Presidential Campaign

Trump’s town hall performance just his latest disqualifying act

Republican nominee Donald Trump’s performance at Wednesday night’s national security forum with “Today” show host Matt Lauer was an unmitigated disaster.

In another context, if we weren’t talking about whether Trump might be our next president, it might be funny. His answers veered from preposterous to incoherent and sometimes dangerously disturbing. Trump once again indulged in his fantasy of removing oil from Iraq when leaving the country after the U.S. invasion in 2003 (far from the first time he has suggested this). This simply makes no sense. Oil reserves can’t be magically transported out of Iraq; they have to be pumped out daily.

{mosads}Lauer seemed to understand this, as he asked Trump how we would take the oil with us when leaving the country. Trump’s response: “Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil.”

It is impossible to decipher this word salad of a statement. In Trump’s telling, somehow the U.S. would simultaneously leave Iraq and stay behind, maintaining control of oil fields in the country pursuant to a vaguely referenced plan involving “a certain group” (soldiers? contractors? who knows?). Assuming Trump’s nebulous idea could somehow be put into practice, extracting Iraq’s oil would violate the Geneva Conventions. One scholar compared it to the kind of action 19th-century colonial powers might have taken; another said Trump had “a Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great timeframe way of thinking about this.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trump thinks in these terms: His taste in leaders tends toward the ruthless. During the town hall, Trump paid homage to Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, declaring him to be a better leader than President Obama and praising Putin for his “strong control” over Russia as well as his 82 percent approval ratings. Putin is an authoritarian ruler who is known for crushing political dissent and launching unprovoked invasions of sovereign nations.

Putin has been described as a dictator; he certainly represents the antithesis of democratic government. Yet Trump chose to defend and praise Putin — far from the first time he has done so.

In the past, Trump has said he knows more about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) than U.S. generals do and has coyly alluded to a “secret plan” he has to defeat the terrorist group. Last week, Trump said that, as president, he would convene top generals and instruct them to submit a plan within 30 days to defeat ISIS “soundly and quickly.”

Lauer noted the contradiction: If Trump has a secret plan, why would he need the generals to come up with their own separate plan? Trump’s response teetered into incoherence: “[W]hen I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine, or maybe doesn’t — I may love what the generals come back with.”

These are just some of the lowlights; others included Trump’s defiant refusal to walk back a 2013 tweet suggesting that sexual assault in the military is an unavoidable consequence of having men and women serve together, and the bizarre suggestion that intelligence officials who recently briefed him managed to convey to him (perhaps through body language) that President Obama was not following their recommendations. Trump also pretended to have opposed military action in Iraq and Libya from the start when the record shows just the opposite.

No serious presidential candidate should be able to get away with submitting such a pitiful performance to the voters. The polls, however, indicate that the election is far from a sure thing. Trump observed last week that he has “a substantial chance of winning.” He’s right — and that ought to be the scariest of many frightening things he said that night.

Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security,” was published in May by the University of Wisconsin Press.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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