The first presidential debate on Tuesday night was a national security catastrophe. And it wasn't only the countless Americans who watched in dismay as President Donald Trump acted more like a child than a competent commander in chief -- the world was watching. Trump's debate disaster not only embarrassed our country, it made each and every one of us less safe.
At a basic level, Trump's debate performance was a metaphor for his presidency -- erratic, unhinged and untruthful. In fact, the only thing that Trump did well during the debate was lie.
Our allies and our enemies saw the President mocking not only the debate rules but also our democracy, as he dug his heels in on his refusal to say he will accept the outcome of the 2020 election.
While allies likely watched in dismay and probably continue to worry about how to fill the void left by a lack of competent US leadership, our enemies have cause to rejoice. Trump's behavior has been a critical contribution to Russia's mission to undermine the US-led world order and what Trump's own White House has described as the Chinese Communist Party's goals of discrediting democracy. The Chinese just have to re-air Trump's debate debacle, and US democracy is discredited.
The President's interruptions, lies and disjointed thoughts don't paint a picture of a sane global leader; they paint a picture of a maniac man who has access to the nuclear codes. After watching that debate, not to mention witnessing the past almost four years of his presidency, the idea that Trump is the man whom Americans elected to lead the nation is a major self-inflicted blow to any fantasy of the United States as a global leader. Rival powers like Russia and China probably cheered throughout those painful 90-plus minutes because Trump is a poster child for their propaganda about democratic decay.
But it wasn't just Trump's attitude Tuesday night that was dangerous -- it was also his rhetoric.
As an American, a security analyst and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Trump's rhetoric on White supremacy was one of the most sickening things I have listened to. Not only did he fail to forcefully condemn White supremacy when explicitly pressed by the moderator, but he essentially issued a call to action by telling the Proud Boys, a far-right group that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration, to "stand back and stand by." The Proud Boys took note and reportedly celebrated his words. (After the debate, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and his campaign aide Jason Miller said that Trump had misspoken.)
This isn't the first time that Trump has failed to condemn White supremacists. Nor is it the first time that he has fanned the flames when it comes to dangerous domestic threats. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified that within the category of domestic terrorism, racially motivated violent extremism -- especially White supremacist threats -- is the "biggest bucket" that the FBI works on. Yet, with a perceived endorsement from the President, the Proud Boys could very well accelerate their disgusting, violent activities. To put it plainly, Trump undercut law and order -- and law enforcement -- by potentially raising a domestic terrorism threat with his rhetoric during the presidential debate.
But the Proud Boys likely weren't the only ones proud of POTUS last night -- Russia's Vladimir Putin probably was, too. Trump's inaccurate comments on election integrity sounded like a public service announcement scripted by the Kremlin.
When pressed on the facts about mail-in voting, Trump lied and spread conspiracy theories, despite the warning from the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency that foreign actors and cyber criminals are doubling down on spreading disinformation about the elections. Wray even specifically said that he worries misinformation could contribute to Americans losing confidence in our elections.
Trump was more than a megaphone for such misinformation last night. With all the access he has to US intelligence, not to mention the fact that Russian disinformation efforts are public information, Trump should know that he's helping Putin attack the United States -- but he seems not to care.
While debates have historically been a key opportunity for Americans to hear from candidates, we can't call this first engagement a debate. It was, flat out, a national security disaster.