NEW YORK ― Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief forum on NBC should have gone down as the first time the two 2016 presidential candidates shared a stage. But it will be remembered largely for the shortcomings of the man who was tasked with moderating.
Matt Lauer, the “Today” show host, flunked in primetime. And his failure was even more remarkable because he had the very information he needed to succeed.
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.
“My opponent was for the war in Iraq,” Clinton said at the forum simulcast on NBC and MSNBC. “He says he wasn’t. You can ― you can go back and look at the record. He supported it. He told Howard Stern he supported 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.
The failure to fact-check on Iraq didn’t go unnoticed among many journalists on Twitter, including Lauer’s colleague, NBC News senior political editor Mark Murray.
But criticism of Lauer’s performance began well before Trump even hit the stage. He grilled Clinton from the start on her handling of classified information while using a private email account as secretary of state. After several questions on the subject, Lauer turned to a member of the audience who also referred to the email situation in asking Clinton about handling sensitive information.
Clinton’s use of a private email account is perhaps the most litigated subject of the presidential campaign. That doesn’t make it unworthy of resurfacing. But the amount of time Lauer lingered on the topic drew befuddlement from Clinton’s backers and some second-guessing from other media members, who wondered why other weightier topics weren’t given the same attention.
The decision looked even worse when it was Lauer’s turn to question Trump. The NBC host began by asking Trump what in his personal or professional life has prepared him to be commander in chief, an open-ended question that allowed the candidate to boast about his business successes. “Well, I’ve built a great company. I’ve been all over the world,” Trump began.
Trump soon provided his supposed Iraq stance and later falsely asserted ― as he’s similarly done throughout the campaign ― to have been against the U.S. intervention in Libya that toppled late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Trump said Clinton, as secretary of state, made a “a terrible mistake.” But Trump didn’t mention he shared the view that the U.S. should intervene, as another of Lauer’s colleagues, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, noted on Twitter.
Trump wasn’t a U.S. senator or secretary of State when the Iraq and Libya decisions were made, as was the case with Clinton, so he clearly had less of a role in these military interventions. Still, if Trump is going to tout his supposed positions as evidence of foreign policy judgment, a moderator should be steeped in the candidate’s well-worn claims when pressing him at a national security-focused forum. But on Libya, like Iraq, Lauer didn’t correct the Republican nominee. To his credit, he did confront Trump on a 2013 tweet in which Trump suggested sexual assaults had risen in the military because women were allowed to serve alongside men.
Some of Lauer’s problems on Wednesday night were not of his own making. With only a half-hour with each candidate, he was pressed for time and forced to rush through topics while bringing in audience questions and timely follow-ups.
Still, 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.
By the end of the night, Lauer himself had become the story, which is often not the way a moderator wants his debate to be remembered.
The next time Clinton and Trump will appear on the same stage is for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, moderated by “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt.