Critic's Notebook: Trump Hits Clinton on "Stamina," Sanders Criticizes Israel in CNN 'Final Five' Special

Trump CNN Mar 21 grab - H

Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper interviewed the five remaining presidential candidates on Israel, Cuba, violence at Trump rallies and more.

After Donald Trump declined to lend his marquee value to a planned Fox News GOP debate that was subsequently canceled, CNN cannily took advantage of the vacuum. They hastily scheduled their own event, billed as The Final Five (it's not too long ago that it could have been The Hateful Eight), featuring in-depth interviews with those still standing. To which it can only be said: Thank God the candidates are finally getting some media attention!

The evening was the political television equivalent of an all-you-can-eat presidential candidate buffet, sparing lazy viewers the difficult task of toggling among the Sunday morning talk shows.

The sessions were held the day before "Western Tuesday" (who comes up with these names?), with voting taking place in Utah, Idaho and Arizona. All of the candidates except for Bernie Sanders were in Washington, D.C., to be interviewed in person, and for a very simple reason. They were there for the AIPAC convention of pro-Israel lobbyists, and had spent the day pandering so much to them that it's a wonder they weren't all wearing yarmulkes, even Hillary.

Bernie did his interview from Utah, presumably figuring, "Hey, I've already got the Jewish vote" (not so fast, Bernie). 

Naturally, the evening lacked the fireworks of the debates, although questioners Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer repeatedly tried to heat things up by asking questions about Trump, often to the point of neglecting policy issues. All of the candidates happily took the bait save for John Kasich, whose refusal to launch personal attacks has become his unique form of passive aggression.

Kasich was interviewed first, which was essentially CNN's way of telling the viewers that they have to eat their vegetables before they can have dessert. Nonetheless, the Ohio governor has become fascinating in his sheer willfulness, refusing to exit the race despite only winning one state, his own, and staking all his chances on somehow emerging victorious in an increasingly likely brokered convention. He's like the kid who doesn't get chosen for any team but still refuses to leave the field. Even when confronted with a recording of a humiliating Mitt Romney robocall urging Utah voters to support Ted Cruz, he managed to retain his dignity. And you have to admire a Republican candidate who actually answers a question with these heretical words: "I'd have to think about exactly what I would do."

He was emphatic about one thing. He said there was "zero chance" of his being vice president for either Cruz or Trump. Cruz echoed the declaration by saying that he had "zero interest" in being Trump's VP. Trump, meanwhile, wouldn't rule the latter prospect out. Asked if he could imagine the man he repeatedly refers to as "Lyin' Ted" as his running mate, the Donald shrugged and replied, "Crazier things have happened in politics." And if anyone would know, he would.

One question that came up repeatedly was whether the candidates would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. Cruz naturally said that he would do it on his very first day in office. (Between that, ripping up the Iran deal and everything else he's promised to do that day, this could be the shortest presidency ever).

Blitzer, presumably handed the assignments of interviewing Cruz and Trump because of the fearsomeness of his name, pressed Cruz hard on numerous issues — including the controversial statements of one of his foreign policy advisors, Frank Gaffney, who among other things has said that Barack Obama was "America's first Muslim president" and that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. Cruz huffed that he wasn't going to "play the media gotcha game" before going on to deride Obama for "sipping mojitos" in Cuba. He did have nice things to say about Lindsey Graham (one of several Republican leaders now showing a remarkable ability to hold their noses), admitting that it was a "miracle" that the South Carolina senator had held a fundraiser for him.

Then it was time for a bowl of popcorn, and Donald Trump. He displayed his usual nuanced subtlety, responding to a clip of Hillary Clinton obviously referring to him while declaring that "steady hands" are needed in the White House.

"I have the steadiest hands," Trump responded. He proceeded to hold them up, urging, "Look at those hands" as if he were flashing back to his infamous debate encounter with Marco Rubio. Dialing back on his previously stated neutrality regarding the Palestinians, he said, "They have to stop with the terror." Asked about the support he's receiving from white supremacists, he assured Blitzer that he was "the least racist person you'll ever meet." Queried on his derogatory comments about women, he said, "Nobody respects women more than I do" (Are you sensing a pattern?).

Clearly hoping to repeat his effective strategy against Jeb Bush, he said that Hillary Clinton didn't have the "stamina" to be president. And he made news by declaring that we should reduce our financial investment in NATO, or, in his words, "change the spread."

Asked about Cuba, he seemed excited about the prospect of opening a Trump hotel in Havana, although he took great umbrage over Raul Castro not having personally greeted Obama at the airport. You got the feeling that if the slight had been directed at him, he would have simply gotten back in his private jet and flown away.

He was at his most disingenuous when asked about his encouraging his supporters to violence. Putting on his best "What, Me Worry?" Alfred E. Neuman face, he described his rallies as "lovefests," sounding like an abusive husband, before adding, "I don't have control over these people."   

Talking with Anderson Cooper, a confident-seeming Hillary expressed her unwavering support for Israel even while admitting that she and Benjamin Netanyahu haven't always seen eye to eye. "We engage in vigorous discussions," she said about the hawkish prime minister. She refused to take Cooper's bait about proposing that Obama withdraw his nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court should she be elected, pointing out that "we have one president at a time."

As has become standard, she was asked about her electability despite, as she pointed out, having gotten more votes so far than any other candidate of either party. "I'm pretty well vetted," she mentioned, adding, rather plaintively, "Any time I actually have a job, I get really, really high ratings." She punted when asked about why she hasn't gotten more support from white males, saying, "I haven't analyzed the data." (Not to offer unwanted advice, Hillary, but now might be a good time to start).

Bernie, hedging his bets by neatly positioning himself between American and Utah state flags, did the politically unthinkable, especially on this particular day. He criticized Israeli policies and actually advocated on behalf of the Palestinians. Whether the political boldness was a result of his being Jewish or simply his ultra-left wing leanings, it was something akin to Nixon announcing that he was going to China.

Like Kasich, he too is insisting on staying in the race despite seemingly insurmountable odds. And although not intentional, he seemed to echo Trump both in his language — he referred to such U.S. interventions as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende as "disasters" — and in his utter refusal to conform to mainstream political ideas. He even argued that Iran and Saudi Arabia should contribute more to the fight against ISIS, a position with which the Donald would certainly agree. It was almost enough to make one think that a Trump/Sanders ticket would be an unbeatable combination.