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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

'Talking Death All Over': What We Learned from the National Security Town Hall

Wednesday night's NBC event seemed rushed and gave both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton plenty of opportunities to dodge any tough questions.

by Harry Cheadle
Sep 8 2016, 4:00am

Donald Trump talks to Matt Lauer during Wednesday night's event. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci). Lead image by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Presidential campaigns in many ways are like middle school. You have a single enemy who you despise with all your being, and you spend nearly every waking moment convincing anyone who will listen that they are trashy liars who can't be trusted with the nuclear codes, but you hardly ever get into a situation where you have to say those nasty rumors you've been spreading to Becky's—or Donald Trump's—face.

So even though Hillary Clinton and Trump have been giving speeches within miles of each other in Ohio, and denouncing each other furiously in aggressively negative television ads, they are rarely close enough to smell each other's breath. On Wednesday, however, NBC gave the two candidates a chance to at least occupy the same space, if not at the same time, when it hosted something called the "Commander-in-Chief Forum," an arena where the duo would be asked questions about national security and veterans' issues by morning show host Matt Lauer and veterans themselves. They went onstage one at a time, but it was the closest we'll get to an actual debate until, well, the actual debates.

From the beginning, however, the format seemed designed to disappoint. The whole program was only an hour long, and 30 minutes per candidate wasn't enough time for anything approaching a substantial discussion of anything. Sometimes Lauer followed up on questions; sometimes he obviously felt the need to move on to the next topic. And "national security" is an incredibly broad area to focus on, so naturally quite a bit ended up on the cutting room floor—we barely got anything about Russia, nothing on climate change, surprisingly little on domestic terrorism or cybersecurity, nothing on North Korea, and nothing on nuclear proliferation apart from a short discussion of Iran.

So what did we get? Basically a rehash of the major themes of this interminable election season. Lauer's first substantial questioning of Clinton zeroed in on her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the first audience question (pre-selected, presumably, by NBC), also asked Clinton about her emails. "Secretary Clinton," a former Navy officer with top secret clearance said, "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?"

Clinton's use or misuse of email is a scandal, but it's one that has been written and talked about extensively, and given half an hour and an entire world to cover, you might imagine less time devoted to it. More pointed were audience queries about Clinton's support for the Iraq war and the intervention in Libya that attacked the candidate for being overly hawkish. She was also asked about comments she made that appeared to minimize problems at the notoriously dysfunctional Veterans Administration, which provides healthcare to vets, or at least is supposed to. Clinton did what any experienced politician facing tough questions and a limited amount of time would: stall for time with platitudes.

She would work at fixing the VA until it was fixed. The Iraq war was a mistake, as was her vote for it. As for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, "I think taking that action was the right decision. Not taking it, and permitting there to be an ongoing civil war in Libya, would have been as dangerous and threatening as what we are now seeing in Syria." ISIS? ISIS is bad, we should beat them. Terrorism? Also bad. The Iran deal? A good deal, we just have to make sure it's honored. Any more questions? Oh, we're out of time.

Given the time crunch and Lauer's reputation as a relatively soft interviewer, however, Clinton's treatment might count as a grilling. Trump got off a little easier.

Most notably, the alleged billionaire said he was "totally against the war in Iraq," which as anyone who has covered or followed the campaign knows is a straight-up lie—yet one that Lauer didn't follow up on. But more often Trump just did his usual tactic of talking pure nonsense and forcing his questioner to move on or risk getting bogged down.

Take, for instance, Trump's contention that the US should "take the oil" out of Iraq or ISIS-controlled lands. How should we do that? "Just we would leave a certain group behind, and you would take various sections where they have the oil." So... Large quantities of ground troops back in Iraq to defend oil operations? The US would just extract another nation's resources? Like an old-school colonial power? I guess so.

Moving on, Trump continued to say he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS, but he wouldn't reveal it because it was a secret, but he'd also ask generals for their ideas, and maybe he would take those ideas and use them, or combine them with the secret plan, or maybe there would be "different generals" than the ones the US military has now. Who knows what the fuck Trump is talking about at this point, honestly?

Lauer ended the evening by asking Trump about the weightiness of the decision to launch a military operation as president. Trump replied by saying, "I think it's the most difficult decision you can possibly ever make. You're talking about death. And we're talking death to not just our side. We're talking death all over. I would be very, very cautious. I think I'd be a lot slower. She has a happy trigger... I've been preparing this for a long time. And, you know, my theme is make America great again. We're going to make America great again. But, Matt, we've also got to make America strong again. And right now, we are not strong. Believe me. We have a depleted military. We have the greatest people in the world in our military. But it is very sadly depleted."

I can think of a few follow-up questions. Weren't you just saying minutes ago you'd send troops to take oil? Now you're saying you'd go "slower" than Clinton? And how do you attack Clinton for being overly hawkish and demand a military buildup in the next breath? What would you actually do if faced with a situation like Libya? If the military is so great, why were you just shit-talking its generals? What are you even TALKING about?

Maybe Lauer was about to ask those questions. But, oh, will you look at that, we're out of time.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.