US presidential debate quickly devolves into disgrace without strong moderation

“If you want to switch seats,” moderator Chris Wallace said to President Trump at the 65 minute mark of Tuesday night’s debate, “we can do that.” © Getty Images But the metaphorical switch happened in the first five minutes. Trump took control by interrupting and interjecting while Joe Biden tried […]

“If you want to switch seats,” moderator Chris Wallace said to President Trump at the 65 minute mark of Tuesday night’s debate, “we can do that.”

Donald Trump, Joe Biden are posing for a picture

© Getty Images

But the metaphorical switch happened in the first five minutes. Trump took control by interrupting and interjecting while Joe Biden tried to answer questions. Wallace belatedly tried to exert control, but rarely if ever succeeded. So Trump basically moderated the debate — and Biden took full advantage of his behavior and used it as an argument to end Trump’s presidency.


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Biden occasionally reminded me of Jim Halpert on “The Office,” peering into the camera as if to say, “can you believe this guy is the boss?”

And Wallace sometimes reminded me of a crossing guard at an impossibly clogged intersection who tried to give direction but was powerless to enforce the rules.

Biden certainly interrupted Trump and ran roughshod over Wallace as well — but Trump did it more often and more dramatically. Wallace chastised him several times. “Two minutes is two minutes,” Wallace reminded him around the 85 minute mark, but Trump ran right over him during the final question about the integrity of the election.

In media circles, one of the big questions after the debate was: Would any journalist have been able to corral Trump? Or was it an impossible mission?

Another question came up on the television broadcasts Tuesday night: Will Biden even show up for the next debate on October 15? Anchors on CNN and MSNBC wondered aloud if the first debate would also be the last of the year. The conventional wisdom was that no one won the debate, and that the audience definitely lost…

Biden aide: “We’re winning these exchanges”

By my count, Biden had almost all of the memorable one-liners. They included “will you shut up man;” “you blew it;” “it is what it is because you are who you are;” and “I’m not here to call out his lies, everybody knows he’s a liar.”

Toward the end of the battle, a Biden aide made the case that the Democratic nominee’s direct-to-camera comments were effective.

“Every time he turns to camera and talks to the American people, we’re winning these exchanges,” the aide texted me. “When he said, ‘Do you believe he’s telling you the truth?’ regarding vaccines. When he said, ‘How many of you got up this morning and had a chair missing?’ And just now — telling people to show up and vote. Powerful for the folks at home. That’s who we’re talking to.”

That was the Biden camp’s strategy. The polls will show whether it worked.

Now here are some immediate reactions to the debate from my CNN media team colleagues Oliver Darcy, Kerry Flynn and Brian Lowry…

Neither invisible, nor effective

“Chris Wallace failed to meet the moment,” Oliver Darcy wrote. “To be sure, he had a difficult task placed before him. And it would have perhaps been helpful had he had the ability to cut mics. But Wallace does ultimately bear responsibility for the circus that aired on national TV. He lost control of the debate early, and failed to ever regain order. Wallace should have reprimanded Trump harshly and early. He should have made it clear that the interjections would not be tolerated. But instead, at times, it appeared as if Wallace were pleading with Trump to respect the forum like a parent would plead an out-of-control child to behave. Twice he tried to get the President to stop speaking by promising he would like the question he was planning on asking next. Wallace was neither ‘invisible’ like he had hoped to be, nor was he effective.”

For what it’s worth, Politico’s Tim Alberta tweeted out a counter-argument: “You can nit-pick questions/phrasing from Chris Wallace, but he did a helluva job under the circumstances. Nobody has ever — ever — drawn an assignment like that. He couldn’t play interviewer because he had to play referee. (And yes, the questions/phrasing suffered as a result.)”

“I don’t know Beau”

Kerry Flynn wrote: “What really sunk my heart during the debate was Trump saying ‘I don’t know Beau’ after Biden talked about his late son’s service in the military. That line further cements The Atlantic’s reporting about Trump’s disrespect of veterans.”

A surprise climate change question

Kerry Flynn continued: “On a positive note, I was thankful to see Wallace specifically ask a question about climate change and push back against Trump’s response, essentially fact checking about his commitment to climate action since he pulled back Obama’s clean energy plan. This was especially notable because climate change was not on the list of six topics that Wallace shared ahead of time. Now here’s my question: Who would have thought we would all miss commercials? 90 minutes felt quite long…”

How will Trump feel about this news coverage?

Brian Lowry wrote: “I’m pretty sure that I was younger than my kids are now when I watched my first presidential debate. I’m extremely glad I went with my gut and didn’t let them watch this one.”

“Before the debate,” Lowry wrote, “I thought MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace made an astute point by saying that Biden had debated Sarah Palin, who was ‘the closest avatar to what Trump is.’ But nothing could have really prepared him for the onslaught of interruptions that the president appeared to employ, either as a conscious tactic, or just as plausibly, because a steady diet of being interviewed by Sean Hannity and ‘Fox & Friends’ doesn’t prepare you for hearing points of view that challenge you.”

After the debate, Wallace (no relation to Chris) said “Donald Trump was the abuser and Chris Wallace was among the abused.” She said it was purposeful on the Trump team’s part, but added, “I think he will be enraged by the coverage of the performance.”

Maddow: “This sort of debate shouldn’t happen in a democracy”

Trump delivered a “monstrous cavalcade of increasingly wild and obscene lies,” Rachel Maddow said on MSNBC. “There’s something beyond fact-checking that needs to happen.” She concluded that Trump is not running against Biden, “he’s running against the election…”

Speaking of fact-checking, this is what CNN’s Daniel Dale concluded: “That was a relatively easy debate to fact check because the president has made the vast majority of these false claims before.”

Notes and quotes

— Jake Tapper: on CNN: “That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” It wasn’t a debate, he said, “it was a disgrace.”

— At 9:31 p.m. Eastern, Amy Walter tweeted: “I’d love to know how many people turned off this debate after the first 15 minutes.” James Carville made a similar point on MSNBC later: Trump “literally chased the TV audience away.” True or false? We’ll have Nielsen ratings by the early afternoon on Wednesday.

— Box CEO Aaron Levie tweeted, “This is like a really bad zoom meeting.” Jason Kander: “This is like debating an air horn.” Siraj Hashmi: “Can’t believe the debate hasn’t been flagged by Twitter for promoting voter suppression.”

— The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson tweeted, “This isn’t a debate. It’s a DDOS attack happening in front of a human moderator.”

— Many people asked me, why didn’t the TV producers just cut Trump’s mic when he interrupted? Multiple reporters are working on more detailed answers to that question, but I don’t think the candidates would have agreed to cut-the-mic terms.

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

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