Trump Time Capsule #96: ‘Putin Has an 82 Percent Approval Rating!’

Donald Trump saying (falsely) "I was against the Iraq war," and Matt Lauer listening respectfully, in tonight's "Forum" (Mike Segar / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve just now watched the hour-long “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC, moderated by Matt Lauer. Three points that deserve note for the record:

1. Iraq. Donald Trump led off by claiming, falsely, that he opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and that this is an important sign of his good judgment:

TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that.

This claim is false. It is not true. It is a fantasy or a lie. Donald Trump keeps saying it. It keeps being false.

There is absolutely no public evidence, whatsoever, of Donald Trump having given any caution about invading Iraq before the war began. By contrast, there is evidence of his saying before the war that the invasion might be a good idea. For reference, a piece I did back in February. And this damning one from BuzzFeed about the same time, with audio of Trump talking with Howard Stern about the war. See this from Vox too. Even NBC’s own fact-checking department called Trump out on the lie just after the forum.

First depressing aspect: that Trump is still just proudly blasting out a lie.

Second, more depressing aspect: that NBC’s Matt Lauer did not even pretend to challenge him—not even by saying, “Wait a minute, why should a 2004 Esquire article matter, when that was a year after the war began?” Lauer, what were you thinking? If you knew this and didn’t say anything, why on Earth not? And if you didn’t know it, what were you doing in this role?


2. Russia. The exchange between Lauer and Trump about Vladimir Putin seemed even more jaw-dropping when seen on TV than it reads in print. Emphasis added:

LAUER: Let me ask you about some of the things you’ve said about Vladimir Putin. You said, I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said it’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond.

TRUMP: Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here. Look, look…

LAUER: He’s also a 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…


TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?

LAUER: But do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?

TRUMP: Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK? The fact is, look, it’s not going to get him anywhere. I’m a negotiator.

We’re going to take back our country. You look at what’s happening to our country, you look at the depleted military. You look at the fact that we’ve lost our jobs. We’re losing our jobs like we’re a bunch of babies. We’re going to take back our country, Matt. The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.

What is unprecedented here: a presidential nominee favorably comparing the autocratic leader of an increasingly aggressive and problematic power to the current commander in chief of the United States. Here’s why I’m acutely aware that this sort of thing just is not done:

Forty years ago right now, when I was working for candidate Jimmy Carter in his run against incumbent President Gerald Ford, I was grinding out one of the day’s 10 speeches, this one about the failures of the Nixon-Ford foreign policy. A newsmagazine photo had recently appeared of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev sitting chummily together at an informal session at a summit meeting. By this time Nixon was the resigned-in-disgrace former president, whose legacy was dragging down his successor, Ford. Brezhnev was in his final years at the top of the USSR.

As the impetuous young speechwriter, I had thrown in some line about how neither one of them, Nixon or Brezhnev, was that big a fan of real democracy, nor attuned to the real hopes of their people [etc etc]. What I threw in was about one percent as disrespectful as what Trump said tonight about Obama and Putin. But it was immediately cut out, and I was immediately brushed back, by everyone who had a chance, from Carter himself to Jody Powell to anyone else within earshot. Carter said words to the effect of, “We don’t talk about a president that way.” We could say Nixon had betrayed the public, yes. Liken him to, or place him below, a Soviet or Russian leader, no.

Other amazing fact from seeing tonight’s session: It obviously matters to Trump that Putin calls him “brilliant”! This is exactly what one-time CIA head Mike Morell meant when saying that Putin, an experienced intelligence operative, had very skillfully played to Trump’s vanities, and made him (in Morell’s words) “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”

On the other hand, good followup by Lauer on this one.


3. Intelligence briefings. Remember the concern, when Donald Trump began getting classified briefings, that he would blurt out or misuse information he heard there?

How do his briefers feel after hearing this?

LAUER: Did you learn new things in that briefing?

TRUMP: First of all, I have great respect for the people that gave us the briefings. We — they were terrific people. They were experts on Iraq and Iran and different parts of — and Russia. But, yes, there was one thing that shocked me. And it just seems to me that what they said President Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who is another total disaster, did exactly the opposite.

LAUER: Did you learn anything in that briefing—again, not going into specifics—that makes you reconsider some of the things you say you can accomplish, like defeating ISIS quickly?

TRUMP: No, I didn’t learn anything from that standpoint. What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly — when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason — what our experts said to do….

And I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance. And I could tell you. I have pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.

Forget the body-language part. If this is true, it’s an outright betrayal of the people who briefed him and the terms of confidentiality he accepted. If it’s not true, it’s just another lie. In either case, it is yet again something we haven’t seen from past nominees.


That’s all I can stand to note about this session, with 61 days to go.