During the 11 Republican primary debates he participated in, Donald Trump tried his hardest to avoid answering questions about policy. He’d ramble, running out the clock on his answers so that he wouldn’t have to say more than a sentence or two responding to the actual question.
Moderators sometimes pointed out that Trump didn’t really answer what they asked. But there was one notable time when Trump was forced to defend a proposed policy in depth under multiple follow-up questions — and he failed completely.
At the Fox News debate in Detroit in March, the 11th debate of the campaign, moderator Chris Wallace went after one of Trump’s most nonsensical claims: that he could close the budget deficit by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” and getting rid of a few government agencies. Trump’s proposed cuts, Wallace demonstrated, added up to less than one-fifth of the budget deficit.
Trump didn’t really back down. But Wallace did force the candidate onto his heels, making clear that Trump’s claim that “negotiating” the price the government pays for goods would be enough to close the deficit was pure fantasy.
“Your numbers don’t add up, sir,” Wallace said, and put up two full-screen graphics to make his point:
Trump eventually said that he intended to save $300 billion through “negotiations” on the price the government pays for nearly everything — which is still probably impossible. But he did acknowledge that he couldn’t close the entire deficit.
This might not sound like much. But given Trump’s track record in the 11 debates he participated in, Wallace scored a major victory in getting Trump first to talk about policy with any kind of depth and then to admit that his policy wasn’t as comprehensive as his sales pitch made it seem.
It was a significant moment. Trump’s impossible policies and frequent lies often go unchallenged. Whether moderators or Hillary Clinton will fact-check Trump at tonight’s debate has been the subject of much speculation and angst. During the primaries, even when moderators or other candidates tried to correct Trump, they ran into his unwillingness to ever back down. The fact that Trump was usually sharing the stage with many other contenders during the primaries made it difficult to press him with lengthy follow-up questions.
Wallace reflected on this moment in an interview with the Washington Post in April. The full-screen graphics he deployed to show that Trump’s numbers were wrong led the audience to stand and cheer:
"I think it's literally the only time a graphic has gotten an ovation at a debate," Wallace said, remembering the reaction. "It's kind of like what [Washington Post fact-checker] Glenn Kessler does — fact-checking a candidate — except I was doing it in real time in front of millions of people."
But Wallace, who will moderate the third and final debate of the general election, now says he doesn’t want to fact-check in real time. “I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad,” he said on September 4. “It's up to the other person to catch them on that.”
Even without the extra flourish of the full-screen fact-check, though, Wallace’s persistent follow-up questions — which were meant to force Trump to elaborate on his policy, not just to point out that he wasn’t telling the truth — were enough to reveal that the candidate’s plans were essentially a fantasy. And this was in a four-person debate.
With just Hillary Clinton sharing the stage with Trump, he’s likely to have to talk in depth much more than he did before. Eventually, the gaps in his policy plans could start to show through.