Monday, September 19, 2016

Debate Prep: BTRTN's 14 Questions the Moderators Should Put to Donald Trump

The train wreck that is modern journalism reached its apotheosis when Matt Lauer hosted the “Commander-in-Chief” summit on the NBC properties with the same gravitas and moral authority that Drew Carey brings to “The Price is Right.” Then again, perhaps I am unfair to Mr. Carey.

We live in an era when broadcast networks see more of a return-on-investment from a handsome face on a hunk reading a teleprompter than from a real newsperson with a lifetime of tough, grimy reporting and relentless investigative journalism.  Too, we live in an era when broadcasters see more money in offering a version of the news filtered through a conservative or liberal bias than any attempt at objectivity. 

In combination, the triumph of looks over substance and bias over objectivity leaves little room for the Huntleys and Brinkleys of yore. That’s how we end up with superficial pretty boys like Brian Williams and Matt Lauer instead of more homely titans like Cronkite and Murrow.

Lauer competently hosts a morning info-tainment show, and has done better in the competition for People’s Sexiest Man Alive than in Pulitzer Prizes. Ill-mannered and ill-prepared, Lauer was belligerent to Hillary Clinton, and failed to challenge Donald Trump on baseless assertions and outright lies, most notable his brazen claim that he was against the war in Iraq. Perhaps Matt was distracted -- maybe wondering when he was supposed to toss the lead over the Al Roker in the Weather Center – and Trump skated off with a huge lie and no accountability, yet again.

Ah, but have NBC and Lauer actually done us all a favor? Because one indeed does get the sense that the “Commander-in-Chief” summit was a run-through of a new script at a small theater off-Broadway... part of a thorough vetting so that the cast has its act together before the curtain is raised at the Schoenfeld.

Specifically, Lester Holt, Elaine Quijano, Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, and Chris Wallace have now been scared crap-less about their vulnerability and career risk as the 2016 Presidential Debate moderators. Lester Holt – still newly minted as NBC’s anchor – is first up on Monday Night. He is a good man, but does he have the experience for that red hot seat?

It used to be that the candidates were terrified of a disqualifying gaffe; we now see that the moderators themselves are at risk of being “de-Lauered,” which is what we call it when Donald Trump drives an 18-wheeler filled with disingenuous manure and unmitigated denial over a cowering, quivering news anchor who has not done the homework and hasn’t the will to go toe-to-toe with him.

This means that these television journalists must prepare rigorously for their roles as debate moderators.

First and foremost, they need to actually steep themselves in the comprehensive public record of what the candidates have actually said. This will be hard work, as Donald Trump has taken at least two positions on just about every issue on the table. The moderators must be able to react to lies in real time, as unchallenged lies appear to the uneducated viewer as indistinguishable from truth.

Equally true: the moderators and their support teams must do the hard thinking required to develop questions that are bullshit-resistant.  They must design questions that force candidates to finally declare support for or rejection of specific positions in cases where they have historically waffled. They must write questions that candidates cannot run roughshod over or refuse to answer. And finally, they must create questions and then game out all possible answers – so that the moderator knows where, when, and how to pounce.

Let me be clear on one point: these television news personalities don’t need any help in preparing for Hillary Clinton. Having watched the entirety of the nine Democratic Debates during the primary season, I can assure all that Clinton actually has a core level of respect for the process. Indeed, policy wonk Clinton listened carefully to the questions, and took them head on… often seeming to enjoy demonstrating her command of arcane subject matter. She will show up and play the game.

And – for sure -- she knows what questions are coming at her in the Presidential Debates. She will be grilled about email, the Clinton Foundation, her poor handling of her recent health episode, and perhaps Libya and (dear God, I hope not) Benghazi. Certainly about her trustworthiness. There will be no surprises, and the only issue will be how successfully she fields the obvious incoming.

But these moderators need plenty of help preparing for Donald Trump.

Trump has demonstrated that he has absolutely no respect for a tradition of structured and even reasonably respectful Presidential debate.  His style throughout the Republican debates was to yell, insult, berate, belittle, dismiss, exaggerate, lie, and ignore.  As such, the moderators need to be very well prepared to take the battle to Trump. They must ask exceedingly precise questions that cannot be fluffed, faked, ducked, or dodged. And they must have the guts to insist that he answer the question asked… and not allow him to filibuster with irrelevant blabber or ramble off into a favorite tirade or new outrageous claim.

Toward that end, BTRTN hereby proposes fourteen questions that we’d love to see the moderators pose in the upcoming debates.  After each, we’ll provide a brief commentary on why we’ve selected the question, and why it is has been phrased in this particular way. 

1.    “Mr. Trump, you have been criticized repeatedly for telling lies on the campaign trail. You said that you saw a video of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering when the World Trade Center came crashing down. Your campaign tweeted that 85% of the violent crimes experienced by white people are committed by black people. You have claimed that the current  unemployment rate is 45%. All of these claims are untrue. We now have a very clear and clean opportunity to talk about truth and lies. Recently, you met with the President of Mexico. You said that the topic of who pay for the wall you intend to build never came up. He said that it did, and that he told you Mexico would not pay for it. Are you calling the President of Mexico a liar?”

This is a nice, simple question that forces an issue: one meeting, two people, two versions, only one truth. It forces Donald Trump to make an immediate calculation: should he further alienate Hispanics by charging that the President of Mexico is a liar… or does he equivocate, and look weak? Moreover, this question starts the debate and set the tone with what may well be the most important issue of this campaign: Donald Trump considers truth and fact to be matters of opinion and convenience as opposed to objectively measurable realities. 

2.   “Mr. Trump, in 2012 you and others excoriated Mitt Romney for what appeared to be flip-flops on his positions. And yet in recent weeks your own campaign has struggled with flip-flops, most notably on your immigration policies. You’ve stepped back from your total ban of all non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States, and – perhaps most significantly -- you changed your position on immediately deporting all eleven million undocumented aliens.  Finally, last week, you acknowledged publicly that Barack Obama was born in the United States after five years of refusing to acknowledge this point.  These are all major changes in your positions. What makes your flip-flops – particularly your flip-flop on the issue of Barack Obama’s citizenship --different from Mitt Romney’s? Does your flip-flop on the Obama issue mean that you were wrong in the past?”

The intent here is to introduce enough evidence into the question that Trump cannot attempt to dismiss the charge of flip-flopping out of hand.  But of far greater importance is to get the “birther” issue on the table.  Why Trump brought this issue back to life I will never know, but all the attention this has generated stemmed from Trump reviving the issue in an interview to a Washington Post reporter. He seems to think that changing his opinion on it should “take it off the table,” and make it moot. Trump’s despicable history on this issue – essentially no different than a racist cop profiling a Hispanic or African American man and demanding his “papers” – has been an egregious insult to President Obama, African-Americans, and, well, everyone in the United States. It should be one of the first issues raised in the debates. 

3.  “Mr. Trump, Ronald Reagan famously based his candidacy on a simple question: are you better off now than you were four years ago? There are very few people in the United States who would attempt to make the argument that the United States at the close of the presidency of George W. Bush was a healthier America than it is now. Then, we were close to a global economic meltdown that triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression, wiping out trillions of dollars of savings. You yourself have said that the Bush administration’s war in Iraq was a mistake.  Our automobile industry needed a massive bail-out to survive. While it is no secret that the recovery has not been experienced evenly across the United States, there is no question that our economy is growing strongly. Last week came the news that middle class incomes enjoyed the most significant increase in decades. Unemployment stands at a lower point than the level that Mitt Romney had targeted as the goal of his administration. We are not involved in a major land battle abroad, and the relatively few instances of terrorism in the United States have been nowhere near the level or carnage as the 9/11 attacks under the Bush White House. Osama Bin Laden is dead.  Barack Obama’s approval rating stands at 58%, vastly higher that either yours or Secretary Clinton’s, and nearly twice the approval rating last recorded by a Republican President. You have warned that a Clinton presidency would represent a continuation of the Obama record.  How do you think most American’s would answer Ronald Reagan’s question about whether they are better off now, or how things were at the close of the Bush administration?”

This is a risky question, to be sure, as it is easy for Donald Trump to say that millions of Americans are still struggling after eight years of the Obama White House. However, Ronald Reagan’s question is the defining question in a debate between continuity and change.  It is, after all, a Republican question. It should be asked, and Donald Trump should answer. 

4.   “Mr. Trump, you make bold claims that you will be the ‘greatest jobs president God ever created,’  and you have excoriated the performance of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  However, you have said very little by way of specifics about what you would do differently. Your major Detroit speech on your economic policy was considered to be largely a mainstream Republican trickle-down economics template. You’ve talked about renegotiating trade deals with very little substance about what specifically you would change.  If you don’t plan to do much that is different from past Republican presidents, how do you expect different results?”

The intent of this question is to remind the world that Donald Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party.  I, for one, would like to hear him either defend his association with past Republican administrations or repudiate them.  Either would be better than the free pass he is getting now, as he runs as a Republican but distances himself from the disastrous policies that left the Bush presidency in shambles. 

5.  “Mr. Trump, you are no doubt familiar with the phrase the ‘3:00 a.m. call’ – that hypothetical moment when you are woken up in the middle of the night because you must deal with an urgent crisis or global proportions. Imagine that it is 3:00 a.m. in the Trump White House, and that you are awoken to the news that Catherine Samba-Panza, the democratically-elected President of the African nation Burundi Faso, has been taken hostage. Given the extremely tense relations between Burundi Faso and Somalia, Samba-Panza’s top General  Ikililou Dhoinine has stated that he believes that the kidnapping has been backed by Somalian Monarch Luc Mbah a Moute. The concern is that a violent confrontation between Somolia Sunni and Burundi-Faso Shiites could immediately trigger a broader conflagration that would undoubtedly bring states and organizations with competing economic and/or religious interests, such as Russia, Egypt, Iran, and ISIS into the fray. Indeed, you have been informed that Israeli President Netanyahu has scrambled fighter jets and has actually raised his nuclear readiness code. Mr. Trump, when you are woken up at 3:00 to this news, what immediate steps do you take?”

I enjoyed writing this question. It is intentionally a hodge-podge of inaccuracy, whim, and error. There is no country called Burundi Faso, there are two countries hundreds of miles apart called Burkina Faso and Burundi.  Catherine Samba-Panza is the President of neither; she leads the Central Africa Republic. Ikililou Dhoinine is not her top General, he is President of the Comoros.  Somalia is not ruled by a monarchy. Luc Mbah a Moute is a power forward for the Los Angeles Clippers.  To be perfectly candid, I have no idea whether the Sunni/Shiite conflict plays any role in Burkina Faso or Burundi.

The fact that the whole question is a gigantic “gotcha!” is a bit immature on my part, I admit. Yes, it would be a lovely moment to reveal to Donald Trump, live, onstage, and in real-time, that this entire situation is a set-up to prove that he knows nothing – nothing – about the countries, leaders, and complexities of global politics. I suspect that even if he took it all as fact and simply tried to speak with some nuance about the many random, competing, and rapidly changing conflicts and alliances in this infinitely complicated world, it would be a triumph for him. Needless to say, I take it for granted that Hillary Clinton would follow him to the microphone and be the one to point out that the whole thing was a spoof. She would actually know.

But my guess is that Trump would hide behind the idea that he would have “the best people in the business” in his cabinet, and they would advise him about what to do about the mythical Burundi Faso. But that would be a very nice transition to my next question…. 

6.   “Mr. Trump, you have based much of your candidacy on your success as a businessman. You frequently talk about how you hire the ‘best people’ at your companies, and that you will only the ‘best people’ in your administration.  Many would argue that the best proof of your acumen in attracting the best people is to look at who you have installed to lead your campaign. You’ve had three different leaders of your campaign in the span of three months. In the world of business, is having three leaders of your organization six month considered good management?  Did you have to make these changes because your judgment was wrong in the first place?” 

I assume that in the prior question, Trump would attempt to cover for his ignorance of global politics by claiming that he will hire great people. This question is intended to challenge the notion that he is very good at hiring people, and therein his very business acumen itself. 

7.   “Mr. Trump, you say you refuse to release your taxes because you are under audit, but many tax attorneys say that this is not a legitimate reason. Moreover, you may be under audit precisely because of irregularities in your tax filing, in which case you may be using the fact that you have a significant tax problem as the rationale for concealing that very tax problem. You certainly know that that you have the option of releasing your taxes from years past, as these returns are not under the current audit and are therefore free to be released.  Mr. Trump, are you hiding something that would be devastating to your candidacy if they were revealed before Election Day? One theory is that you claim to have given tens of millions of dollars to charity but no one can find any evidence of recipients. Your tax return would offer some proof of those donations. Another theory is that your net worth is only a fraction of the ten billion dollars you claim, diminishing your repeated assertions of great business success. Or, perhaps, your return would reveal that you have paid only a small amount in taxes.  Or, that you have foreign investments and entanglements – with Russia or China, for example – that would compromise your decision-making as President. Perhaps the real issue is what your son said just the other day – that you don’t want to release your taxes – and now I am quoting – ‘because he's got a 12,000-page tax return that would create … financial auditors out of every person in the country asking questions that would detract from his main message.’ Stated another way, you are simply worried about what people would find. Why are you not releasing your taxes, Mr. Trump? What is it that you don’t want people to know?”

This question takes as its point of departure the absolute certainty that Donald Trump will never release his taxes. As such, the real purpose of the question is to establish that his rationale for refusing to release his taxes is specious, and to ensure that the potential real explanations for his obfuscation are introduced into the public forum. 

8.  "Mr. Trump, given the number of headlines devoted to terrorism, racial tension, government dysfunction, and a myriad of other immediate concerns, a wide array of important issues have been shoved to the back burner. For example, the issue of safe disposal of our stockpile of radioactive waste is a huge concern to the populations of the western states that are currently serving as repositories for such decaying radioactive materials, as well as for the states that are being considered for new storage facilities. How important will this issue be in a Trump White House, and which states do you feel are being most unfairly treated in this debate?”

The purpose of this question is to point out that Donald Trump has been so over-matched in simply coming up to speed on the issues that demand immediate, deep, and nuanced knowledge, he has, no doubt, not even given a thought to a myriad of “second tier” issues that Presidents need to understand. This is just a reasonably good example of one… any number of other issues would serve the same purpose. 

9.   “Mr. Trump, when you have commented on military matters, you’ve created concern among members of the military community that you would be an undisciplined, trigger-happy Commander-in-Chief. You have said you will ‘bomb the shit’ out of ISIS. Just last week, you told your followers that if Iranian sailors merely verbally or visually taunt the American Navy, you will return their gestures with open fire. Kim Jong-un of North Korea is now projected to be within several years of being able to launch a nuclear intercontinental missile capable of reaching most major cities in the United States.  His missiles tests are obviously far more provocative – and more dangerous -- than the gestures of Iranian sailors. Do you anticipate a need to launch a pre-emptive military strike to strip North Korea of its ability to launch a nuclear attack on the United States?

People need to hear Trump talk about Kim Jong-un. They both talk recklessly about nuclear war.  And they could both soon they could both be in a position to actually start World War III. 

10.  “Mr. Trump, your admiration for Russian President Putin is widely known. Indeed, you stated that you believe he is a stronger leader than President Obama, and you cited a poll showing that his favorability ratings in Russia were 82%, far higher than President Obama’s ratings in the United States. Many people think that you are naïve to believe a popularity poll issued by a totalitarian regime that suppresses opposition. Do you think you were being naïve?”

Trump cannot stand retreating or admitting error, and he cannot tolerate accusations that he is weak or unsophisticated. This question takes advantage of those vanities, and essentially forces him to double-down and assert his belief in the validity of a Russian government poll. Moreover, America just needs to hear Trump rattle on about his preference for a Russian thug over a very popular American President. 

11.  “Mr. Trump, two weeks ago you began an outreach to African American voters, visiting a black church for the first time in your campaign. You have said that the living conditions of African Americans living in our inner cities are worse than bomb zones in third world countries, and that African Americans should support you because you couldn’t possible do worse than Democrats. The theme of your convention, however, was that you would be the “law and order candidate,” which included an aggressive defense of law enforcement and a condemnation of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Finally, you have given up after years of leading the “birther” movement and its allegation that Barack Obama is not a citizen and therefore not legitimately the President of the United States. Many people in the African American community view your recent initiatives as purely political ploys borne of political need rather than authentic concern. If you were genuinely concerned about the lives of African Americans, why did your expressions of concern come so late in your campaign?”

There has been no more nauseating evidence of Trump’s brazen opportunism than his disingenuous and eleventh hour outreach to the African-American community. He needs to be held accountable for this shameless deceit. 

12.  “Mr. Trump, every day at your company, you rely on the extremely sophisticated calculations, judgments, and knowledge of your staff engineers to determine how to safely build the immense skyscrapers that bear the Trump name.  It’s a known fact that 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree global warming is real and is changing the planet. Why do you believe the scientists at your company but not the scientists who study climate?”

It is a pity that our journalists have allowed Donald Trump to define the issues that he wished to talk about. As President Obama pointed out last week, climate change is the single most important issue of our time.  Americans need to hear Donald Trump talk about why he believes scientists when he wants to make money and ignores them when he was to be elected president. 

13.  “Mr. Trump, you would no doubt admit that personal insult has played a very large roll in your campaign. On the very first day, you labeled Mexicans as ‘rapists.’ In the Republican primaries, you labelled Jeb Bush as ‘low energy,’ Marco Rubio as ‘little Marco,” and Ted Cruz as “Lying Ted.”  You said that John McCain is ‘not a war hero.’ You said that ‘Muslims hate us.’ You cruelly mimicked the physical disability of New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski. There has been a pattern of misogyny in your campaign which is manifest in your insults, as you implied that Megan Kelly was asking you tough questions because she was having her menstrual period, you harshly criticized Carly Fiorina and Rosie O’Donnell purely on your judgment of their physical appearance, you implied that Heidi Cruz had committed some damning deed when you said you would ‘spill the beans’ on her, you called Mika Brzezinski “crazy and very dumb,” you’ve labelled your opponent for the Presidency “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, and you have said that all women who have abortions should be punished.  Two of the three leaders of your campaign have been accused of being physically abusive to women.  If you become President, can we expect that this is how you will lead our country and represent the United States to the world? By insulting opponents, giving foreign leaders insulting nicknames, and creating an atmosphere in our executive branch that is demeaning to women?

Somebody has to call Trump on his excessive verbal cruelty and the relentless misogyny of his campaign. If he took this behavior to the workplace he would be sued; if he exhibited it at home if would be called abusive.  Simply reading this litany out loud makes the point; it almost doesn’t matter how he replies. 

14.  “Mr. Trump, you are never short on superlatives. You’ve described Trump enterprises as a ‘great company,’ you’ve talked about how smart you are. You’ve said that you would be the ‘greatest jobs president God had ever created.’ You’ve said that the ‘Art of the Deal’ is the second best book ever, only after the Bible. And you haven’t spared others your harsh critique. You’ve attacked the last two presidents of the United States savagely. Mr. Trump, please talk about where you believe you and others would be viewed by history among Presidents. First, among the 44 American Presidents, where do you rank Barack Obama? Which of the 44 American presidents do you feel most inspired by and which do feel you are most similar to? And by the end of your time in office, where do you think you will be ranked by historians in terms of greatness as President of the United States? Do you think you will be in the top three?”

I simply want to hear Donald Trump try to rank Barack Obama as one of the worst Presidents ever. I want to see if compares himself favorably to Reagan or Lincoln. And I want to hear him say that he will be among Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson as one of the greatest Presidents of all time.

Because I have a feeling that even racists, bigots, misogynists, and the entire gang in the “basket of deplorables” would find it disgusting to hear this blowhard announce that he will be a greater president than some of the great people who have actually done the job.

If you like these questions and think some of them belong in the debate, please do pass this along through your friends and social media.

And do tune in Monday night. The debates are going to be incredibly important in deciding the 2016 election.

Candidly, I have grave doubts that that the moderators have the comprehensive knowledge, the willingness and creativity to ask good questions, and the backbone to challenge Trump when he attempts to blow them off. I hope I am wrong.

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