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Matt Lauer was tougher on Ryan Lochte than on Donald Trump

The Fix’s Callum Borchers explains why Matt Lauer is being criticized for his performance as the host of NBC New’s “commander-in-chief forum” Sept. 7. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Justin Sullivan/The Washington Post)

When a prominent figure representing the United States on an international stage sat down with Matt Lauer recently, the NBC host asked tough questions probing his false statements.

The prominent figure was Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. On Wednesday night, a far different Lauer sat down with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

At NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum, Trump repeated one of his favorite unsupportable claims: "I was totally against the war in Iraq. ... And I was against the war in Iraq because I said it's going to totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has."

Fact-checkers have scoured the Republican presidential nominee's pre-invasion statements about Iraq and found nothing resembling the forceful and prescient opposition he has described throughout the campaign. What they have found, instead, is a September 2002 interview in which Trump told Howard Stern that he supported the war, albeit reluctantly.

The Washington Post Fact Checker has awarded Trump four Pinocchios on this issue.

Yet when the real estate mogul said again that he was "totally against the war in Iraq," Lauer did not challenge him. The moderator moved on to a question about Trump's temperament.

Journalists were aghast.

Reporters' frustration can probably be attributed to two main factors: Trump's Iraq war assertion has been repeated and debunked so many times that Lauer should have been prepared to push back. And the moment was so big — being the closest thing to a general election debate — that setting the record straight right away was important.

Certainly more important than getting to the bottom of what happened on Lochte's drunken night in Rio de Janeiro last month. But in an interview during the Olympics, Lauer pressed the swimmer to explain why he lied about an armed robber holding a gun to his head.

Here is a quick sample of Lauer's questions and follow-ups to Lochte:

  • "One of the things you appear to have embellished with Billy [Bush] when you talked to Billy is you said at some point after you refused to sit down the security guard put the gun to your forehead and cocked it. That didn’t happen?"
  • "Why’d you do that?"
  • "But at that point, it’s not a robbery. At that point, you’re striking a deal. You’re striking a deal to pay for what damage you’ve caused so that he doesn’t call the police and this doesn’t become a bigger incident. Isn’t that — isn’t that fair?"
  • "That doesn’t sound like a robbery. A robbery is when some guy targets you, whether he’s armed or not, to take your money, and your belongings, and your valuables."
  • "I guess what I’m trying to get at is the first version of the story you told, Ryan, was much more about the mean streets of Rio. And the version we’re hearing now is much more about a negotiated settlement to cover up some dumb behavior."

Clearly Lauer is more than capable of confronting and correcting misinformation. He just didn't do it with Trump.

Now, to be fair, Lauer was under tight time constraints. His original question was about what life experiences have prepared Trump to be commander-in-chief; when Trump deflected, Lauer cut him off and asked again. That's when Trump started talking about his "great judgment" on Iraq. With audience members waiting to ask questions of their own, Lauer might have decided that he had already spent too much time on a single inquiry and been reluctant to make another interjection that surely would have started an argument.

But the consensus among Lauer's media colleagues is that he shouldn't have let Trump's Iraq claim slide, regardless of the clock — that he should have been at least as tough on someone who wants to be president as he was on someone who wants to swim really fast.