NBC’s Commander in Chief Forum Was an Authoritarian Farce

A case study in how not to handle Trump—and in how Trump, as president, would handle us.

Donald Trump speaks with Matt Lauer at the Commander-in-Chief Forum on Wednesday.

Heidi Gutman/NBC

Wednesday night’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” presented by NBC News and MSNBC, was a debacle. Every network that’s hosting a presidential debate in the next seven weeks should study the video to learn how not to interrogate Donald Trump. But Trump still managed, through boastful indifference, to reveal the most important thing about his presidency: He would make the United States an authoritarian country.

Trump played his usual tricks. When he was quizzed about foreign policy, he changed the subject to trade. When he was pressed for solutions, he talked instead about President Obama’s failures. When he was asked about a tweet in which he had blamed military sexual assaults on the integration of women, he acted as though he had always believed the problem was insufficient prosecution. He also claimed, contrary to fact—and undisputed by moderator Matt Lauer—that he had been “totally against the war in Iraq.”

Trump said at least two newsworthy things. First, he bragged that Mexico’s finance minister had just been ousted for setting up Trump’s meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. “The people that arranged the trip to Mexico have been forced out of government,” Trump said. “That’s how well we did. And that’s how well we’re going to have to do.” This boast tells you two things about Trump. It tells you that he measures success by the discord he sows in countries he visits. And it tells you that he likes to humiliate these countries.

Second, Trump claimed that in the classified intelligence briefing he received on Aug. 17, he learned “that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts” had recommended “in almost every instance.” That’s quite a claim, since the briefing was prepared by James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence. The session was classified, so Clapper and his briefers can’t rebut Trump in public. This tells you how Trump would treat classified information as president: He would lie about it for political gain and dare the intelligence community to violate the law by exposing him.

But the most important moments in this forum weren’t the ones in which Trump made news. They were moments in which he proudly underscored his authoritarian ambitions. First came his answer to a question about ISIS. “I’ve always said [we] shouldn’t be there,” Trump said. “But if we’re going to get out, take the oil.” When Lauer asked him how we would take Iraq’s oil, Trump replied: “You would leave a certain group behind, and you would take various sections where they have the oil.” We got “nothing” for the money we spent invading Iraq, Trump complained. “It used to be, ‘To the victor belong the spoils.’ … I always said, ‘Take the oil.’ ”

This is a policy of explicit theft. Trump has stated this policy many times. He has been applauded for it by crowds and has not been morally challenged by Lauer or other interviewers. Now Trump is repeating it in the run-up to the fall debates. He’s betting that Americans will embrace—and the media will accept—plunder as foreign policy. So far, he has not been proved wrong.

Second, Trump continued to pretend that he has a secret plan to destroy ISIS—but that he can’t divulge it because he has to be “unpredictable.” “I have a plan,” he told Lauer, but “I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy what my plan is.” This was a forum expressly designed to help Americans understand, before voting, how the candidates would address national security and foreign policy. Instead, Trump refused to say what he would do, on the grounds that the revelation would help ISIS.

Third, Trump expanded on his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Lauer noted that Trump had called Putin a “highly respected” leader, Trump pointed to Russian polls: “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating.” The exchange continued:

Lauer: He’s also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran … and according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect in the hacking of the DNC computers.

Trump: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does? … If he [Putin] 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. I mean, you can say, “Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing? He called—” I mean, 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. We have a divided country.

Let’s unpack this passage. First, in Trump’s view, Putin’s approval rating in Russian polls signifies not that Putin has intimidated his people, but that they respect him—or that intimidation counts as respect. Second, according to Trump, Putin shouldn’t be criticized for his invasions or his espionage against us, because Obama does questionable things, too. Third, Trump’s definition of leadership is “strong control over a country,” even by Putin’s methods. Fourth, it’s better to be a united country like Russia than to be a “divided country” like America.

In sum, Trump believes in a foreign policy of theft. He believes that a candidate for the presidency shouldn’t tell voters what he would do in office. He admires authoritarianism because it establishes “strong control over a country.” He advocates retributive torture and the targeting of innocent family members of terrorists. He believes that the diversity of opinions in the United States weakens us. And while stipulating that he doesn’t “happen to like” Russia’s system of government—as though it were a flavor of ice cream—Trump insists we’re in no position to criticize Putin’s invasions and his attacks on us, because our president is worse.

In a normal election, a forum such as this one could be studied for complex policy differences between the candidates. This is not a normal election. We have one candidate who believes that the United States should behave according to the stated values and founding principles of the United States. We have another candidate who believes that the United States, domestically and internationally, should behave like Russia. If Trump becomes president and works his will on the United States, Russia won’t have to conquer us. The United States, as a morally distinctive country, will already be gone.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.