To stand as a nominee for president is to make a statement of sorts to your fellow Americans. I believe I have the skill and ability to lead this nation. I believe I am the person who is the most qualified for this job, and if I win, I’ll treat the task with the respect it deserves and the seriousness it requires. This is one reason we have presidential debates. We need to see, for ourselves, that the nominees have prepared for the White House; that they are diligent and dedicated and ready to shoulder the responsibility of the office.
Wednesday’s Commander-in-Chief Forum—hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Matt Lauer, and NBC News—wasn’t a debate, but it carried the same weight. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would sit down to discuss foreign policy, the military, and veterans issues, demonstrating their interest and expertise.
Clinton has had better nights, if only because she’s still answering questions about her email. “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,” she said in response to Lauer, who opened the forum with eight minutes of prodding on her use of a private email server. Audience members also pressed her on the issue: “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?” asked one veteran. Clinton gave an able answer, but at this point, there’s no upside to the discussion.
The email exchange set the tone for Clinton’s time onstage. Under aggressive questioning from Lauer and the audience of service members and veterans, the former secretary of state defended her ability to handle classified information, answered for her vote for the war in Iraq, explained her push to intervene in Libya, and gave a detailed sketch of her plans to help those who serve or have served in America’s armed forces. This was a typical exchange:
Lauer: It’s an alarming, alarming story. The population of veterans has a rate of suicide far above the general population.
Clinton: Twenty—20 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 we’ve got to remove the stigma. We’ve got to help people currently serving not to feel that if they report their sense of unease, their depression, that somehow it’s going to be a mark against them.
We have to do more about addiction, not only drugs, but also alcohol. So I have put forth a really robust agenda, working with a lot of the VSOs and other groups, like TAPS, who have been thinking about this and trying to figure out what we’re going to do to help our veterans re-enter civilian life and live full, productive lives.
A no-nonsense question followed by a competent answer. She was prepared, and she was serious.
Donald Trump was neither. Despite getting coddled by both Lauer and the audience—Trump was not asked about scandals and took fewer questions on specific policy proposals—the Republican nominee struggled to give coherent and factual answers when he wasn’t indulging his worst instincts as a public figure. When asked about ISIS, specifically his claim to “know more than the generals,” Trump deflected:
I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country. You have a force of 30,000 or so people. Nobody really knows. But probably 30,000 people. And I can just see the great, as an example, Gen. George Patton spinning in his grave as ISIS we can’t beat.
When asked about his praise for Vladimir Putin, following an audience question on repairing America’s relationship with Russia, Trump expressed additional admiration for the Russian president, citing Putin’s poll numbers and disregarding claims of political intimidation and violence against journalists. “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader,” said Trump. “I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing—the man has very strong control over a country.”
In response to an audience question on the aftermath of ISIS—what would Trump do after he’s defeated the group—the real estate mogul pledged to “take their oil” by leaving an indefinite occupation force. When pressed about his views on sexual assault in the military—Lauer quoted a 2013 tweet where Trump blamed the problem on the fact that women are in the armed forces—Trump doubled down on his assertion, calling it a “correct tweet.”
One veteran, who said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, asked Trump what he would do about veteran suicides, giving him a chance to show his stated concern and even outdo Clinton in the scope of his proposals. He did neither. Instead, he restated the question (“A lot of it is they’re killing themselves over the fact that they can’t—they’re under tremendous pain and they can’t see a doctor.”) and made a vague promise to fix the problem (“We’re going to create a great mental health division. They need help. They need help. They need tremendous help.”) before calling the Department of Veterans Affairs a “corrupt enterprise.”
A quick glance at the transcript shows what was obvious on the screen: Trump was unprepared. Woefully, disastrously unprepared. At no point did the Republican nominee give a substantive answer, opting instead for meandering and discursive discussions of his poll numbers, his victory in the GOP presidential primary, the support he’s drawn from members of the defense community, his businesses, and his “common sense.” Insofar that Trump had policy answers, they were either vague or outright nonsense, as in this exchange:
Audience question: I like what you say about supporting veterans and how they’re important. But I haven’t heard what the actual plans are to continue that support beyond words. How do you translate those words to action after you take office?
Trump: Well, I love that question, because I’ve been very close to the vets. You see the relationship I have with the vets just by looking at the polls. In fact, today a poll came out. And my relationship has been very good.
Lauer was noticeably easier on Trump, lobbing open-ended questions to the Republican nominee and giving him time to speak without interruption. But even with the advantage of softer treatment, Trump still struggled to recite anything beyond platitudes and, in the case of foreign policy, made a troubling call for plunder.
If preparation is a measure of seriousness, then Donald Trump isn’t especially serious about this election. Or at least not serious enough to learn the details of his only policies, or even craft policies to begin with. Trump carries himself with a proud ignorance, and that ignorance is a sign of contempt: contempt for the process, contempt for the job, and contempt for the people who believe in Trump and his message.