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Trump’s adversarial relationship with presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace, explained

Trump expects total loyalty from Fox News. He doesn’t like Chris Wallace because Wallace won’t give it to him.

Trump and Chris Wallace shake hands after a presidential debate in October 2016.
Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump expects complete loyalty from Fox News. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace is the rare personality on the network that refuses to give it to him.

That’s the crux of the dynamic underpinning the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election, which will be held on Tuesday night at 9 pm ET at Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, and is set to be moderated by Wallace.

Topics for the debate, which were selected by Wallace and announced by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates last week, are set to include Trump’s and Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, “Race and Violence in Our Cities,” and election integrity. Some progressives took umbrage with the fact that climate change was not included.

Wallace also drew criticism for saying during a Fox News appearance on Sunday that he doesn’t plan to vigorously fact-check the torrent of false claims likely to be made by Trump.

“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Wallace said. “I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of, ‘Why I want to vote for one versus the other.’”

Wallace stands out as one of the few Fox News personalities who isn’t reflexively pro-Trump

The topic choices and his laissez-faire stance on fact-checking may reflect the fact that while he has more credibility with the center and left than perhaps anyone else who works for Fox, Wallace still works for a network that has always skewed to the right — and that has, in recent years, established itself as something akin to a Trump propaganda organ.

Fox News is America’s top-rated cable news network, and the vast majority of its programming is favorable to Trump — sometimes to an absurd degree. On Monday morning, for instance, the network totally buried a New York Times bombshell story about Trump paying next to nothing in federal taxes over a 15-year period, and instead gave Donald Trump Jr. and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany time on Fox & Friends to blast the story as a political hit job (without presenting any evidence contradicting its conclusions).

For Trump, however, even that isn’t enough. He regularly lashes out at Fox News segments that dare to criticize him or that try to hold people in his orbit to account. He’s even gone as far as to repeatedly attack Fox News for not rigging its polls — ones that have consistently shown Joe Biden ahead of him — in his favor.

Wallace, son of legendary newsman Mike Wallace, is nobody’s idea of a far-left liberal, but his willingness to ask tough questions and push back on Republicans sets him apart from the Sean Hannitys and Brian Kilmeades of the world — and has made him a target of the president’s ire.

Perhaps in an effort to manage expectations, Trump went as far as to ludicrously claim Wallace is “controlled by the radical left” during an interview last week on Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show.

“He’ll ask me tough questions and it’ll be unfair, I have no doubt about it,” Trump said. “But he’ll be controlled by the radical left. They control him.”

That claim is obviously absurd. Wallace has been sharply critical of Democrats during the Trump era, including including Biden, whose campaign has apparently refused Wallace’s requests for Biden to be interviewed on his Sunday show. But Trump’s comments indicate he’s concerned Tuesday’s debate could turn out like his most recent tangle with Wallace.

Trump’s most recent interview with Wallace was a disaster

The backdrop for Tuesday’s debate is the interview Trump did with Wallace for the July 19 installment of Fox News Sunday — one that’s perhaps best remembered for Wallace’s pushback when Trump bragged about his performance on a cognitive test he took during his unplanned November 2019 trip to Walter Reed hospital.

“I took the [cognitive] test too, when I heard you passed it. It’s not the hardest test. It shows a picture and it says, ‘what’s that,’ and it’s an elephant,” Wallace said at one point, leaving Trump stammering.

Wallace made points on more substantial topics as well. During an exchange about the coronavirus, he grilled Trump about the fact that, at the time, about 1,000 Americans were dying each day from Covid-19, prompting Trump to say, memorably (and regrettably for all involved), “It is what it is.”

Those exchanges demonstrated that Wallace isn’t afraid of Trump. But at other points, Wallace making room for the president to rant was enough for Trump to get himself in hot water. At various points during the interview, Trump defended the Confederacy, promised a comprehensive health care plan “within two weeks” that still hasn’t been produced more than two months later, and went on a bizarre tangent about how he was “very unfairly treated” in response to a softball question about how he’ll remember his years as president.

The interview was clearly a disaster for Trump, but he tried to put a good face on it anyway, tweeting afterward, “We may have set a record for doing such an interview in the heat. It was 100 degrees, making things very interesting!”

It’s not like Wallace singled out Trump. In recent months, he’s conducted hard-hitting interviews with Trump campaign officials and administration officials. He’s also offered commentary that’s deeply critical of the Trump White House, including during last year’s impeachment saga when he characterized Trumpworld’s spin of a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine as “astonishing and I think deeply misleading.”

Perhaps even more unforgivably from Trump’s perspective, Wallace has also at times praised Joe Biden. On Fox News, Wallace praised Biden’s Democratic National Convention-closing speech as “enormously effective,” adding, “remember, Donald Trump has been talking for months about Joe Biden as mentally shot ... I thought that he blew a hole, a big hole in the characterization.”

As he’s wont to do, Trump fired back days later by describing Wallace at a rally as someone “who has always wanted to be his father but it never worked out because of a lack of talent.”

The first debate should be good TV, but it might not be much more than that

Tuesday will not be Wallace’s debut as a presidential debate moderator; he also handled the third debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In a demonstration of how similar today’s Trump scandals are to ones that dominated the last presidential campaign, arguably the biggest headline coming out of that event was Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost.

“I will keep you in suspense,” he said, in comments that presaged his current refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses in November.

But Wallace was also hard on Clinton, at one point grilling her about paid speeches she gave to banking groups.

It’s hard to remember now, but Clinton was widely regarded as besting Trump in all three debates. That wasn’t enough, however, to prevent her from being defeated in the Electoral College.

It’s similarly unlikely that this year’s debates will have a decisive impact on the outcome. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicated that more than 70 percent of Americans say the debates won’t matter much to them, with 44 percent reporting it will not matter at all to their choice of who they vote for — a record high dating back to 2000.

Trump has eschewed the debate preparation typically done by candidates. While Biden has reportedly prepared rigorously with mock debates, Trump has instead participated in more casual sessions with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The president also, according to CBS News, views a recent town hall — one that saw Trump struggling to answer tough questions from a wide variety of citizens — as practice.

“The president prepares by being president,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s director of communications, told CBS News. “And by regularly facing hostile news media. That’s pretty good practice by any measure.”

But even a good performance by the president is unlikely to alter his standing in the race. Polling has shown that Biden’s national lead over Trump has held remarkably steady since last winter at somewhere between 7 and 10 percentage points, even through the coronavirus pandemic and one Trump scandal after the next. Nothing that happens at the first debate is likely to change that. But it should, at least, be good TV.

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