Wow. Just…wow. The first presidential debate of 2020 was neither presidential nor a debate. In an ugly and unforgettable 90 minutes, President Donald Trump came in hot — way, way hot — and for the duration verbally assaulted his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace from Fox, who struggled to keep the president quiet and respectful. Because of it, neither candidate spoke with any substance on almost any issue. But the night left national security watchers alarmed that Election Day in America may turn out to be a day of armed citizens and U.S. troops facing off in the streets, if not worse.
Trump declined, again, to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. At the end of Tuesday night’s debate, Wallace asked both candidates how confident they were that the upcoming election would be “fair” and how they would assure Americans it was legitimate. Trump, who has repeatedly lied about the vanishingly small incidence of voting fraud, gave his oft-repeated claim that the election would be “rigged.” (CNN debunked several of his Tuesday-night claims about voter fraud, here.) Wallace also asked the U.S. president, who has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, if he would interfere with voting, accept the results peacefully, or call his supporters into the streets. The responses were less than clear or comforting.
Here’s more of what Trump said. After complaining, inaccurately, that in 2016 he endured a “coup” attempt, Trump said, “so, don't tell me about a free transition. As far as the ballots are concerned, it's a disaster.” He rambled about “millions” of ballots in the mail being lost or fraudulent... “Everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you've never seen”...
Will the U.S. president accept Election Day results? “But you know what? We won't know. We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over,” he alleged, saying that’s why…
“I'm urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen. I am urging them to do it...if it's a fair election —” Wallace: “You're urging them what?” Trump: “ — I am 100% on board. But if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that.”
“Does that mean you're going to tell your people to take to the streets?” Wallace tried to interject, but Trump didn’t respond, eventually concluding with: “I want to see an honest ballot count, and I think he does, too.”
Poll watchers or intimidators? The Trump campaign’s plan to dispatch thousands of poll watchers has alarmed Biden supporters who allege it’s a pure voter intimidation, and will set up potentially violent clashes. Already, authorities last week had to move Trump supporters who blocked early voters from entering the Fairfax County Government Center, in Virginia.
Philadelphia baloney. Trump last night brought up a topic circulating among conservative media, claiming falsely that their poll watchers were wrongfully “thrown out” of polling places in the City of Brotherly Love. Turns out that’s bogus. “Poll watchers don’t have the same rights at such locations as they do at traditional polling places on Election Day,” reports the Philadelphia Enquirer. “There were several reasons why elections staff did not allow members of the public to arbitrarily enter their offices. The Trump campaign has no poll watchers approved to work in Philadelphia at the moment. There are no actual polling places open in the city right now. And elections officials are following coronavirus safety regulations, such as those limiting the number of people indoors.”
Time to deploy U.S. troops yet? All summer, national security experts and writers have grimaced at the thought — even the mere mention — of U.S. military personnel having anything to do with the election or the transfer of power, should Biden defeat Trump. The morning after this debate, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Bush 41 official, tweeted, “All governors, especially those in battleground states, need to ready and call out National Guard to protect polling places and would-be voters in light of @realDonaldTrump ’s call on his supporters to “go into the poll and watch very carefully.”
Troops already have been put on call, though. “What makes him think they aren't already? Lots of states are setting up command posts, training to protect voting sites, use of National Guard to support civilian authorities if right wing violence. They take Trump seriously. For months, states have been preparing for this,” tweeted back Juliette Kayyem.
Did Trump ask a white-power group to step aside, or get ready to fight?
The morning after, Trump’s campaign is out pushing back most on headlines saying Trump encouraged a white supremacist group to get ready for… something. Wallace asked Trump if he would disavow white supremacist groups on the spot. Trump said “sure” several times, but never actually did.
What he said: “I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace.” Wallace pressed: “Well, do it, sir.” Biden: “Say it, do it, say it.” Trump: “What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead who do you want me to condemn.” Wallace: “White supremacist and white militia.” Trump: “Okay, Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
“Stand by”...? Headlines are screaming that Trump called on the extremist group to be ready. Trump’s campaign says that’s ridiculous and that the president said “sure” three times, indicating he condemns such groups. But…
Proud Boys took it as a call to arms. “We’re standing by.” reports NBC News. On Daily Beast: “‘Trump basically said to go fuck them up!, [leader Joe] Biggs wrote on Parler, an alternative social media network that courts conservatives. ‘This makes me so happy.’”
FBI on the white-power threat: Not two weeks ago, the FBI director told House lawmakers that “racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, has made up a majority of domestic terrorism threats.
Read as much as you like in this early transcript, here.
The spectacle: Trump constantly interrupted, interjected, and insulted Wallace, Biden and Biden’s family, refusing to yield the floor during Biden’s turns and Wallace’s questioning, or play by the debate rules. The commander in chief was rude, nervous, skittish, combative, deflective, and angry. Biden, who offered a “How you doing, man?” when they walked out, quickly realized what kind of night he was in for, tried to talk through the interruptions and stick to an actual debate format, and even revived his Senate decorum asking Wallace if he could “reclaim his time” that was lost by having to sit through so many Trump tirades.
At times, Biden gave in to the poking, going quiet and lowering his head repeatedly as Trump shouted and sniped at him, or snapping back with his own insults, calling Trump a “clown,” and outright “racist,” and “You’re the worst president America has ever had.” Conservatives used those few moments to exercise some both-siderism spin and allege falsely that the debacle was as much his fault as Trump’s.
Barely mentioned: national security. The candidates were asked and said very little about anything of substance that has to do with the military, national security, or foreign policy. They spent time on the COVID-19 pandemic and China, but Russia was mentioned just twice. No Iraq, no Afghanistan, no terrorism, Europe, cyber, space, none of it.
But: “Both candidates made several references to military and veterans issues,” writes Military Times’ Leo Shane, who has covered a whole lot of presidential debates and makes a valiant effort to cover this one with a straight face. The candidates sparred over recent issues, including the Atlantic report that Trump called troops “losers and suckers,” and the conservative counter-attack that Biden disrespected troops as “stupid bastards” in a resurfaced 2016 video. Biden said he was clearly joking at that time and defended the service of his late son Beau. Trump, in response, attacked the other son, Hunter. Read Leo’s article for the rest, including Trump’s oft-repeated claim to have “rebuilt” the military and Biden pointing out that former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis just slammed Trump this summer, which you saw in Defense One.
Bottom line from CNAS’s CEO Richard Fontaine: “There is a global contest today between democratic societies and autocratic ones. Tonight the President said that the world’s greatest democracy can’t hold a fair election and that he may not respect the results of it. It’s profoundly disturbing.”
From Defense One
Defense Experts Throw Warning Flags As Congress Mulls Tighter Buy-American Rules // Marcus Weisgerber: The House NDAA would require major defense programs to be all-American by 2026.
The Real F-35 Problem We Need to Solve // Scott Cooper: Unless its logistics can be improved, the jet’s contributions to a major fight will be far less than Pentagon wargamers are counting on.
A Potentially Deadly Blow to NATO // R.D. Hooker, Jr.: A former member of Trump’s NSC decries the plan to pull U.S. troops from Germany.
Vaccine Chaos Is Looming // Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic: The COVID-19 vaccines furthest along in clinical trials are the fastest to make, but they are also the hardest to deploy.
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Kevin Baron with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here.
One in 1,000 Black Americans have been killed by COVID. Biden cited this during the debate, and it’s true, according to APM Research’s Color of Coronavirus tracking project (via Vox). The report, which slices and dices the data by age, race, and more, finds that the pandemic has hit certain communities of color much harder than whites. (Economically, too.)
Overall, nearly 1 in 1,600 Americans are known to have died of the coronavirus, including at least 918 on Tuesday, per NYT’s tracker.
Fighting is continuing into a fourth day in the Caucasus, where Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are reportedly exchanging artillery and air strikes in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Dozens of people, including civilians, appear to have been killed in the fighting — but it’s not clear just what’s happening in the remote, mountainous region. (NYT)
But the conflict threatens to draw in Turkey (a NATO ally) and Russia (not), and that could enmesh the western alliance itself. Diplomats from Moscow to Washington (including Secretary of State Pompeo) are urging the belligerents to come to the table, but no dice so far. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius notes that Trump has said nothing publicly.
Another good explainer about why the two former Soviet republics are fighting, from NBC News.
Tank-destroying drones? Video released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense purports to show Azerbaijani Air Force-operated, Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones taking out a pair of Armenian T-72B3 tanks.
Paul Scharre’s take: “1) Diminishing value of armor (protection). Armor alone is not enough to protect tanks. Need APS, concealment...layered defenses. 2) Drones lower the bar for airpower. Both trends are underappreciated by the US military).”
Baghdad embassy watch. “The withdrawal or closure of any diplomatic mission of any country will have disastrous repercussions for the entire region,” said Ahmed Mulla Talal, spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, on Tuesday, reports AP. Pompeo is publicly pressing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to do more to stop the attacks. Iraq says it won’t be Trump’s pawn against Iran. Rinse, repeat.
Pope says nope to Pompeo. The secretary of state was denied a meeting with the pontiff because Vatican officials said they were concerned the U.S. secretary of state was trying to manipulate the Pope to help Donald Trump’s reelection chances. Vatican reporter Christopher Lamb noted the statement, here. Pompeo on Wednesday keynoted a U.S. embassy-organized event on religious freedom, a favorite topic of the devout diplomat. Pompeo publicly called out the Vatican for not doing enough on the issue. Their response: “He is clearly exploiting the issue of religious freedom in view of the election in November.”
CNO had heart surgery. Adm. Mike Gilday became ill while running near his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard on Aug. 10; two weeks later, he received heart surgery for a pre-existing condition, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing anonymous sources. The health problem and fix remain undisclosed.
Navy spox: The CNO “recently underwent a medical procedure for a pre-existing medical issue,” Gilday’s spokesman, Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, is quoted as saying in a statement Tuesday. "He is in good condition and returned to full duty yesterday in the Pentagon.
A Marine F-35B crashed after it collided with a Marine C-130J over California. The pilot ejected and the cargo plane landed safely after the collision, which occurred Tuesday afternoon as the former attempted to refuel from the latter. (Military Times)
DNI carries Russian water to the Senate. Hours before the presidential debate, Trump’s Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliff sent the Senate a letter declassifying that — stick with us here — in 2016, U.S. intelligence determined that Russian intelligence was alleging Hillary Clinton had approved a smear campaign on Donald Trump during the election. The whole thing may be Russian disinformation, as Ratcliff acknowledges in his letter, notes Politico’s Congress reporter, but it took off on conservative social media. Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted: “OMG [three siren emojis] JUST DECLASSIFIED: The Russia hoax was Hillary’s plan, and the Obama-Biden White House was briefed on it.” It's a good reminder of what Will Rogers said: “If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.”