By Dick Polman
Matt Lauer will be remembered as a fallen sexual harasser, but in my mind, he’s forever immortalized as a Donald Trump toady.
Return with me to the 2016 campaign, to the so-called “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” when NBC inexplicably entrusted a session with Trump to a guy whose brain had apparently been fried by too many decades of morning happy talk. The alpha male of the NBC office met his match and knuckled under – thus normalizing the unfit candidate’s lies and ignorance. It was a disgraceful performance that will live in infamy.
Trump was preceded on stage by Hillary Clinton, and given what we now know about the private Lauer – his aggressive behavior toward women, his crass use of gender power, his obsession with women’s looks and bodies – it was clearly in character that he repeatedly badgered and interrupted her over a span of 30 minutes. Indeed, the first 10 minutes was a sustained interrogation about her emails, and by the time she got a chance to tackle the various foreign policy issues on which she knew far more than Trump could ever process (China, nuclear deterrence, climate change, terrorism, take your pick), she had to rush her answers – with Lauer interrupting, urging her to finish.
She left, replaced by the dominant male. And presto, Lauer underwent a metamorphosis. Suddenly he was servile. Suddenly he was not interrupting.He was supine as Trump walked all over him.
Lauer: “Will you be prepared on day one?”
Trump: “One hundred percent.”
Lauer, with a hardball follow-up: “But you are prepared?”
Trump: “And I have to tell you, totally prepared.”
Well, that settled that! What more could a swing voter possibly want to know? A lot of things, actually. But over a span of 30 minutes, Lauer whiffed every time.
At one point, Trump said he was qualified to command the military and control the nuclear football because “I’ve built a great company ... I’ve had great experience dealing on international basis ... I have great judgment.” Lauer let it go. He didn’t think to ask: What experience? How does building hotels qualify you to make decisions on war and peace?
At another point, Trump told Lauer, “I was totally against the war in Iraq,” a lie long exposed (he’d said on tape years earlier that he was OK with Bush’s invasion), but Lauer let it go. Trump also said that in Iraq, we should’ve “taken the oil,” but Lauer didn’t think to ask Trump how a purported Iraq dove could support pillaging Iraq’s natural resources.
At another point, Trump recycled one of his favorite 2016 lies, that President Barack Obama was responsible for ISIS, but Lauer didn’t think (or know) to point out that ISIS was formed in 2004 when Obama was a state senator in Illinois.
At another point, Trump addressed the issue of sexual assaults in the military and said “the best thing we can do it set up a court system within the military.” Lauer didn’t think to point out that we already have a court system within the military – and that it hasn’t worked. Assault allegations go up the chain of command, and the male officers protect their own. Which is why reformers have argued for years that these allegations be removed from the chain of command. If Lauer knew this, he chose not to follow up.
This question was more in Lauer’s comfort zone: “What kind of homework are you doing? What kind of things are you doing as you prepare” to be a president?
Trump: “I’m doing a lot of different things ... We’re doing very well ... I’m also partially running a business ... We’re doing very well.”
That worked for Lauer. Nor did he have a problem with Trump’s predictable ode to Vladimir Putin: “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating .... He is really very much of a leader .... In that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Lauer didn’t think (or know) to point out that Putin owes his boffo rating to the fact that he suppresses dissent and that, as one study has warned, Russians tell pollsters they love Putin because they’re afraid to say they don’t. Nor did Lauer think to ask Trump whether it was appropriate for a candidate to publicly invite Russia to hack the contents of Hillary’s private server – which Trump had done just six weeks earlier.
But by the time Trump was busy lauding Putin, I’d long given up hearing any pushback from a morning show softie who was arguably best known for demonstrating deftness with a studio cooking skillet.
Now he can’t even wield a skillet – except at home.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania.