, survivors, who’ve lost a loved one after he or she came home, sometimes suffering from PTSD or TBI or sexual assault, being handed bags of opioids, not being given an appropriate treatment to help that particular person, which is something, to go back to the sergeant’s question, we have to change. So I rolled out my mental health agenda last week, and I have a whole section devoted to veterans’ mental health.
— And then another audience question.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, as an Army veteran, a commander-in-chief’s to empathize with servicemembers and their families is important to me. The ability to truly understand implications and consequences of your decisions, actions, or inactions. How will you determine when and where to deploy troops directly into harm’s way, especially to combat ISIS?
LAUER: As briefly as you can.
CLINTON: We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. And we’ve got to do it with air power. We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They’ve taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They’ve got to hold them. They’ve got to now get into Mosul. We’re going to work to make sure that they have the support — they have special forces, as you know, they have enablers, they have surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance help.
They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops. So those are the kinds of decisions we have to make on a case-by-case basis.
— That is a hard commitment. Iraq will never see US ground troops again. And then later, on how she’d combat homegrown terrorism.
CLINTON: We also have to do a better job combating ISIS online, where they recruit, where they radicalize. And I don’t think we’re doing as much as we can. We need to work with Silicon Valley. We need to work with our experts in our government. We have got to disrupt, we have got to take them on in the arena of ideas that, unfortunately, pollute and capture the minds of vulnerable people. So we need to wage this war against ISIS from the air, on the ground, and online, in cyberspace.
And here at home, for goodness’s sakes, we have to finally pass a law prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from being able to buy a gun in the United States of America. So we’ve got work to do.
— There’s the wedge issue. No one on the terrorism watchlist can buy a gun, so does this mean people will get due process before they’re put on the list? Her final point:
CLINTON: The last thing we need to do is to play into the hands of ISIS. Going after American Muslims, defaming a Gold Star family, the family of Captain Khan, making it more difficult for us to have a coalition with Muslim majority nations that is not going to help us to succeed in defeating ISIS and protecting our American homeland.
HOW DID SHE DO?
Well, she tensed up as the night went on. She’s been hiding from national press for so long that she looked uncomfortable. RNC chair Reince Preibus actually criticized that she didn’t smile, which is just the dumbest possible criticism you can issue to a female politician in this day and age. (“What else, Reince? Wasn’t lady-like, enough?”) But she also seemed to learn from it because she held a press conference this morning.