Gary Johnson's 'Aleppo Moment'

Pundits criticized Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for supposedly failing to identify "any foreign leader" he respected during an "Aleppo moment" on MSNBC.

Published Sept. 29, 2016

What will perhaps forever remain the defining moment in the political career of a Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who is the Libertarian Party's 2016 presidential nominee, came during a September 2016 in-studio interview during which MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” panelist Mike Barnicle asked him “What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?” — a reference to the region then at the center of Syria's civil war and refugee crisis.

“And what is Aleppo?” Johnson responded, thereby establishing "Aleppo" as a term signifying an instance when a politician fails to respond to a basic question for which he should have a ready answer.

Johnson experienced another self-proclaimed "Aleppo moment" on 28 September 2016, when he and running mate Bill Weld took part in an MSNBC town hall with host Chris Matthews. During a portion of the hour-long segment, Matthews posed to Johnson and Weld a series of questions that included "Who's your favorite foreign leader?" inviting them to name any foreign leader anywhere in the world whom they respected or looked up to.

Weld quickly offered up the name of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli statesman who had just passed away, prompting Matthews to stipulate that the leader in question must be "living." Johnson responded by saying "I guess I'm having an 'Aleppo moment' in the former president of Mexico," indicating that he had a particular person in mind but was temporarily blanking out on recalling his name.

As Matthews continued to press the question, Johnson again answered "The former president of Mexico," which prompted Matthews to ask "Which one?" Johnson continued to struggle to recall the name of the leader he was thinking of until Weld jogged his memory by offering "Fox," a reference to former Mexican president Vicente Fox. (Whether Johnson's answer was relevant or not is debatable, given that Matthews seemed to be asking the candidates to identify their favorite current world leader, and Johnson responded by naming someone who hasn't been in office for nearly a decade.)

Nonetheless, the claim that Johnson "couldn't name a single foreign leader" instantly went viral on social media, and attendant news articles widely framed the segment as another gaffe on Johnson's part:

MSNBC's host Chris Matthews pressed Johnson to name any foreign leader "of any country in any continent" that he respects or looks up to at a town hall event.

Johnson loudly exhaled as he struggled to think of a name.

"I guess I am having an Aleppo moment," he said before offering "the former president of Mexico."

But when Matthews asked "which one," Johnson said he couldn't remember the name.

"I am having a brain freeze," Johnson answered as his running mate Bill Weld came to his rescue by mentioning Vicente Fox.

Weld then jumped in to say he admired Angela Merkel of Germany.

Johnson also attempted to defend his infamous Aleppo question at the beginning of the town hall by arguing that voters need to look beyond geographical names and examine the deeper problem with U.S. foreign policy.

MSNBC's MaddowBlog opined that Johnson's town hall performance was "embarrassing":

But in practice, Johnson can’t seem to get out of his own way. His campaign antics are often clownish and confusing; his campaign platform is radical in a way that alienates potential progressive allies; and when given the opportunity to make a good impression before national television audiences, the Libertarian has “Aleppo moments” that suggest Johnson’s presidential candidacy isn’t altogether real.

Yesterday’s “brain freeze” display was just embarrassing, and represented the latest in a series of missed opportunities.

Johnson's campaign manager, Ron Nielson, naturally issued a statement defending the candidate by decrying the frenzy of criticism focused on a single moment of the town hall event as "gotcha-ism at its finest":

The Clinton and Trump supporters are at it again. This is gotcha-ism at its finest. Not by Chris Matthews, but by too many looking for any opportunity to pounce. Anyone who watched the entire hour tonight on MSNBC saw Governors Johnson and Weld answer every question and deal with the entire spectrum of issues. A very fine performance.

Yes, asked to name a favorite foreign leader, Gov. Johnson didn’t quickly name a specific favorite. That really doesn’t mean much. Most Americans and certainly most political candidates would have to stop and think before responding, with the possible exception of a Donald Trump who is enthralled by Putin.

Why are the #ClinTrump supporters and political insiders so afraid of Gary Johnson? Hillary Clinton is spending millions to stop Gary. I guess when they see an outsider showing strength among millennials, independents, Hispanics, the active military and the LGBT communities, they get nervous.

Gary Johnson is a real person. A pragmatist and the kind of leader that people can respect and trust. Unfortunately, as most Americans have come to realize, this is not the case with Clinton and Trump.

Nielson referenced reports that a Hillary Clinton campaign super PAC had pledged to target third-party candidates and voters in the election's final stretch while President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama urged millennials not to cast third-party votes:

The principal “super PAC” supporting Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, Priorities USA Action, has concluded from its polling and other research that the reluctance to embrace the Democratic nominee among those who intensely dislike Mr. Trump is not going away and must be confronted.

“We’ll be launching a multimillion-dollar digital campaign that talks about what’s at stake and how a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Donald Trump, who is against everything these voters stand for,” said Justin Barasky, a strategist for Priorities USA.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.