Why Donald Trump's artful bluster at national security forum bodes ill for Hillary Clinton at the debates

Matt Lauer is widely condemned for his failure to challenge Trump's misstatements

David Usborne
New York
Thursday 08 September 2016 18:26 BST
Matt Lauer received poor reviews for his handling of Donald Trump
Matt Lauer received poor reviews for his handling of Donald Trump (AP)

Democrats who suffered through the ‘commander-in-chief forum’ on NBC on Wednesday night will have been reminded of how dangerous a candidate for president Donald Trump really is.

I don’t mean in the sense that he might start a nuclear war. Or that he is all over the shop on defeating Isis or curbing rape of women in the military. Or that he might give license to Vladimir Putin, his good pal, to invade which ever piece of territory he may now have his eye on.

What we’re talking about here is how dangerous he is as a political foe - to Hillary Clinton. The evening offered a glimpse of how each of the two contenders might fare in the presidential debates that are just around the corner. The first is on 26 September on Long Island. One of them is going to have to approach them differently. And that’s not Mr Trump.

On Wednesday, they appeared separately and back-to-back - a coin-toss determined that Ms Clinton was forced to take the first half hour - on a lower deck of the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier that is now a floating military museum New York. They took questions on national security from NBC's Matt Lauer and members of an assembled audience.

Mr Lauer has been correctly excoriated by nearly every quarter for his handling of the event. (Well, not by most Republicans.) The complaint: he went easy on Mr Trump but repeatedly admonished Ms Clinton to shorten her answers and ensured that nearly all of her first ten minutes were devoted to her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State.

Some of the viewers may have recalled that Mr Lauer used to share his gig as chief anchor of NBC’s breakfast Today Show with Katie Couric, who these days resides at Yahoo! News and that it was she who single-handedly took down Sarah Palin after she was picked by John McCain as his running mate in 2008. (She saw Russia from her garden, remember?)

Where was Ms Couric on Wednesday night when the Democrats needed her?

Mr Lauer came equipped with questions he was determined to ask each candidates in the time allotted. He did not come equipped, apparently, with the mental dexterity - or sufficiently detailed knowledge of the topics at hand - to ask follow-ups or challenge many of the answers.

This was especially true for Mr Trump, who, most notably, repeated the lie that he has always been opposed to the war in Iraq. He simply wasn’t, but Mr Lauer let him say it anyway.

Equally flabbergasting was an exchange about Mr Trump’s recent trip to Mexico to see President Enrique Pena Nieto. Hours before the forum, the Treasury Minister of Mexico resigned because of his part in inviting him. “That’s how well we did,” Mr Trump boasted, as if destabilising neighboring governments was a good thing. Did Mr Lauer pick up on it? He didn’t.

Will the debacle be a warning to the journalists who will moderate the presidential debates? They are Chris Wallace of Fox News, NBC’s Lester Holt as well as Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper from CNN will helm the one debate that will be town-hall in style. Possibly, but moderators are just that. They will not have the chance that Mr Lauer had to act as truth-tellers or to directly challenge. That will be left largely to the candidates themselves.

More even than on Wednesday, the candidates will rise or fall in the debates by dint of style as well as substance. And the depressing truth is this: Mr Trump’s showmanship, combined with his dazzling ability to evade answering the questions put to him, will give him an edge. He weaves and boasts. He takes risks with his pronouncements, the less politically correct the better. He is not boring. Voters will see a performance and they will remember it.

Ms Clinton severest problem is her gravity. The lawyer that she is, she listens to questions and actually answers them. That has the effect of making her rather dull and it also frequently takes her deep into the weeds of topics she is better off avoiding just like Mr Trump does. Like that blasted email server and her vote to authorise the Iraq war when she was a senator.

And things might get worse if she is left alone to do the Couric on Trump. Much has been said about the difficulties of being a woman candidate. Among them is this: taking too aggressive an approach with Mr Trump could be construed by some as being hectoring. That response would be unfair and, of course, sexist. But when part of the job of a debate is to make voters warm to you, it is a risk nonetheless. They don’t like a clever-clogs either. Which, of course, she is.

Mr Trump does not change. We know that. But Ms Clinton needs to find a way to do so. Or the debates will not be the victories of experience and knowledge over ignorance that they should be.

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