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May 23, 2019

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Here are some tougher questions Lauer should have asked Trump

The clear and obvious imbalance in how moderator Matt Lauer conducted last week’s Commander-in-Chief Forum with the two presidential candidates has certainly triggered plenty of consternation, and why not?

On one hand, Lauer used about 10 of his 30 minutes with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to grill her with still-more-of-the-same questions about the classified emails she sent from her personal computer server. On the other hand, Lauer’s 30 minutes with real estate developer-turned-reality TV star Donald Trump was so soft that Trump had time to indulge in how he had been generously complimented by Russian President Vladimir Putin. At least Lauer reminded Trump that Putin was likely behind a series of hackings of American computer servers. Said Trump, “I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?”

Given that the forum’s theme was national security and the military, here are some questions that Lauer, host of NBC’s “Today” show, should have asked Trump.

• “You sent shock waves through our allied nations in Europe when you suggested that, if you were president, you wouldn’t come to the defense of one of our NATO allies if it had fallen behind in paying its share of the cost of the alliance. Mr. Trump, do you understand the implications of that, and how NATO is one of our most important defenses as a nation? Would you ignore our treaty obligation and have the United States turn its back on an ally under threat of being overrun by Russia just because it owed money to NATO?” (Who knows; maybe Trump would respond that this is one reason that Putin thinks the Republican candidate is brilliant.)

• “Mr. Trump, do you recall when President Barack Obama said you don’t know much about nuclear policy, or the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, or in fact you don’t know much about the world in general? Do you remember what prompted him to say that? And that it was because you were trying to make the point that Japan and South Korea should be allowed to get their hands on nuclear arms so the United States wouldn’t have to keep watch over that part of the world? I guess what I’m asking, Mr. Trump, is would you want part of the defense of the United States to be relegated to Japan and South Korea? And do you honestly think we are a safer world by promoting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, even though that would unwind decades of bipartisan foreign policy to rein in nuclear arms?”

• “I need to bluntly and seriously ask you, do you really think you have the temperament to make cool, calm, rational decisions about when to engage in battle when you are so quick to fantasize about violence and when 50 Republican national security experts said there’s no way they’d trust you to be within arm’s reach of the nuclear codes because you inflame so easily, and even a critical tweet can set you off?”

• “Mr. Trump, you’ve been quite critical of Secretary Clinton’s management of her emails because sensitive information might have been compromised by hackers. But then you invite, basically encourage, Russia to hack into U.S. servers to look for more of her emails. People from both parties were alarmed because, as a campaign adviser to Mrs. Clinton noted, this was probably the first time a major presidential candidate has encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent, turning this into a national security issue. So Mr. Trump, what the heck were you thinking? You said you were being sarcastic. Well, I’ve got to tell you that when you’re talking to a foreign power and you make a comment like that, do you understand how it can be misconstrued? And we all know, those of us who watch and listen to you, that when you speak off the cuff versus following a Teleprompter, you are a loose cannon. What confidence can we have that you will be clear and articulate, and not try to be funny or a wiseacre or sarcastic, when speaking to foreign leaders?”

• “OK, I need to ask you one more time if you supported our invasion of Iraq. You’ve said you were totally against the war in Iraq. And it’s just hard for people to believe that because it’s an undeniable fact — undeniable — that on Howard Stern’s radio show, you said you favored it.”

Lauer’s obsession with Clinton’s emails ate up time that would have been better spent exploring her thoughts and positions on national security and the military, where she is an expert. Granted, Clinton’s email issue touches on national security. We get that. But for the umpteenth time, it needs to be made clear that among tens of thousands of emails she sent from her personal servers, the FBI found only 81 email chains that included classified information — and none was tagged by the originators, as they should have been according to protocol, with the words top secret, secret or confidential. At most, the mark “c” was on three chains, apparently meant to indicate “confidential,” the lowest level of classification.

FBI Director James Comey, a Republican, told Congress it was reasonable that Clinton may not have understood that the emails were classified, and while he characterized her handling of the emails as careless, he recommended that she not be charged with any crimes, and she wasn’t.

The Commander-in-Chief Forum disappointed for its lack of tough questions for Trump. It was as though Lauer — affable, confident, charming on the morning news show — was either unprepared or found himself flustered by Trump, a person with whom he has bantered numerous times.

We expect the three presidential debates — including the finale Oct. 19 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas — will accurately reveal Trump’s poor grasp of foreign affairs and national security, and show the need for a serious, steady and experienced hand in Washington.