Okay, it was time to get serious. Among other things, the next president will act as commander-in-chief of our armed services. We have a system where what the military does is determined by civilians, even if many on the right wonder about that, maintaining that the generals know more about the world than any civilian ever will, by which they seem to mean Obama. But the president, with funding and authorization from Congress, decides which wars we fight, where, and when, and which ones we don’t. America kind of worships its military, but we don’t let them run things, yet. The civilians that we civilians elect still run things for now – but there is still a bit of ambiguity. The next president damned well better respect and listen to the generals, but at the same time he or she should tell them what to do, and not do, no questions asked – as their top commander.
That makes things a bit awkward for Hillary Clinton, a woman, with all the cultural baggage about softness and flightiness that that entails, and Donald Trump, a businessman of questionable ethics and no experience with anything even vaguely military, or with public policy at all. Each has to show that they could be the hard-ass commander of the most massive and deadly military in the world, a commander that the generals would immediately respect, with no questions asked. Each has to appear somewhat plausible.
That’s a tall order, and on the second day of the real presidential campaign, the second day after Labor Day weekend when summer ended and everyone got serious about this, the businessman of questionable ethics tried this out:
Donald Trump laid out a national security plan that would dramatically increase defense spending and troop levels during a Wednesday address at the Union League of Philadelphia.
Calling for a Middle East policy “tempered by realism,” Trump promised to “make America great again, greater than ever before.”
The GOP nominee kicked off his speech with a critique of Hillary Clinton. Trump first labeled the former secretary of state an interventionist who oversaw costly military missions in the Middle East before attacking her for helping President Barack Obama decrease defense spending “to the lowest level as a share of the economy since the end of World War II.”
Trump fired many of the insults Clinton has used against him in regards to foreign policy – “unfit,” “unstable,” “unqualified” -back at her.
“She’s trigger happy and very unstable,” he said.
That’s a bit rich coming from him, but a good offense is the best defense:
“Hillary Clinton’s legacy in Iraq, Libya, Syria has produced only turmoil and suffering and death,” Trump said, though he has previously expressed support for interventions in all three countries.
He hoped no one would remember that, and he did get specific:
The real estate mogul, who has frequently criticized the expense of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on the campaign trail, then pledged to eliminate the sequester on defense spending. Under his leadership, Trump said, the U.S. military would have an active army of about 540,000 people, a 36-battalion Marine Corps, larger Navy and Air Force fleets, a “state-of-the-art” missile defense system and greater funding for the Defense Department’s “cyber capabilities.”
That sounds like a knowledgeable commander-in-chief who knows exactly what’s what, but he offered no explanation of how he would pay for this, other than muttering that NATO should kick in more or we’d abandon them. He has called for massive tax cuts, and for no cuts at all to Social Security and Medicare, and for spending at least six hundred billion dollars on infrastructure, to get our roads and bridges and ports and whatnot back to where there were in 1953 or so, when bridges didn’t fall down and there weren’t so many potholes everywhere. There’s no money for this, but he did sound like a commander-in-chief. Bully for him.
Someone needed to ask him a few questions about all this. Someone should also ask Hillary Clinton a few questions too. Perhaps a Commander-in-Chief Forum would be a good idea. Give each of them a half hour to answer hard questions about this commander-in-chief thing, which is exactly what MSNBC and NBC offered, that forum hosted by Matt Lauer of the Today show. Clinton and Trump appeared consecutively before a live audience of active-duty and military veterans at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Cool. And that went like this:
In back-to-back appearances at a forum focused on national security here, Clinton offered herself as a model of “absolute rock steadiness” on foreign policy while Trump promised to be a disruptive force for improvement, saying that under President Obama even the military’s generals have been “reduced to rubble.”
While Clinton appeared serious and even stilted as she sometimes awkwardly navigated tough questions about her use of a private email server while secretary of state and her vote for the Iraq war in the Senate, Trump offered no such restraint with a series of controversial statements.
He reaffirmed his view that having men and women serve alongside one another is the root of sexual assaults in the military. He said recent intelligence briefings he has received have convinced him that Clinton and other Obama administration officials did not heed the advice of experts. And he defended his mutual admiration with Russian president Vladimir Putin – even suggesting he is more worthy of his praise than President Obama.
“Do you want me to start naming some of the things President Obama does at the same time?” Trump said when asked to defend some of Putin’s aggressions on the world stage.
Yes, Trump was the impulsive one:
Clinton spent the earlier part of her segment of the forum defending the email controversy, as well of her handling of classified material, which she insisted she did responsibly.
And she acknowledged that her vote to authorize force in Iraq, while a senator from New York, was a mistake. But Clinton said she had learned from the decision and chided Trump for saying he opposed the war from the outset despite statements to the contrary.
“I have taken responsibility for my decision,” Clinton said. “He refuses to take responsible for his support.”
Maybe that wasn’t fair, but it wasn’t just her:
Both Clinton and Trump were asked early in their segments not to attack their opponent – and both drew admonishments from Lauer for ignoring him.
Clinton, for example, chided Trump for proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country, saying “that is not going to help us succeed in defeating ISIS.”
And Trump accused Clinton of having a “happy trigger,” a suggestion that she is too eager to insert the United States into international conflicts.
They did go back and forth:
Clinton argued that the war was one area where she and Trump shared positions: “I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake and I have said that my voting to give President Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake,” Clinton said. “There was a mistake. My opponent was for the war in Iraq. He says he wasn’t, you can go back and look at the record. He supported it.”
As he has in the past, Trump insisted that he did not support President Bush’s invasion in 2003, despite evidence to the contrary. The businessman brushed off Lauer’s attempts to suggest otherwise.
And there was this:
During his segment, Trump also defended a tweet that he posted three years ago that stated the estimated number of unreported sexual assaults in the military and then mused: “What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?”
“Well, it is, it is a correct tweet,” Trump said when asked about the tweet by Lauer. “There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct … Well, well, it’s happening, right? And, by the way, since then, it’s gotten worse.”
Boys will be boys. What are you going to do? It may be that Roger Ailes, his new advisor recently fired by Fox News for the many years of the now-documented sexual harassment of every woman in sight, told him to say that, and there was this:
When asked what he’d learned from his intelligence briefings since becoming the Republican nominee, Trump said that Obama and others have not done “what our experts said to do.”
“And I was very, very surprised,” he added. “In almost every instance, and I could tell – I’m pretty good with the body language – I could tell, they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.”
Many jumped on that. Intelligence briefers never suggest policy – that’s not their job and they know it – but then he’s new at this. Perhaps he’ll learn that later, on the job, if he gets the job:
On Tuesday, Trump announced that he has been endorsed by 88 retired senior military officials. Not to be outdone, Clinton released a list Wednesday showing the support of 95 retired generals and admirals, more than any recent non-incumbent Democrat, her campaign said. Meanwhile, Clinton noted that Trump’s endorsement figure was more than 400 shy of the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
So, who gets the respect of these folks? Let’s count them up.
That aside, there was that troubling stuff about Putin:
Donald Trump lavished more praise on Vladimir Putin in Wednesday’s NBC News’ Commander-In-Chief forum, even after moderator Matt Lauer brought up the numerous ways Russia as sought to undermine U.S. interests.
“Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating according to the different pollsters, who by the way, some of them are based here,” Trump said.
Trump went on to say he welcomed the compliments Putin has paid him.
“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said. “The man has very strong control over a country. Now it’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly in that system, he’s been a leader. Far more than our president has been a leader.”
That was odd, and as for deescalating tensions between us and the Russians, there was this:
“I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin, and I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia,” Trump said, while criticizing Obama’s handling of Putin.
“And I just saw two or three days ago, they looked like they were not exactly getting along. But I looked at President Obama and Putin staring at each other, these were not two people that were getting along,” Trump said. “And you know the beautiful part of getting along? Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”
When Lauer brought up the ways Russia has acted out on the world stage, including its alleged hack of the DNC emails, Trump demurred.
“Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?” Trump said.
Even as he said he would “take” Putin’s “compliment,” Trump insisted: “It’s not going to get him anywhere.”
“I’m a negotiator. We’re going to take back our country,” Trump said.
Is he a negotiator or commander-in-chief? He seems to see no difference, and add this:
Asked what experience has prepared him to be commander in chief, Mr. Trump began, “Well, I built a great company; I’ve been all over the world.” Pressed again, he said, “the main thing is, I have great judgment,” before arguing that he was, in fact, against the war in Iraq, citing an article from 2004, after the war began.
Mr. Trump, confronted with past comments that he knew more about the Islamic State than generals do, said that generals under President Obama and Mrs. Clinton “have not been successful.” “I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble,” he said.
Mr. Trump said that because he has “a very substantial chance of winning,” he would not detail counterterrorism plans and “broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.” He said that he might rely on “a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan” in formulating his approach.
He has his super-secret plan to defeat ISIS and he’ll ask the generals to come up with their plans, and then he’ll decide if they’re as smart as he is after all, but he doubts that, as Politico notes here:
Trump suggested that when he seeks the military’s advice on how to defeat the Islamic State “they’d probably be different generals, to be honest with you.”
The comments could make for an awkward introduction between Trump and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current Joint Chiefs chairman, the top adviser to the commander in chief. Dunford has a two-year term that ends September 2017 – a position that is normally extended for another two years.
In fact, the entire roster of the Joint Chiefs has turned over in the past two years, including the four-star officers heading each branch of the military who also traditionally serve a total of four years. That means the top military leadership now advising the president will all be in place for some time after the next administration takes office.
It could also sour relations with the set of so-called combatant commanders who run military operations in various geographic regions of the world, including the U.S. Central and European Commands that have a major role in fighting the Islamic State.
Dunford has gone out of his way to urge all troops to stay out of politics this year, citing concerns that the military could be politicized. Some top officers worry privately that if they are perceived to have political leanings one way or the other a President Trump could fire them, making it very difficult for the top brass to regain its reputation for impartiality.
Damn, this commander-in-chief stuff is tricky, but he’s been busy:
Asked what kind of preparations he was doing to brush up on policy, Mr. Trump said he had been studying, but allowed, “I’m campaigning, I’m running a business, I’ve got a lot of hats right now.” He said he would be “100 percent” prepared by the time he took office, if elected.
He must mean that someone else will run the golf resorts, but the whole thing was odd:
Perhaps most bizarre was Trump’s celebration of the resignation Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s finance minister, on Wednesday. Videgaray was reportedly a key advocate of Trump’s visit to the country last week, during which Trump met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. But Trump’s visit was wildly unpopular in Mexico, and Videgaray’s removal appeared to be a result of the fallout from the meeting. Trump took triumphant credit for the dismissal, telling Lauer “that’s how well we did” in going to Mexico City. The answer came in response to a question about whether Trump would temper his comments to foreign leaders if he were president.
Trump was not doing well, and there was this:
Asked at the NBC News’ Commander-In-Chief forum about he planned to keep the Islamic State out of Iraq once he defeated them, Trump returned to his oft-recited call for the U.S. to “take the oil” from Iraq, and even offered a few details how he would go about it as President.
“If we had taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS. ISIS formed with the power and wealth of that oil,” Trump claimed.
Pressed to explain exactly how the U.S. should take the oil, Trump said, “You would leave a certain group behind and take various sections where they have the oil.”
He suggested that people didn’t know that Iraq had a large oil reserve, and that the U.S. “got nothing” after losing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
“It used to be, ‘To the victor belong the spoils.’ Now, there was no victor there, believe me, there was no victor. But I always said, take the oil,” Trump said.
Josh Marshall had a few things to say about that:
Setting aside international law and morality, which I’m not naive enough to believe entirely govern American elections, how on earth do you take the oil with you? It’s really big! It’s in the ground! You can’t put it in a box or a hundred boxes and ship back home. Sure we could have topped off the tanks before we left and even spent a couple years pumped and shipping as much as we could haul out. But it would barely make a dent. It takes a lot longer than that. This is an idea that isn’t so much wrong as ridiculous in a way that transcends ideology and politics. It is the kind of nonsense that can be repeated and make Trump look like a buffoon.
Marshall sees that happening:
Trump said a lot of stuff that should and I suspect will get scrutinized going forward – like literally time bombs lit tonight and exploding over the coming hours. He claimed again that he opposed the Iraq War; tons of evidence to the contrary. He essentially said the same about Libya; not true. He suggested that the current general staff and upper officer corps is “rubble” and that he could and would fire the top military leadership. That’s not how our system works. The top military leaders are not political appointees. You can’t make General Flynn COO Commander-in-Chief…
He praised Putin, took at face value state polls which show him with approval ratings in the 80s. He also continued to express what is clearly an instinctive belief that Putin is a great leader. Autocrats are not leaders in a sense we value or respect leadership in a democracy. It’s not like he’s Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln and just a bit more leader-y. He’s an autocrat who silences opponents and rules the state with an iron hand…
In praising Putin he said admiringly that Putin “has strong control over his country.” What does that mean? Yes, he has incredibly strong control over that country. He’s destroyed basically every independent sector of power in business, rival political leaders. He dominates the press. He’s if not a dictator than an authoritarian strongman pretty much out of central casting. It’s one thing that Trump is vain enough that he just likes being called “brilliant” or whatever it is. But there’s something deeper there: Trump admires Putinism. I don’t think that looks attracts to the majority of Americans. That won’t wear well and Americans – for better or worse – do not like Vladimir Putin.
Marshall thinks Trump failed this commander-in-chief test:
You couldn’t watch Trump and be under any illusion that he has any idea what he’s talking about really anything. I think we can dispense with any idea that Trump is going to bone up on a handful of policy points and use them during the debates. He totally winged and it showed. Someone I respect greatly said on Twitter that watching the debate we should dispense with the idea that Clinton will mop the floor with Trump in the debate. I’ve never thought she’d mop the floor with him. But I thought my friend greatly misjudged Trump’s performance. The exchange where Lauer kept asking him why he wouldn’t discuss his ISIS plans and then asked why he had to ask the generals if he had a plan and then Trump said well, maybe I’ll combine the two plans … this is a case where people are selling Lauer a bit short. That made Trump look like a jackass. People know from a young age when someone is trying to bullshit their way out of question. Trump has no idea what he’s going to do about ISIS. It was just nonsense and word salad. I think that was clear in a way that would transcend ideology.
Many people will say, well, people don’t listen closely, they’re easily snowed. Look how well George Bush did and he obviously knew nothing. I think the truth is a bit different about Bush. He was green and ill-versed in policy. But he went into the debates with a handful of broad themes and stuck to them. That’s not what happened here with Trump. He was all over the place and I think his ignorance and boastfulness was on a display in a not at all helpful way.
And Hillary Clinton passed the test by default:
On question after question Clinton – clearly by design – tried to bury everyone in policy detail and command of the issues. She was smothering us with experience and we were smothered. You can think she’s a liar and a crook and the worst person in the world. But you couldn’t watch that segment and not realize she knows basically all the relevant issues inside and out. She’s prepared. Whether you support her or like her is another matter. But she’s prepared. I think Trump came off as cocky and ignorant. And I don’t mean to me – I know he’s cocky and ignorant. My best guess is that people who are wary of Trump but open to supporting him will not be reassured by that performance.
In short, in spite of her many flaws, she was plausible. He was not. That’s a low bar, but someone had to ask the questions.