Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally met face-to-face tonight for the first of three US presidential debates, and while the immediate media reaction is that Clinton clearly bested Trump, the real winner might have been moderator Lester Holt, who, on several occasions, fact-checked the candidates when false statements were made.
Heading into the debate, one of the night’s biggest mysteries was how Holt would perform as moderator, especially following Matt Lauer’s widely panned stint moderating NBC’s presidential forum a few weeks ago. (Among his failures, Lauer didn’t point out Trump’s false claim that he was against the war in Iraq before it started.) Political journalists and media pundits far and wide asked the question: Is it the debate moderator’s job to fact-check the candidates in real time? And if not, who will?
Holt wasn’t planning to be a “potted plant,” CNN reported in advance of the debate—meaning he was not there merely for decoration, and intended to intervene if the situation demanded.
Trump and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said it’s not Holt’s job to fact-check, and that Clinton shouldn’t assume he will. Clinton’s camp, on the other hand, argued that if and when Trump says something demonstrably false, Holt should call him out on it.
So—how’d Holt do? Well, some pro-Clinton commentators have said he failed to rein in Trump, while Trump supporters have accused him of being soft on Clinton—so for the most part pretty well! While he didn’t catch every lie and half-truth, and he seemed overwhelmed with the pace of debate at times, he did manage to catch several major lies and corrected the record accordingly.
When Holt mentioned that “stop and frisk,” a policing policy Trump supports, was ruled unconstitutional by a US district court, Trump told Holt that he was wrong—a moment that infuriated some viewers:
When Trump once again claimed he never supported the Iraq War, Holt pointed out that he did at one point, calling attention to an interview he did in 2002 (a year before the war began) in which he said he supported the war.
“The record says otherwise,” Holt said emphatically.
Holt also fact-checked Trump on the candidate’s tax audit by the Internal Revenue Service (Trump had initially said he will release his tax returns when his audit is finished, and Holt pointed out that the IRS has said there’s no reason why Trump can’t release those returns now). And Holt pressed Trump on how he led the “birther” conspiracy charge that US president Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
But, at times, Holt sounded defeated, allowing both candidates (but Trump more than Clinton) to speak well over the allotted time for each topic.
One thing Holt neglected to correct: Trump’s claim that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by China. Trump tweeted as much in 2012, and has repeated the claim several times since. Holt didn’t correct the record.
The false statements that Holt didn’t pick up on were fact-checked by countless outlets online and on other channels, like Bloomberg TV, which fact-checked the debate live on-screen.
The next presidential debate, a “town hall” format, will be Sunday, Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. CNN’S Anderson Cooper and ABC News’s Martha Raddatz will moderate together. Before that, though, the one vice presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence will take place in Virginia on Oct. 4, to be moderated by CBS News’s Elaine Quijano. It remains to be seen whether they can build on Holt’s performance as moderator.