What Donald Trump said at Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on the aircraft carrier was shocking.
He specifically defended Vladimir Putin as superior to Barack Obama, suggested women serving in the military should expect to be raped, hinted at a political purge of the officer corps, blatantly lied about his own past statements on Iraq and Libya, and called on the American military to commit war crimes. To top it all off, he pedantically corrected a PTSD-suffering veteran about the number of suicides by American military personnel — and he got the number wrong; the veteran was right all along.
It was shocking, but we are not shocked.
There’s a temptation here to blame the media for this. Matt Lauer did an objectively terrible job last night. When Gary Johnson didn’t know what Aleppo is on Morning Joe Thursday morning, Twitter blew up because people were surprised to see that level of ignorance from a seemingly serious and qualified politician. That Trump has clearly given no thought whatsoever to any aspect of American foreign policy just kind of breezes by.
But this isn’t a media story. It’s a Trump story. And it’s about whether we, and the American public, are willing to stay shocked. We’re used to Trump’s lying and his nonsense because we’ve been hearing it for a long time. But it’s not normal. Candidates are supposed to want to demonstrate progressively growing mastery of the issues over time. They are supposed to learn and show humility and deference to experts. Trump just doesn’t.
Trump’s fitness for office is based on a lie
Lauer started out with a basic question: Is Trump up for the job? Trump began to answer by suggesting that his moderately successful career in brand licensing qualifies him for the presidency, but then pivoted to say that his foresight in recognizing the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea makes him qualified.
MATT LAUER: What have you experienced in your personal life or your professional life that you believe prepares you to make the decisions that a commander in chief has to make?
DONALD TRUMP: Well, I've built a great company. I've been all over the world. I've dealt with foreign countries. I've done very well, as an example, tremendously well dealing with China and dealing with so many other countries that are just ripping this country, they are just taking advantage of it like nobody's ever seen before. And I've had great experience dealing on an international basis. I look today and I see Russian planes circling our planes. They're taunting us. In Iran I see the boats taunting our ships, our destroyers—
MATT LAUER: But what have you done in your life that prepares you to send our men and women into harm's way?
DONALD TRUMP: I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I heard Hillary Clinton say I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. You can look at Esquire magazine from 2004. You can look at before that. And I was against the war in Iraq; I said it's going to totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has. It's been a disastrous war. And perhaps almost as bad was the way Barack Obama got out. That was a disaster.
This is not true. Trump supported the invasion of Iraq, and then in 2006 he pushed for an immediate pullout from Iraq. According to Trump, the thing that makes him qualified to run American national security policy is his good judgment, and his key examples of that good judgment are made up.
It only goes downhill from there
In a sense, that’s all you need to know. Trump concedes that he’s not conventionally qualified, but that’s not important because he had good judgment that he didn’t really have.
But the whole interview is full of so much nonsense and BS that it’s difficult to focus on any one theme.
- "He's been a leader," Trump says of Vladimir Putin, "far more than our president has been a leader."
- "Mr. Trump, I wanted to ask what your plan will be to stop 20 veterans a day from killing themselves," one veteran asked him. Trump shoots back: "And actually, it's 22." But it isn’t 22, it’s 20.
- "They'd probably be different generals," Trump answers when pressed on why his plan to beat ISIS is to ask the generals to come up with a plan even though he’s also said he knows more about ISIS than the generals.
- Trump said that when he received his classified intelligence briefings he "could tell" that the briefers "were not happy" because he is "pretty good with the body language" and thus knows that "our leaders did not follow what they were recommending." Along with being a ridiculous thing to say, the people who deliver these briefings don’t even make policy recommendations.
- "People that arranged the trip in Mexico have been forced out of government," Trump observed, accurately, before bafflingly spinning that as a sign of success: "That's how well we did."
- He reiterated his pledge to have American military forces plunder Iraqi oil. Rather than focus on the myriad ethical, legal, and diplomatic problems with that idea, Lauer focused on the logistical one. How does this work? Simple: "Leave a certain group behind and take various sections where they have the oil." Sure.
It’s fine to say the media should call him out on this, but it’s genuinely not possible to fact-check all these specifics. The business about Iraq is at least a lie in a conventional factual sense. Most of it is just nonsense, and it has to be seen to be believed.
This is par for the course, but it’s not normal
The troubling thing about it is that to anyone who’s been listening to Trump talk for months, this all seems completely normal.
On the one hand, he’s been saying we should have stolen Iraqi oil for a long time. On the other hand, he’s never had any kind of explanation of how that’s supposed to work. The more follow-ups he gets asked, the more BS he spits out.
When Hillary Clinton gets pressed on her somewhat slippery answers about why exactly she decided to use an off-label email server, she ends up looking evasive. She looks and acts like a normal human being who’s been caught out in an embarrassing situation. She’s admitted that she did the wrong thing, but she also doesn’t think she should suffer any consequences for it. It’s not a great look.
Trump, by contrast, is shameless. What’s his plan for ISIS? It’s a secret. If the generals are so dumb, why would he ask for their plan? He’ll get different generals.
Trump hasn’t learned. He doesn’t know basic facts about the world, and he doesn’t care. The question now is whether the American people will.