Donald Trump and NBC’s Matt Lauer on Super Tuesday. (NBC News)

6:25 p.m. PDT:

Well, that went by quickly. NBC’s Matt Lauer cut the “Today Show” fluff, but his questions never departed from the establishment script, speaking in terms of (and on behalf of) both the mainstream media and the U.S. government.

Before we close, some more key moments and points from the forum. Returning to Hillary Clinton’s first half, the onetime secretary of state sought to play down her reputation for hawkishness, stating outright that she views force “as a last resort, not a first choice”—a statement sure to be closely scrutinized and contested the second she said it, as it already has been numerous times on this site.

As for her position regarding global adversaries of high concern to the government she hopes to lead, Clinton said she believes that the Obama administration handled the diplomatic crisis over Iran’s nuclear program to her satisfaction. “What I’m focused on is the other malicious activities of the Iranians,” she said, citing “ballistic missiles,” Iran’s “being involved in Syria, Yemen,” and supporting Hezbollah and Hamas as figuring among those concerns.

And, of course, there were questions about homeland security and the domestic and international threat posed by Islamic State. “We have to defeat ISIS,” Clinton asserted, claiming that her plan would involve “air power” and “much more support from Arabs and Kurds, who will fight on the ground against ISIS.” Among the details of her plan is the need to support the Iraqi military, which she commended for taking back the former Islamic State strongholds of Ramadi and Fallujah.

And in another statement bound to follow her around, Clinton claimed that ongoing conflicts in those still-hot zones will not involve ground troops. “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria.”

Clinton also vowed to protect Americans from Islamist militants by combating them by air, on the ground and in cyberspace, where, she said, U.S. intelligence and military operatives need to “take them on in the arena of ideas.” She finished by making a quick gun-control plug and taking another prohibited pot shot at Trump for alienating Muslims and “defaming a gold-star family,” the now-famous Khans of Democratic National Convention 2016 fame.

So, nothing too surprising out of Clinton in a careful and by-the-book (a book straight out of Washington’s innermost chambers, that is), steady showing. Those who support her will call her performance clearly worthy of the presidential seal; those who disagree with her and still don’t buy her email-scandal or Benghazi explanations are likely to come away as they went in. Kind of like the candidate herself.

Not so for Donald Trump. His tendency toward using generalizations where details were called for, plus the very bravado and sloganeering that worked in the primary debates and still lands well in stump speeches, came across as gloss-over attempts that are likely to raise additional concerns and still more questions from his adversaries, and perhaps even from his allies. He will need to bone up on his ability to articulate clear policy proposals in time for the first presidential debate later this month in order to convince voters that his boardroom experience will serve him—not to mention their best interests—in the Situation Room.

He’ll also need to huddle for a good while with his advisory team about how to answer future questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin and other controversial figures and topics. While his reasons for suggesting making openings to more amicable relations with Russia may extend past the level of a two-strongman mutual admiration society, effectively enacting his privately held diplomatic intentions also involves adequately gauging the government’s and the public’s receptivity and mood. Trump’s contribution to the Putin discussion Wednesday night is likely to cost him, in short.

On other subjects, such as the Iraq War and his supposed early opposition to same, Trump fared better (and Lauer didn’t challenge this claim), although his explanation about how America should have “taken the oil” from Iraq when withdrawing from the region was patchy. The GOP candidate moved from the general to the general in many of his answers, sprinkling more specifics in between, such as his assertion that he would like to “keep the court system within the military” or his insistence that the Obama administration—with Clinton as secretary of state—should have put in place a better long-term plan for Libya’s stability. “They complicated the mistake” of their handling of Libya, Trump said of Obama’s team, “by having no management once they bombed the you-know-what out of [former Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi.”

But ultimately, Trump tried to lean too heavily on the kinds of statements that have gotten him this far to keep his momentum going Wednesday evening, and it didn’t serve him in a forum inviting him to step up his statesmanship. When Lauer pressed for specifics about his leadership strategy, the candidate pulled out numbers and backup players, exemplified in his repeated refrain about the “88 admirals and generals” who had just pledged to back him. Or, in many instances, he relied on sweeping but insubstantial claims, as in his declaration of how he had been “doing a lot of different things” to ready himself for the position of commander in chief, or his reassurance to Lauer that “I have a lot of common sense on the various issues that you’re talking about.”

Right, but would he be he prepared, Lauer wondered? “Totally prepared,” Trump repeated, before getting in a parting shot at his opponent for her perceived readiness to resort to military action. “She has a happy trigger,” Trump said.

We’ll be posting more analysis about the commander-in-chief forum shortly. Meanwhile, thanks for reading—and commenting—along.

5:48 p.m. PDT: As he had with Clinton, Lauer zoomed in on one of the controversies that has dogged Trump in recent weeks: His evaluation of and relationship with Putin.

And where Clinton had been ready with predictably passable, if unsatisfactory, responses, Trump was caught in a pigeonhole of his own making.

“I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take that as a compliment, okay?” Trump said of Putin, citing the Russian leader’s high—in the 80 percent range—approval rating as though it spoke for itself.

Lauer intervened, saying Russia had annexed Crimea and making reference to Putin’s KGB roots. “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump continued, in what is sure to be one of the most referenced exchanges from the evening’s Q&A session in coming weeks—not to mention probable cause for a damage-control session for Trump’s advisory team.

5:35 p.m. PDT: We’ll take a closer look at Clinton’s statements at the tail end of this exercise, but first, here’s a first take on Trump’s opener.

Though he initially seemed subdued, it didn’t take long for him to demonstrate that he can swagger sitting down.

Lauer began by asking what from Trump’s personal or professional history would prepare him to lead the country as president. “I’ve built a great company, I’ve been all over the world, I’ve dealt with foreign countries,” Trump said, pointing to China, “and I’ve had great experience dealing on an international basis.”

Next came a hint of the strongman: Trump claimed that U.S. foes, including Russia, are “taunting” America in active or potential conflict zones.

Again, Lauer asked: “But what have you done in life that prepares you to send men and women of the United States into harm’s way?”

“Judgment,” said Trump, echoing Clinton’s answer before drawing sharp distinctions between his stance on the Iraq War as it began, which he claimed Clinton distorted, and her own recorded vote on sending U.S. troops into that country. “I was totally against the war in Iraq,” he said.

Next question: Lauer reminded Trump about how people question his temperament. “You admitted that sometimes in the heat of the debate … you say things you later regret. So can we afford that with a commander in chief?”

At that point, Trump struck a winner-takes-all pose. “Yeah, sure I regret,” Trump began, before taking another primary-season victory lap. “But meanwhile I beat 16 very talented people.”

5:18 p.m. PDT: Following an opening montage that ranged from the predictably schlocky to an out-and-out celebration of America’s recent forays into Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, Lauer greeted members of the military and veterans aboard the USS Intrepid in New York City and audiences members watching at home as what sounded like a movie score swelled in the background.

Former Secretary of State Clinton strode out, sat down and listened as Lauer set the stage: “Can we talk about your qualities and your qualifications … and not use this as an opportunity to attack Mr. Trump?”

Clinton acquiesced. “Each of us should be presenting our experience, our expertise and our plans to protect and defend the United States and our allies in the world,” she responded. Easy enough.

All the same, the prohibition on attacking Trump overtly did not rule out insinuation. What, Lauer asked, did Clinton believe is the most important trait for a commander in chief to possess?

“Steadiness,” she said, thus drawing a sharp contrast between herself—an implied possessor of this quality—and the GOP nominee.

Another contrast: Her track record as an elected official and as head of the State Department who sat “in the Situation Room, as I have on numerous occasions,” she noted, before going on to describe other ideal presidential attributes: “Someone who listens, evaluates what is being told to him or her, who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented.” All, as it happens, traits not typically ascribed to Trump.

“Judgment?” Lauer asked.

“Temperament and judgment,” yes.

Next came the discussion of her email scandal. Why, Lauer pressed, wasn’t it grounds for her disqualification from the presidential contest?

“It was a mistake to have a personal account … I make no excuses for it—it was something that should not have been done,” Clinton insisted. Apparently thinking that she might seek safety in numbers, she tried a new tack: Hundreds of others high up in the government have done the same.

And also, “Classified material has a header which says ‘Top secret,’ ‘Secret’ or ‘Confidential’ … None of the emails sent or received by me had such a header,” Clinton said.

Pushing back a bit, Lauer pointed to emails specifically referring to the U.S. government’s drone program. Were those among the emails her opponents called into question?

Clinton spoke haltingly but had clearly rehearsed her answers. “Yes, because of course there were no discussions of any of the covert actions in process being determined about whether or not to go forward,” she said.

4:50 p.m. PDT: We’re ready to go. And so, according to NBC News, is Clinton. The Democratic nominee will be first to face questions in tonight’s forum—a decision made the old-fashioned way: by a coin toss.

At 5 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will face off against her Republican counterpart in New York City for NBC News’ live broadcast of what the network is calling its “Commander-in-Chief Forum.”

The GOP contender had a much-ballyhooed dress rehearsal as the would-be national security envoy of the United States during his recent visit to Mexico. No doubt the former secretary of state will have something to say about that at their first televised encounter in what has seemed like the longest presidential election cycle in recorded history.

Another surefire keyword: Benghazi.

The format will consist of an hour’s worth of Q&A, facilitated by moderator and “Today Show” mainstay Matt Lauer. Discussion will pertain to the role of commander in chief, for which, of course, both candidates are auditioning. Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson were not included in the program. The warm-up act to this fall’s debate series is co-sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as NBC News noted in a pre-event post:

During this one-hour forum, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be on stage back-to-back taking questions on national security, military affairs and veterans issues from NBC News and an audience comprised mainly of military veterans and active service members.

Truthdig will be live blogging what is likely to be an energetic display of … statecraft. Meanwhile, Vox offers this handy guide to how Wednesday’s meetup will differ from more formal debates to come, as well as how to access it. Stay tuned.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson

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