At the NBC "Commander in Chief Forum" Wednesday night, moderator Matt Lauer asked Donald Trump about statements Trump has made praising Russia's Vladimir Putin. "Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating — " Trump began to answer. Lauer cut him off, saying to Trump:
He's also the guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world, and according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers.
Could any Hillary Clinton supporter, could any conservative NeverTrumper, could anyone, journalist or layman, who just wants to see candidates challenged — could any find fault in Lauer's assertive response? Putin was one of the main topics of the evening, and it is hard to imagine any television moderator coming up with a better follow-up than Lauer had for Trump.
On the issue of ISIS, Lauer pushed Trump on Trump's famous statement that he knows more about the terrorist organization than the nation's generals. Trump backed down. Lauer pressed Trump on just how he would "take the oil" from ISIS. And Lauer asked Trump about his claim that he has a plan to destroy the terrorist organization:
So is the plan you've been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?
Could any Hillary Clinton supporter be unhappy with that question? After all, Lauer lifted it nearly verbatim from Clinton's recent stump speeches.
At another point in the conversation before an all-military audience, when the subject was the scandal-plagued Veterans Administration and Trump said, "By the way, Hillary Clinton six months ago said the vets are being treated essentially just fine, there's no real problem," Lauer jumped in with on-the-spot fact-checking:
No, no, she went on after that and laid out a litany of problems within the V.A.
Again, could any Clinton supporter, or any journalistic watchdog, be unhappy with that? Or, for that matter, could they be unhappy with Lauer digging up a 2013 tweet from Trump about sexual assault in the military and asking Trump provocatively, "Does that mean the only way to fix it is to take women out of the military?"
And yet, despite all that, Lauer has come under nearly constant fire in the days since the forum for supposedly going too easy on Trump and too hard on Clinton. The New York Times James Poniewozik declared Lauer the loser of the forum and said the NBC moderator "asked [Trump] soft open-ended questions that invited the candidate to answer with word clouds." Brian Stelter, CNN's increasingly moralistic media reporter, quoted an unnamed NBC executive calling Lauer's performance a "disaster" and reported that "some viewers thought Lauer held Clinton to a higher standard than Trump," as if one could not find "some viewers" who thought almost anything about anything. Lauer also took a real-time beating on political Twitter.
The Clinton campaign sent out a fundraising appeal slamming Lauer and also sent out an email featuring Jonathan Chait's piece, "Matt Lauer's Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I've Seen In This Campaign."
"The consensus afterward was not kind," the Times reported in another story.
Why were so many critics so unhappy? Many of the objections to Lauer's performance focused on a single subject, the war in Iraq. During her segment, Clinton said:
Now, my opponent was for the war in Iraq. He says he wasn't. You can go back and look at the record. He supported it. He told Howard Stern he supported it. So he supported it before it happened, he supported it as it was happening, and he is on record as supporting it after it happened.
When Trump came onstage, he said, without prompting:
I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. You can look at Esquire magazine from '04. You can look at before that.
Lauer let it go and moved on to a question about Trump's temperament. And something between a groan and a cry of rage erupted in much of the nation's commentariat.
Lauer was pilloried for not pushing Trump. Another CNN media reporter, Dylan Byers — yes, some of the critics were from competing news organizations — said, "You don't send Matt Lauer to do a political reporter's job. Look, in a debate, it might be fair to argue that you can let the two candidates fact-check each other. But when it comes to these one-on-one interviews, these forums, you have to step up and play that role. That onus is on you, and Matt Lauer didn't do that. He certainly didn't do that with Donald Trump. He didn't do it on the Iraq War."
There was much, much more criticism of Lauer, focusing squarely on the Iraq issue.
Speaking to Trump, Lauer certainly could have repeated Clinton's charge from a few minutes earlier in the forum. On the other hand, the question of Trump's and Clinton's positions on Iraq is not the slam-dunk, black-and-white issue Clinton suggested it was.
Of course there's no doubt that Clinton delivered a carefully reasoned 2002 Senate speech in support of military action against Saddam Hussein and later voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. It's something she's called a mistake for many years now.
But Trump? Here is the totality of the evidence that Trump supported the war before it began: In the course of a rambling interview with Howard Stern on September 11, 2002, as the Iraq debate was building, Stern asked Trump, "Are you for invading Iraq?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Trump said haltingly, slowing down as he spoke. "Uh, you know, I wish it was — I wish the first time it was done correctly."
"Alright," said Stern, quickly moving on to something else. You can listen to the exchange here.
So yes, Trump said he guessed he supported the war. It's perfectly legitimate for Democrats and Trump's other critics to point that out. But there was also skepticism in his very brief answer. Most of all, he sounded a bit conflicted on the question — not an unusual condition at the time. The issue would be clearer if oppo researchers could find some other, more definitive statement of Trump support before the war. But so far, they haven't.
Here is how Buzzfeed, which has done extensive research on the Trump-Iraq question, described his positions: "Trump expressed … tepid support for the war in 2002, made both positive and negative comments about it in 2003, and was strongly opposed in 2004." So even if Lauer had challenged Trump, it might not have been the mic-drop moment many of Trump's opponents seem to imagine.
Lauer was also targeted for supposedly spending too much time asking Clinton about her email scandal. But it was undoubtedly news, and reporters had not had many chances to ask Clinton about it since the FBI's release of some of its investigative documents in the case. And it was definitely a national security issue, since the mishandling of classified information is at the heart of the matter. Yes, Clinton's partisans are tired of the email affair — after the forum, the Washington Post editorial board pronounced the story "out of control" and appeared to hope it would just all go away — but the fact is, there are still significant unknowns in the story. How could Lauer not drill down?
So to review: Yes, Lauer pressed Clinton on a number of questions. But he also pressed Trump. He fact-checked on the fly. He clarified Clinton's position when Trump mischaracterized it. He elicited from Trump new statements on Putin, on the nation's generals, on women in the military, on his intelligence briefings — all of which made news and served as ammunition for Trump's adversaries.
That didn't just happen. Lauer, the moderator, made it happen. And neither side has any legitimate complaint about how he treated them.