In July 2017, Chris Wallace confronted Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal team, with breaking allegations that Donald Trump, Jr. participated in a meeting with at least two Russians at New York’s Trump Tower in June 2016. Characteristically, Wallace simply made an allegation without really posing a question. He said:
But the point is, it does show intent, willingness, perhaps not actual collusion because apparently, and, in fact, none of us know what really went on to the meeting, but assuming that at least on that point everybody is telling the truth, doesn’t it show intent and willingness on the part of Don, Jr., and Jared and Paul Manafort to collude with the Russians? And let me just point out, Natalia Veselnitskaya [one of the Russian participants in the Trump Tower meeting] was not just some Russian off the street. She had close ties to people in the Kremlin.
Just a few months later, attorneys for the Clinton campaign were forced to admit to hiring Fusion GPS that, in turn, had hired Christopher Steele. Then it was discovered that Fusion GPS had a longstanding relationship with Veselnitskaya (the same Russian from the Trump Tower meeting) and that one of the Fusion GPS founders dined with her the night before and the night right after the infamous meeting. I am unable to locate any interview in which Wallace confronted any Democrat with the revelations that Clinton ginned up the Russia collusion scandal to distract from her email troubles.
Contrast this to Wallace’s stunning lack of curiosity over the recent revelations contained in a Senate report that, among other allegations, Hunter Biden received a $3.5 million payment from Elena Baturina, the wife of the former mayor of Moscow.
“I think the American people would rather hear about more substantive subjects,” Wallace said of the appearance of corruption stemming from the dubious payments made to Hunter while Biden was in office. Can you imagine Wallace saying that if it were Trump’s son who’d received the payment?
Not only did Wallace fail to ask Biden directly about the allegations during the first of the three presidential debates, but he actually shielded Biden from having to answer Trump’s question, “Why is it, just out of curiosity, the mayor of Moscow’s wife gave your son $3.5 million dollars. What did he do to deserve it? What did he do to deserve, with Burisma, to deserve $180,000.”
Wallace interrupted Trump to “let him [Biden] answer.” Biden said, “none of that is true.” When Trump questioned this denial—“Wait, he didn’t get $3.5 million?”—Wallace interrupted again. Biden denied it again. When Trump challenged Biden, Wallace forcefully ran interference. As Trump tried to challenge Biden’s denial on the Hunter-Burisma payments (which is clearly a matter of public record), Biden said again that none of that was true and that it was totally discredited.
Biden stumbled about trying to recall sources to support the denial while Wallace continued to periodically run interference to delegitimize the line of questioning from Trump.
Over and over again, the camera caught Biden shooting pleading looks at Wallace when Biden seemed overwhelmed by Trump’s intensity. With Wallace’s help, Biden kept his bearings through the entire 90-minute debate. Ironically, Trump also helped Biden by dominating many of the segments dedicated to Biden’s responses. Both Wallace and Trump turned attention away from Biden which is exactly the outcome the Biden campaign wanted.
In fact, Wallace repeatedly followed his political instincts to interrupt Trump to save Biden. At the 7:28 mark of C-SPAN’s recording of the event, Wallace interrupted the debaters when Trump said Biden would eliminate private health coverage for 180 million Americans. Biden retorted, “that’s not true.” Wallace interrupted saving Biden from having to defend himself on this question. During the interruption, Wallace cut off Trump as he accused Biden of supporting socialism and admonished both to stick to the topic of the Supreme Court. Biden then gathered himself and launched into a response on health care with no interuption from Wallace.
At 9:02, Wallace interrupted Trump during his accusation that Biden’s early stance on travel restrictions with China would have led to more deaths. The interruption allowed Biden to gather himself to respond. Biden did not respond and instead turned to Roe v. Wade.
Trump responded at 9:44 that Biden didn’t know what Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s position on Roe v. Wade was and that Biden wasn’t making the case that Roe was on the ballot. Wallace interrupted Trump again, relieving Biden of any need to respond.
At 10:34, Wallace asked an argumentative question accusing Trump of not having a plan to replace Obamacare. Trump attempted to contest the assumption in the question. Wallace shut him down to continue arguing about a “largely symbolic executive order” banning exclusion of pre-existing conditions. Trump retorted, “I guess I’m debating you [Wallace] not him.” Trump began his answer at 11:18. He barely got to his third sentence before Wallace interrupted 20 seconds into Trump’s answer. After less than a minute, at 12:04, Wallace interrupted Trump to give Biden a chance to respond.
At 17:24, in the midst of chaotic Trump-Biden bickering, a question suddenly penetrated the back-and forth, “Who’s on your list Joe?” referring to the fact that Biden has declined to identify potential Supreme Court nominees as Trump has. Wallace interrupted again at 17:29, relieving Biden of the need to explain.
At 22:35, Trump challenged Biden on the Obama administration’s handling of the swine flu. Biden cited the lower deaths of swine flu. Trump started a retort but Wallace interrupted at 22:31.
At 39:03, Wallace attacked Trump with a question over the recent New York Times article purporting to reveal information from Trump’s tax returns. Trump answered the question indirectly. Approximately 30 seconds into his answer, Wallace interrupted to force a direct answer.
At 1:02:58, Wallace again interrupted to save Biden when Trump challenged him to name one law enforcement group that had come out and endorsed him. Biden gamely said he didn’t have time to give his answer before Wallace interrupted to say, “Gentleman, I’m going to take back the microphone.”
At 1:04:15 Trump interrupted to respond to Biden’s claim that the violence in Portland was Trump’s fault because he didn’t “get out of the way.” Wallace stopped Trump from rebutting the charge. When, at 1:05:18, Trump asked to rebut the claim, Wallace talked over him and moved on to the next question. Trump refused to move on to the next topic citing local government’s failure to accept the national guard to restore calm. After Trump fumbled his condemnation of right-wing violence, Wallace refused to allow him to condemn Antifa and moved on to the next question.
At 1:27:56, Wallace intervened to stop Trump from finishing his criticism of mail-in balloting. At 1:29:03, Wallace interrupted Trump as he tried to draw a distinction between unsolicited mail-in ballots and solicited ballots. Wallace did not intervene to stop Biden from interrupting Trump at 1:29:29.
While much of the conventional wisdom holds that Trump “lost” the debate, I’m not so sure. Trump didn’t surprise anyone with his rudeness. But at his age, it will be reassuring to voters to see his energy and intensity remain intact. Trump fights and that matters above all else to many of his supporters.
Trump will be more prepared to call out media intervention in the next two debates. Additionally, Biden has now reset the expectations to a more level position which means he will need to perform at least as well, if not better, in the next debate. Does he have that in him? Time will tell. But Wallace will not have a chance to redeem himself as a legitimate arbiter of truth. His performance betrayed his true instincts to pursue a political outcome instead of the truth.