The “Commander-in-chief forum” for the two major party presidential candidates hosted by NBC News in New York last night wound up looking very much like a microcosm of the general election race so far: We witnessed a poor performance from Democrat Hillary Clinton offset by an even worse showing by her Republican rival Donald Trump.
Clinton repeated her dubious letter-of-the-law defense of the decision to use a personal email system while serving as secretary of state and even seemed to become angry with a former Navy officer who asked about her trustworthiness.
That might have been the main headline coming out of the hour-long event moderated by Matt Lauer if Trump, who appeared after Clinton, hadn’t taken the opportunity to reiterate his support for having the US military engage in the theft of another country’s natural resources -- a war crime prohibited by the Geneva Conventions -- and to express his continuing admiration for the leadership qualities of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
Clinton’s half-hour session with Lauer was dominated by the email question. The former secretary of state has admitted that her use of the private server was a mistake, but has steadfastly clung to the claim that no actual classified material was sent or received over the system.
“Classified material has a header, which says ‘Top Secret,’ ‘Secret,’ ‘Confidential,’” Clinton said. “Nothing and I will repeat this, and this is verified in the report by the Department of Justice none of the emails sent or received by me had such a header.”
The fact is that while that it is strictly true that there were no headers in the material Federal Bureau of Investigation agents found in emails recovered from the system, there were hundreds of emails that contained information at various levels of classification. Many had subtler markings which Clinton claimed not to have understood.
But in an even larger sense, the markings on documents is immaterial. Clinton, as secretary of state, was expected to protect sensitive information, and to transmit it over a secure server, regardless of how it was marked.
Clinton appeared angry when she responded to retired Navy officer John Lester, who noted that in his time as a pilot, he would have been thrown in jail for failing to keep classified information within the bounds of a secure communications system.
“Secretary Clinton,” he asked. “how can you expect those such as myself who 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 stuck to her claim that no classified information moved through her private system. “I communicated about classified material on a wholly different system,” she said. “I took it very seriously.”
As the event went on, Clinton asked listeners to judge her fitness to be commander-in-chief on the “totality of my record” including “what I have done for our veterans as first lady [and] as senator.”
It wasn’t Clinton’s best performance, but when Trump followed her onstage, he made a mighty effort to make Clinton look good by comparison.
He began by repeating the widely debunked lie that he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, something there is no public record to support. Trump himself could only point to a 2004 magazine article, published more than a year after the war started.
Then, he repeated his insistence that before withdrawing from Iraq, the US should have taken ownership of its vast oil reserves.
“We shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil,” he said. “If we would’ve taken the oil you wouldn’t have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil.”
Lauer asked, “How are we going to take the oil? How are we going to do that?”
“We would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil...It used to be ‘to the victor belong the spoils,’” he said, adding, “There was no victor there, believe me...but I always said, ‘Take the oil.’”
However, pillaging another country’s natural resources during an occupation is, very clearly, a war crime.
Trump also renewed his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Lauer reminded him that the Russian strongman’s various offenses against international order in general and against the United States in particular.
“I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin, and I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia,” Trump said. “The beautiful part of getting along, Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS?”
When Lauer questioned whether Putin was the sort of leader Trump really wanted to cozy up to, the former reality television star said, “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating.”
When Lauer reminded him that, among other things, Putin has invaded Ukraine, supported the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, worked to undermine US interests around the world, and that computer hackers working on behalf of his government appear to be trying to influence the US elections, Trump said, “You want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does?”
Still speaking of Putin, Trump said, “I think I’ll be able to get along with him...If he 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...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 has been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.”
Around the time Trump got to praising the leadership qualities of the former KGB agent who now runs Russia with an iron fist, one has to imagine Hillary Clinton let herself breathe a sigh of relief.