BOSTON — Former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld cast aside suggestions last week that his running mate for president, Gary Johnson, forgetting the Syrian city of Aleppo could do lasting damage to their campaign, saying the mistake could happen to anyone — even him.
“I’m not going to say that couldn’t happen to me. You do blank,” Weld said after speaking to a class of Emerson College students in Boston.
Watch: Weld speaks at Emerson last week
Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president, appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Thursday, Sept. 9, when he was asked what he would do as president about Aleppo, the city at the center of a bloody war in Syria. “And what is Aleppo?” Johnson responded, touching off a firestorm of criticism.
Johnson later issued a statement apologizing for the lapse, saying he “blanked.”
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“This morning, I began my day by setting aside any doubt that I’m human. Yes, I understand the dynamics of the Syrian conflict — I talk about them every day. But hit with ‘What about Aleppo?’, I immediately was thinking about an acronym, not the Syrian conflict. I blanked. It happens, and it will happen again during the course of this campaign,” he said.
Weld, who was in Boston to speak to an Emerson College political communications class, found himself before an audience with roughly equal numbers of media and students on hand, both eager to ask what he thought about Johnson’s gaffe.
The Libertarian vice presidential nominee said he hadn’t spoken to Johnson on Thursday, but read the coverage and watched the interview clip and “didn’t think it was that bad.” He said the two men have spent time talking about the Syrian crisis despite being “non-interventionists” when it comes to foreign policy.
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“We’ll just see how it plays out,” Weld said. “I’m not sure you’re going to sell the American public on the fact that someone can’t remember the name of a town in Syria, not knowing a place in Syria as the worst thing.”
Though he believes 85 percent of the American public “couldn’t put Aleppo on a map,” Weld said it’s safe to assume he was familiar with the city before this episode.
“Oh, yeah. You can assume that. I grew up with a book ‘In Aleppo Once’…on my parents’ bookshelf,” Weld said.
He also compared Johnson’s slip to the time candidate George W. Bush couldn’t name a series of heads of state when tested by Channel 7 News pundit Andy Hiller, who happened to be in attendance at Emerson Thursday. Bush went on to win the election.
Weld spoke to the students about Johnson’s penchant for “extreme” sports, their records as Republican governors of Massachusetts and New Mexico, respectively, with Democrat-controlled legislatures, and the importance of getting on the debate stage with Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump this fall.
Weld said the first thing a Johnson-Weld administration would do is “attack the budget” in the first 100 days to present a balanced spending plan to Congress. The fiscally conservative former governor said President Obama will leave the White House with a $20 trillion federal deficit, half of which he put on the president’s tab.
“If Mrs. Clinton gets elected, and she’s an old friend of mine, that trend is going to accelerate,” Weld said.
Weld also said he and Johnson look forward to holding Trump accountable during the debates for some of the “outrageous” things he has said on the campaign trail that make him “unfit” to be president. He compared Trump’s campaign to the former Know Nothing Party, which he described as prone to anti-immigrant rhetoric, violent rallies and conspiracy theories.
“We’re holding the Republican banner, the Republican platform, without the mean-spiritedness on the social side,” Weld said, predicting a lasting “schism” in the GOP after the election.
Johnson and Weld are pinning their hopes in the election on qualifying for the debates to increase their exposure to the electorate and give voters another message to consider before they head to the polls.
Weld said he expects the Commission on Presidential Debates to make a decision by next week on whether to include the Libertarians in the debates, and he put the odds at “slightly above 50-50,” even though their ticket has yet to crack the 15 percent polling threshold for inclusion.
A recent USA Today poll found that 76 percent of voters would like to see Johnson and Weld included in the debate, and Weld said he started to notice an uptick in fundraising for their campaign three weeks ago.
While the Aleppo controversy may not help their ticket, Weld said at the very least more people will know who Johnson is after Thursday.