No sooner than the list of 2020 presidential debate moderators was released than the Trump campaign began expressing displeasure at the selections. It’s typical for debate moderators to be controversial with allegations of bias from both sides. The Democratic National Committee, for example, denied Fox News’ request to host a debate during the 2020 Democratic primary, citing the conservative editorial bent of the network. During the primaries, the parties are control over their debates, and they can grant or deny the right to host or broadcast debates as they deem fit. During the general election campaign, however, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is solely in charge of selecting moderators and choosing venues.
Responding to news of the moderator announcement, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh accused the debate commission of selecting journalists who will act as Biden’s ally on stage:
“These are not the moderators we would have recommended if the campaign had been allowed to have any input,” said Trump spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “Some can be identified as clear opponents of President Trump, meaning Joe Biden will actually have a teammate on stage most of the time to help him excuse the radical, leftist agenda he is carrying.”
Note the phrasing as “some” of the moderators can be identified as “clear opponents” of the President. Which moderator(s) is Murtaugh leaving off his list as being anti-Trump? It’s worth noting that President Trump has been an ardent fan of Fox News, but not a fan of Chris Wallace, Fox News’ mainstay of journalism and long-time Fox News Sunday host. Just take a gander at the President’s twitter feed and you’ll find Wallace’s name mentioned from time to time, and rarely in a positive light:
Chris Wallace “forgot” to ask a very weak and pathetic Schumer puppet, Senator Chrisie Coons, why Biden fought me when I put an extremely early BAN on people coming into our Country from heavily infected China. Biden later admitted I was right! But why no question?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2020
“Next we’ll turn to people of the Biden inner circle”, said by Chris Wallace of @FoxNews after unsuccessfully GRILLING Mark Meadows. Then all softball questions to a group of Biden lightweights, including Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2020
Just watched Mike Wallace wannabe, Chris Wallace, on @FoxNews. I am now convinced that he is even worse than Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Meet the Press(please!), or the people over at Deface the Nation. What the hell is happening to @FoxNews. It’s a whole new ballgame over there!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2020
Beyond Twitter, the President recently called out Wallace with a backhanded compliment at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire:
In terms of presidential debates, Chris Wallace and Donald Trump have a history dating back to 2016. Wallace was selected as a debate moderator four years ago, taking the helm for the final Trump-Clinton debate on October 23, 2016. Here’s a taste of Wallace attempting to fact-check as moderator and Trump’s ability to turn questions around or deflect:
You can watch the full debate here if you’d like a refresh of how Chris Wallace is likely to handle interplay between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
For Wallace to be selected two election cycles in a row as moderator isn’t unheard of, though it is rare. Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, moderated the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, then went on to moderate the second Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Getting bumped from the VP debate to the main billing is an upgrade.
The question is why the CPD would have selected Wallace two cycles in a row to host one of the main events? The first presidential debate of the cycle is always the most-watched. Ratings for the second and third debates always diminish from the first. This means that Wallace’s debate will be the one and only presidential debate that many voters watch. The anticipation of seeing Joe Biden and Donald Trump on stage together will lose luster after the first 90-minute affair. Many casual observers won’t bother to tune in for the second and third debates. That’s not to say the ratings won’t be large for the latter broadcasts, they always are by almost any standard, but the first debate usually sets the table for the next two debates, and usually comes off a little less scripted as candidates polish their messaging.
Back in 2016, Chris Wallace was praised by one of his chief competitors — CNN — for his debate moderating performance:
“Chris Wallace did a good job. Taking no shit, like a veteran teacher monitoring detention hall,” Stephen King, the author, tweeted.
“Gotta say, Chris Wallace is a pro,” wrote Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s television critic. “Cool demeanor, asking clear follow-ups.”
“If Chris Wallace keeps this up, and refuses to get into the muck, he will have run the best presidential debate in recent memory,” Avik Roy, the Forbes opinion editor and President of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, tweeted halfway through the debate.
Wallace also pressed both candidates on some of their most vulnerable points. He asked Clinton about her deleted emails, the Clinton Foundation and sexual assault allegations against her husband, and asked Trump about the sexual assault allegations against him and his unwillingness to accept the results of the election.
Neither candidate took issue with Wallace’s performance during the debate — a rarity in any political debate — and both could be seen shaking his hand afterward and commending him on his performance.
The setup is just as important as the execution in terms of the way Trump interacts with the media. If Trump turns in a weak debate performance later this month, it’s because the media is against him and helping their pal, Joe Biden, his campaign will argue.
As the New York Times notes, the Trump campaign sent a list of “acceptable” moderators to the CPD. A list which did not include Chris Wallace:
In August, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, sent a list of 24 journalists “for consideration” by the debate commission. Roughly 40 percent of his suggestions were affiliated with Fox News and Fox Business. Mr. Wallace’s name was not among them.
No one from Mr. Giuliani’s list was ultimately selected.
The selection of Wallace, a journalist from the President’s favorite news organization, could be interpreted as a diabolical move by the CPD. After all, the commission avoided names from CNN or MSNBC, two outlets which the President frequently criticizes. Putting Wallace’s name first on the docket could be an attempt to mitigate criticism. In that respect, is it possible that the CPD, in anticipating Trump’s inevitable criticism, “caved” in some respects by putting a name synonyms with Fox News as the first moderator? It’s a question worth pondering. On the other hand, knowing that Wallace is as tough on Republicans as he is on Democrats, perhaps the CPD chose him as the best option to set a standard for the second and third debate.
The fireworks start at 9 pm ET on September 29. Bookmark the 2020 Debate Schedule page for more details including start time and live stream.