Two candidates took the stage, separately, to talk about why they were qualified to be commander in chief. Instead, both showed themselves to be terribly flawed candidates.
Clinton came off as a defensive and lawyerly—technical where unnecessary, vague where details were necessary, or simply utterly wrong. Trump, meanwhile, assumed the role of a huckster—a man who praised Vladimir Putin while insulting female combat troops, correcting a veteran with an incorrect figure about suicide, and suggesting the military needed to be purged of its generals and admirals.
Neither would-be president offered a cogent strategy for defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State or a coherent vision of the U.S.’s national security strategy, particularly in the rapidly changing Middle East.
The forum, moderated by Matt Lauer and broadcast on NBC and MSNBC, was an unfortunate lost opportunity for a campaign that has rarely delved into the future of national security—and the kind of military needed to defend the United States. How will the U.S. defeat ISIS? How will it better serve its veterans? What are the top threats to our national security? The night offered no answers.
Part of the problem was the format: Each candidate was pressed to answer a whirlwind of questions in a 30-minute lightning session. Clinton, pressed on her mistakes in a long political career, was forced to defend herself repeatedly, and her answers felt rushed. Trump’s responses, largely a series of word salad jumbles, felt empty.
Clinton was hammered by questioners—both Lauer and individuals from the audience—on her choice to use a personal email server while secretary of state, her vote for the war in Iraq, and and her support for the intervention in Libya.
She sounded defensive about her record, telling a veteran who questioned her handling of sensitive information: “I did exactly what I should have done and I take it very seriously, always have, always will.”
She also repeatedly referred to Trump’s missteps on national security affairs, which, while generally fair game, broke the pledge both candidates made at the onset not to talk about their opponent.
At times her responses were mired in technicalities. For example, she described how she spoke in the tent while overseas to prevent America’s enemies from seeing classified information she was reviewing. At other times she was vague, as when she promised to defeat ISIS without explaining how.
“We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. And we’ve got to do it with air power,” Clinton said. “We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS.”
Trump, meanwhile, struggled to explain his view on the Iraq war—which he did not oppose at the onset, despite his insistence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, his explanations of complex phenomena like ISIS sounded like an elementary school assignment: “But [Obama] came in. He said when we go out—and he took everybody out. And really, ISIS was formed. This was a terrible decision. And frankly, we never even got a shot,” Trump said. “I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil. If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS.”
Both made major factual errors—although Trump made far more of them.
Clinton said there would “never” be ground troops in Iraq and Syria again. But there currently are nearly 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, some less than 50 miles from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul, its capital in Iraq. And the Department of Defense has acknowledged sending at least 500 Special Forces into Syria, some of whom have moved with local forces within 20 miles of the ISIS capital city of Raqqa.
Trump, though, was the king of falsehoods during the forum: He suggested there was no military judiciary system in place to prosecute those accused of crimes like rape. But of course, the military has its own court system, and Article 120 of the military’s Uniformed Code of Military Justice explicitly calls rape a crime.
Trump also tried to correct a female war veteran who noted that, on average, 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Trump claimed it was 22, which is an old figure.
And he said ISIS was allowed to rise because it stole oil that the U.S. should have taken as its war bounty in Iraq. But in fact, at its peak, ISIS revenue streams were diverse, with most of its revenue coming from stealing from banks in towns it controlled and taxing residents in those communities.
Trump also threw out a bunch of puzzling ideas. The most galling was that sexual assault in the military was, at least in part, due to the integration of men and women—as opposed to the fault of rapists themselves. It was a comment that could be easily interpreted as a direct affront to women who have volunteered for combat positions in the U.S. military.
“There are many people that think that that’s absolutely correct,” Trump said Wednesday evening, defending his prior assertion that gender integration has led to high rates of sexual assault.
Later, the GOP nominee welcomed Putin’s “compliment” of calling him “brilliant,” though it’s not clear Putin ever said it. Trump also claimed the top American military brass had been “reduced to rubble” and that President Obama’s wrongdoings could be compared to Putin’s.
“When he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?” Trump said of the Russian strongman.
He also suggested he may purge generals and admirals who disagree with his foreign policy approach, a notion that is likely to rattle the Pentagon, even as commanders know they serve at the pleasure of the president. Commanders are expected to give their best objective military advice and not to be persuaded by the political ramifications of such recommendations.
Trump’s decision to praise Putin minutes before criticizing U.S. generals and admirals is likely to draw the ire of the military, which is currently confronting a Russian air campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Republican nominee added that he thought Clinton had a “happy trigger” on foreign policy and said he had a great relationship with Mexico—even though his visit to that country was wildly unpopular there and led to the resignation of its finance minister. And he suggested he would be open to granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants who wished to serve in the military—an idea that directly contradicts his campaign’s repeated insistence that he would not consider any amnesty.
It was a dumpster fire of an evening, for a dumpster fire of a campaign—the first time this election cycle where voters could see in stark contrast the two major choices for president, and both came up lacking.