A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on July 14, 2016 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking during an interview with NBC News in the capital Damascus. 
Photo by SANA/Handout/AFP/Getty

In debate, Trump defends Assad, rebukes Pence

One of the underappreciated fears surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is his repeated praise for dictators and foreign authoritarian regimes. At various points during the campaign, the Republican nominee has praised Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and even China’s handling of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In a normal year in a normal party, such rhetoric would automatically disqualify someone seeking the U.S. presidency. In 2016, Republicans don’t seem to care.

So perhaps it shouldn’t have been too big a surprise last night when Trump threw his own running mate under the bus – a development never before seen in a presidential debate – while tacitly defending Syria’s brutal dictator.

The discussion began with a question from a voter who asked about the candidates’ proposed solution for Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Trump responded by talking about Russia’s nuclear arsenal and Hillary Clinton’s Libya policy. It led to this exchange:
RADDATZ: Mr. Trump, let me repeat the question. If you were president (LAUGHTER) what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? And I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved in air strikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.

TRUMP: OK. He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree. I disagree.
As part of the same answer, the GOP candidate added, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”

As a rule, any sentence that begins, “I don’t like Assad at all, but…” probably isn’t going to end well.

It was remarkable enough to hear the Republican presidential nominee denounce the foreign policy views of the Republican vice presidential nominee. It was equally striking to hear Trump get the facts wrong: Assad is not, in reality, targeting ISIS.

But as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and Yochi Dreazen explained, Trump also gave every indication that he’s siding with Assad in Syria’s civil war.
Trump didn’t seem even remotely bothered by the fact that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people and presides over a military that has killed tens of thousands of Syrian civilians and driven millions more from their home.

Anyone still wondering how a President Trump would handle the world should pay close attention to the exchange about Syria, which offers a near-perfect distillation of his core beliefs. Warm words for dictators? Check. Turning a blind eye to rampant human rights abuses? Check. A startling lack of basic knowledge about current events on the ground? Check. The belief that he knows more about military strategy than the military itself? Check again.
Soon after, co-moderator Martha Raddatz asked Trump, “What do you think will happen if Aleppo falls?” He said Aleppo “is a disaster.” Since that wasn’t much of an answer, she asked again, “What do you think will happen if it falls?” Trump paused briefly before answering, “I think that it basically has fallen.”

The interesting part of this – aside from the fact that Aleppo has clearly not fallen – is that it was so obviously Trump’s way of answering without acknowledging that he had no answer. You could almost hear him thinking, “Wait, if I say Aleppo has already fallen, then I won’t have to answer the question!”

When it comes to debate analysis, the consensus across much of the media seems to be that it doesn’t matter if a candidate has no idea what he’s talking about. That said, let’s acknowledge the fact anyway that Trump has no idea what he’s talking about.