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Gary Johnson Asks 'What Is Aleppo?' In Morning Interview Gaffe


A lot of Americans aren't happy with either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, so third party presidential candidates are getting a closer look this year. And sometimes it's not very flattering. Libertarian White House hopeful Gary Johnson was getting some coveted TV time this morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." It was going OK until Mike Barnicle asked the candidate what he would do about Aleppo, and here's what happened next.


GARY JOHNSON: And what is Aleppo?

MIKE BARNICLE: You're kidding.


BARNICLE: Aleppo is in Syria. It's the epicenter of the refugee crisis.

JOHNSON: OK, got it, got it.

CORNISH: Johnson went on to say the U.S. should stay out of Syria and work on a diplomatic resolution along with Russia. NPR's Scott Horsley is in the studio with us now. Hey there, Scott.


CORNISH: So how significant of a political problem could this be for Gary Johnson?

HORSLEY: Johnson told Bloomberg Politics he feels horrible about this lapse and that he has to get smarter. He also issued a statement saying at first, he thought he was being asked about some acronym, which certainly suggests that Gary Johnson has not been paying close attention to the civil war in Syria which has been going on now for more than five years.

Aleppo is a central battleground in that war. It's where that iconic photograph of the 5-year-old bombing victim with - that was all over the newspapers and TV last month was taken. I dare say most NPR listeners would at least recognize the name Aleppo.

But you know, I want to be careful about throwing too many stones here. The New York Times, in writing about this lapse, confused Aleppo with Damascus, the capital of Syria, and Raqqah, the de facto capital of the Islamic State and had to issue a couple of corrections.

CORNISH: Now, Johnson is a former Republican. He's running for the second time, though, as a Libertarian nominee. How much of a premium does libertarian philosophy put on foreign policy?

HORSLEY: The basic doctrine of the Libertarian Party is that the U.S. should be prepared to defend itself but otherwise should generally not meddle in other parts of the world. And Johnson himself made that point once he finally realized that the question today was about Syria.


JOHNSON: I understand the crisis that is going on, but when we involve ourselves militarily, when we involve ourselves in these humanitarian issues, we end up with a situation that in most cases is not better and in many cases ends up being worse.

HORSLEY: Johnson also suggested that civil war in Syria is part of a U.S.-backed effort at regime change, although in fact the Obama administration has carefully avoided committing military forces to ousting the Syrian president.

CORNISH: Now, Gary Johnson has said this episode leaves no doubt that he's human, but does that really matter in a presidential race?

HORSLEY: Right now Gary Johnson's polling average is around 9 percent, which is relatively high for a third party candidate. Up until now, the question's been, who does he take more votes away from, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? If Johnson's numbers drop because of this, the question will be, who does that help more, Trump or Clinton? It certainly doesn't help Johnson, who's trying to reach the 15 percent threshold that would earn him a spot on the debate stage.

And, Audie, one other bit of fallout - Senator Lindsey Graham joked today. This sets the cause of legalized marijuana back by 50 years.

CORNISH: I want to talk about another third party candidate, Jill Stein, because she made news this week as well.

HORSLEY: She did. She took part in a demonstration against a controversial oil pipeline in North Dakota, and the sheriff there says she could face criminal charges for trespassing and vandalism - not the way most presidential candidates want to become known. But at least in her case, the notoriety was deliberate.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.