Donald Trump's potential to be unduly influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin has been worrying me for some time, so my head nearly exploded when I watched NBC's Matt Lauer question Trump about Putin during last night's "Commander-in-Chief forum."
Other commentators have already noted how Lauer interrupted Hillary Clinton repeatedly but let Trump get away with long-winded non-responses, didn't follow up when Trump lied (again) about supposedly having opposed the war in Iraq and military intervention in Libya, and didn't mention controversial Trump statements of obvious relevance to an audience of veterans.
Lauer also flubbed a perfect chance to scrutinize Trump's Russia connections.
For those who missed the NBC forum, here's the exchange about Putin:
Sopan Deb posted the transcript of that portion.
When Lauer mentioned Trump's and Putin's praise for each other, the Republican hilariously referenced Putin's 82 percent approval rating. The Kremlin tightly controls almost the entire Russian media sector, and as Robert Coalson reported for RFE/RL on Tuesday, Putin's administration has now labeled Russia's only independent pollster as a "foreign agent" to limit the center's ability to conduct election-related surveys.
Lauer then listed a few ways Putin works against U.S. interests around the globe. Trump answered with a rhetorical question: "do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?"
To his credit, Lauer didn't let Trump go down the rabbit hole of listing Obama's alleged failures. Instead, he followed up with, "Do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?" Trump's response:
Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I'll take the compliment, ok? The fact is, look. It's not going to get him anywhere. I'm a negotiator. We're going to take back our country. You look at what's happening to our country, you look at the depleted military. You look at the fact that we've lost our jobs. We're losing our jobs like we're a bunch of babies. We're going to take back our country, Matt. The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.
Leaving aside the detour to irrelevant talking points (do babies lose jobs?), Trump's claim that Putin's praise will have "zero impact" glosses over the fact that he has already shown he favors a more friendly policy toward Russia.
Knowing he would pursue this line of questioning, Lauer should have been prepared to press Trump on any of the following realities:
1: Some of Trump's public statements seemed to invite Russian aggression or interference in U.S. affairs.
• saying his administration would be "looking" at lifting sanctions on Russia and recognizing the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region;
• leaving doubt about whether the U.S. would provide military assistance to our NATO allies in the Baltics if Russia invades Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania;
• asking Russian intelligence to retrieve Hillary Clinton's missing e-mails.
2: Several of Trump's senior staff and advisers have advocated for Russian foreign policy interests.
It's not just recently departed campaign manager Paul Manafort, who spent years lobbying for the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine.
• Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is a frequent media surrogate for Trump and accompanied Trump to his first classified intelligence briefing. He is also an occasional commentator on the Kremlin's English-language television network Russia Today. He even sat at Putin's table during a gala for that tv network last year.
• Foreign policy adviser Carter Page has longstanding connections with Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom. He told Bloomberg's Zachary Mider in March that after his role on the Trump campaign was announced, Russian contacts who "have been so adversely affected by the [U.S.] sanctions policy" sent him many excited e-mails, sensing "possibilities for creating a better situation." (In the same interview, Page admitted he is still a Gazprom investor and said U.S. sanctions had lowered the company's stock value.) While visiting Moscow in July, Page delivered a speech criticizing U.S. and NATO policies (video available here).
• Trump campaign staff intervened during a GOP national security committee platform meeting to "gut" a proposal that would have backed sanctions against Russia, aid to Ukraine and "providing lethal defensive weapons" to the Ukrainian military.
3: Americans still don't know how much debt Trump family businesses owe to Russian lenders or whether Russian entities have invested in Trump companies.
That's important, because Putin has a history of using state-influenced corporations to advance his political goals.
Time constraints didn't allow for a thorough exploration of Trump's Russia ties, which have alarmed many in the security and intelligence community. Even so, when Trump claimed Putin's flattery would have "zero impact" on him, Lauer could have found a stronger comeback than "you say you can get along with him [Putin]," followed by, "Do you think the day that you become president of the United States, he's going to change his mind on some of these key issues?"
"It's possible," Trump speculated, before expressing a child's approach to diplomacy ("If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him"), again asserting Putin is more of a "leader" than Obama, and pivoting to one of his favorite topics: Clinton's e-mails.
Lauer moved on. The exchange may not have been the moderator's lowest point last night, but it was nevertheless a missed opportunity to drill down on a foreign adversary's potential leverage with the man who could become president.
P.S.- Before this year, who could have imagined a major-party presidential nominee comparing the Russian leader favorably to the American one? I'm old enough to remember when people burned Dixie Chicks records and radio stations stopped playing their music after the group's singer criticized the president.
P.P.S.- I'm with Paul Brandus: NBC should have assigned Katy Tur to moderate the forum. For more thorough critiques of Lauer's performance, see Michael Calderone's commentary for the Huffington Post and Michael Grynbaum's story for the New York Times. Excerpts from Calderone:
Wednesday night’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC should have gone down as the first time the two 2016 presidential candidate shared a stage. But it will be remembered largely for the shortcomings of the man who was tasked with moderating. [...]
During the first half of an hourlong event, Hillary Clinton pointed out to Lauer that Republican nominee Donald Trump had expressed support for the Iraq War prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, even though he’s falsely claimed throughout his entire candidacy to have been staunchly opposed to it. [...]
But when Trump took the stage in the second half of the event, he cited his criticism of the war in an August 2004 Esquire story as evidence he opposed the invasion, which actually began 16 months earlier. In a room full of Iraq War veterans, Lauer didn’t challenge Trump’s false claim. [...]
Lauer neglected to challenge Trump on a number of controversial statements and past actions that would have had obvious relevance to the audience of veterans. They included the businessman’s four Vietnam draft deferments, mocking Sen. John McCain’s tortuous years as an American P.O.W., smearing a Gold Star family, likening his prep school experience to actually serving in the military, and talking about how he always wanted a Purple Heart.
Excerpts from Grynbaum:
Granted 30 minutes with each candidate, who appeared back-to-back at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, Mr. Lauer devoted about a third of his time with Mrs. Clinton to questions about her use of a private email server, then seemed to rush through subsequent queries about weighty topics like domestic terror attacks.
When an Army veteran in the audience asked Mrs. Clinton to describe her plan to defeat the Islamic State, Mr. Lauer interjected before the candidate could begin her reply. [...]
Mr. Trump stormed onstage in his familiar motor-mouth style, often talking over Mr. Lauer and declining to directly answer many of his questions. At times, Mr. Lauer — who has conducted fewer adversarial interviews with Mr. Trump than his colleagues on NBC’s political desk — appeared flummoxed by his subject’s linguistic feints.
Drawing particular ire was the moment when Mr. Trump asserted, with his usual confidence: “I was totally against the war in Iraq.”
In fact, Mr. Trump initially said he supported the war, a point that Mrs. Clinton had raised earlier in the evening, citing an interview that Mr. Trump had given to Howard Stern. But Mr. Lauer left the assertion unchallenged, zipping along to his next question about Mr. Trump’s professed tendency to “say things that you later regret.”
UPDATE: Appearing on MSNBC on September 8, Representative Steve King said he agreed that Putin has been a better leader for Russians than Obama has been for Americans. He also alleged that Obama's weakness has "allowed Putin to be more robust," and said Trump is "strong" and would have a "chance of winning" at chess with the Russian president. Perhaps King could explain how he sees Trump's negotiating position as strong, when the Republican has already floated recognizing the annexation of Ukraine and lifting sanctions on Russia.
James Poniewozik's brutal assessment of Lauer is worth a read.
There’s a difference between an interviewer who has questions and one who has knowledge, and Mr. Lauer illustrated it. He seemed to be plowing through a checklist, not listening in the moment in a way that led to productive follow-ups. Short on time, he repeatedly interrupted Mrs. Clinton in a way he didn’t with Mr. Trump. (“Let me finish,” she protested at one point.)
Candidates should expect to be challenged. They’re applying for a challenging job. But where Mr. Lauer treated Mrs. Clinton like someone running for president, he treated Mr. Trump like someone running to figure out how to be president, eventually.
That interview was the apotheosis of this presidential campaign’s forced marriage of entertainment and news. The host of NBC’s morning show interviewed the former star of its reality show “The Apprentice,” and the whole thing played out as farce.
SECOND UPDATE: On September 8, the Kremlin-backed network RT America aired an interview Larry King did with Trump.
Speaking to Larry King on RT America, which is an arm of government-funded news outlet Russia Today, Trump said it would "not be appropriate" if Russian forces were looking to influence the race, which is suspected by some investigators and has been fanned by Hillary Clinton's campaign as recently as Thursday morning.
He also suggested that the allegation was politically motivated.
"I think it's probably unlikely. Maybe the Democrats are putting that out -- who knows," Trump told King. "If they are doing something, I hope that somebody's going to be able to find out so they can end it. Because that would not be appropriate at all."
Here's the attempt at damage control:
Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks suggested in a statement that the campaign did not know the interview was going to be broadcast on RT.
"Mr. Trump recorded a short interview with Larry King for his podcast as a favor to Mr. King," Hicks said. "What Larry King does with the interview content is up to him. We have nothing to do with it."
And from CNN:
Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, told CNN the interview was recorded as a podcast and was a favor to King, adding, "Mr. Trump was never told it would be shared anywhere else." Miller later said Trump wouldn't have agreed to do the interview had he known it would be aired on RT.
Sure, do a personal favor for an old friend who works for a Russian propaganda network. No big deal.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul went on a tear this morning on Twitter and reminding people of key differences between Trump and President Ronald Reagan's approach toward a major foreign adversary. The big one: "Reagan engaged a reforming, pro-Western Gorbachev. Trump praises an anti-democratic, anti-Western Putin." In addition, saying he's open to recognizing the annexation of Crimea and "weakening our credible commitment" to NATO allies is tantamount to appeasement, not the Reagan doctrine of "Peace through strength."
Another point McFaul raised: "If Obama seized control of Fox, allowed only supporters in Congress, closed the NRA & arrested Trump, he too might have 80% approval rating."
The Sioux City Journal's Bret Hayworth reported on Steve King's comments and reaction from King's opponent Kim Weaver.
Asked in the MSNBC interview if he agreed Putin is a better letter, King replied, "I look at it that way."
King said Putin's changes have created great nationalistic pride among the Russian people. He said Obama has pulled back the U.S. presence in some international spots, creating "soft spots" that Putin has regrettably entered.
King's comments drew a rebuke from Kim Weaver, his Democratic challenger for the 4th District seat. Weaver in a release said she is getting more confused by how people on the political right can consider King a "patriot."
"What has Vladimir Putin done that so impresses Steve King? Well, he's invaded two countries, Crimea and Ukraine. He murders minorities and oppressed 'sub-groups.' He murders political opponents and journalists who criticize him," Weaver said in a statement.
Having closely watched Putin's rise to power and methodical approach to destroying political opposition and independent news reporting, I feel outraged listening to American officials praise his leadership qualities. He created "great nationalistic pride" in part through state-controlled media propaganda that demonized some minority groups and presented a skewed view of global affairs.
Trump commented last year that he had "seen no evidence" of Putin having journalists killed. Talk to some Russian experts outside your circle of campaign advisers.
U.S. Senator Joni Ernst never responded to any of my questions about Trump, but she did tell the Sioux City Journal that she disagrees with Trump's assessment of Putin and doesn't see the Russian president as a role model.
LATER UPDATE: The above statement was part of a "Team Weaver" e-mail blast on September 8. I received this statement from Kim Weaver's campaign on September 9:
As the descendant of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution, I am appalled that my opponent, Steve King, has said he prefers the murderous dictator of a repressive regime to the freely elected head of American constitutional democracy. This is reprehensible, and it once again exemplifies how Steve King's reflex is to run to the nearest TV camera and say something extreme and offensive.
Congressman King is fortunate that President Obama is the leader of our country. If President Obama ruled the way Vladimir Putin does, King would have been thrown in the gulag long ago. Perhaps he should consider the implications of what his is saying, as well as the actual definition of the word patriot. Steve King is no patriot.
Top image: screen shot of Donald Trump while Matt Lauer was questioning him about Vladimir Putin at NBC's Commander in Chief forum on September 7.