Chris Wallace, the moderator of the first presidential debate Tuesday night, insists he will try to remain “as invisible as possible.” That would certainly be a welcome change from his performance in the final 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. A lot of Democrats no doubt assume Wallace will go too easy on the president simply because he hosts a talking-heads show for the “conservative” Fox News network. But Wallace is not an admirer of Trump. Nor is he above gotcha questions and phony “fact checks.” It was Wallace, you will probably recall, who pompously lectured Trump as follows during that last 2016 debate:
Sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and no matter how hard-fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country.
At length, “the invisible man” asked an actual question: “Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” Despite how ironic that question turned out to be in light of subsequent events, Wallace pressed Trump on the very same issue in an interview last July: “Can you give a direct answer that you will accept the election?” Considering that the loser of the 2016 contest and many other Democrats have advised Joe Biden not to concede if President Trump wins in November, it will be interesting to see if Wallace asks the former vice president if he will “commit to the principle” of the peaceful transition. His belligerence during the Trump interview suggests that he won’t.
Ironically, Wallace’s purported commitment to avoid fact-checking either candidate will serve to protect the former vice president, who can no longer speak extemporaneously on any subject.
During that exchange, the president pointed out that Biden supports defunding the police. Wallace went directly into fact-checker mode, interrupting Trump and contradicting him: “Sir, he does not.” Just 10 days earlier, Biden had endorsed “redirecting” police funds. This sly euphemism emerged during a NowThis interview with Ady Barkan, who suggested it would be good public policy to “redirect some of the funding for police into social services, mental health counseling and affordable housing.” Biden attempted to change the subject to generic police reform, but Barkan pressed him, “But do we agree that we can redirect some of the funding?” Biden unequivocally replied, “Yes, absolutely.”
Wallace certainly knew this at the time of his interview with Trump, and he isn’t dumb enough to believe there is any real difference between “defunding the police” and “redirecting police funds.” Yet he was determined to cover for Biden. It was reminiscent of Candy Crowley’s notorious “fact-check” of Mitt Romney’s correct assertion, during his second 2012 debate with President Obama, that the latter failed to acknowledge the Benghazi attack as an “act of terror” for two weeks. Crowley contradicted Romney with a transparent lie to protect Obama from the consequences of his own lie. Wallace probably won’t attempt anything that dishonest, but President Trump expects him to protect Biden:
Chris is good, but I think I would be willing to bet that he won’t ask Biden tough questions. He’ll ask me tough questions, and it’ll show — it’ll be unfair, I have no doubt about it … he’s got to ask tough questions of Biden.
Ironically, Wallace’s purported commitment to avoid fact-checking either candidate on Tuesday night will serve to protect the former vice president, who can no longer speak extemporaneously on any subject. Wallace made the same pledge in 2016, but he fact-checked Trump nonetheless. Wallace said, at one point during that debate, “Mr. Trump, in the last debate, you were both asked about the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. And I want to follow up on that, because you said several things in that debate which were not true, sir. You said that Aleppo has basically fallen.” Trump, by the way, was essentially correct. Wallace then hit him with the inevitable “groper” fact check:
Mr. Trump, at the last debate, you said talk about grabbing women was just that, talk, and that you’d never actually done it. And since then, as we all know, nine women have come forward and said that you either groped them or kissed them without their consent.… Why would they all in this last couple of weeks make up — you deny this — why would they all make up these stories?
If Wallace is still unable to solve this conundrum, he might want to give Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh a ring. Meanwhile, it’s a good bet that Wallace won’t ask Joe Biden any such question Tuesday night, despite a longtime “touching” issue so well known that it inspired a Daily Show segment titled, “The Audacity of Grope.” Nor is it likely that Biden will be asked about last week’s revelations concerning influence-peddling in Ukraine and the related foreign money transfers to members of his family. Wallace will, however, almost certainly ask President Trump about the latest installment of the New York Times long-running serial concerning his fabled income tax returns.
The primary topics scheduled to be discussed during Tuesday’s debate are the records of the two candidates, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election. But most of the millions who watch it will tune in for one reason — to see if former Vice President Joe Biden can go the distance with President Trump without keeling over or saying something so incoherent and weird that it scares the hell out of the voters. Consequently, Chris Wallace really will be the invisible man. He will cudgel Trump and coddle Biden, but no one will see him. Of course Chris Wallace can’t be trusted. But, in the end, he’s just another insignificant swamp creature.