A Repulsive and Pointless Debate

“Biden came to win a debate, and Trump came to win WrestleMania.” Those were the thoughts of National Review’s Jim Geraghty, after watching last night’s contemptuous presidential debate in Cleveland.

As someone who’s watched more than his fair share of professional wrestling over the years (mostly in my youth, but still on occasion), my initial thought was that Jim nailed it. After all, Wrestlemania is a loud, outlandish spectacle of the absurd… which is exactly what Trump worked hard to assure last night’s event would be.

But here’s where I’ll quibble just a bit with the metaphor. From a scripted story-line perspective, “winning” Wrestemania ultimately means winning a wrestling match. It’s about achieving a hard-fought victory over your opponent, and taking home the prize. That’s the choreographed payoff that wrestling fans put down big bucks to see.

That’s not the kind of thing we saw from Trump at the debate. Instead, we watched the equivalent of a pro wrestler running out the clock on a 90-minute match by trying to keep his opponent from so much as entering the ring (while blowing off and shouting over the referee’s repeated warnings). If last night were the main event of Wrestlemania, wrestling fans in attendance and watching on pay-per-view would have booed in unison and demanded their money back.

Heck, I wanted my money back, and I watched the thing for free.

Now, to be fair, the debate wasn’t a total disaster. For example, I was pleasantly surprised during that first question about Trump and the Republicans moving, just a few weeks prior to the election, to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s old Supreme Court seat. Trump seemed well prepared, and answered with what I thought was the winning, constitutionally-sound argument. Biden’s answer wasn’t bad either, approaching the issue with a referendum argument.

For about 15 minutes or so, I was hopeful that Americans might actually hear a productive, perhaps even enlightening, debate over competing visions, from two men vying for the honor of leading our country for the next four years.

Boy, was I wrong.

Trump quickly fell back into his much more comfortable role as heckler-in-chief, constantly breaking into Biden’s allotted time, changing the subject, tossing out overly personal insults, assigning false positions and rhetoric, and making it virtually impossible for the former vice president to lay out any kind of substantive argument. In that regard, it may have been an effective strategy, at least at times. A good example was when Trump cut off Biden’s attack-line on Russia placing bounties on U.S. troops, and the president remaining silent about it. With Biden’s train of thought ruined by Trump’s interruption, the point was never returned to.

That’s, of course, assuming that what Trump did was even part of strategy.

Either way, it’s hard to miss the irony. Trump and his team had been insisting for weeks that “Sleepy Joe’s” debate performance would falter and crumble under the weight of Biden’s own senility. Only, that didn’t happen. It might have, had Trump given Biden more opportunities to make a serious mistake — one that Trump could effectively exploit to rack up some political points. But that’s clearly not the direction Trump’s instincts took him in; the president didn’t even bother to go after some patently false statements and contradictions that Biden did manage to spit out.

Whether it was planned ahead of time, or on the fly, President Trump decided that letting Biden self-destruct wasn’t going to work, and the answer instead was to execute a hostile takeover of the debate stage (format and agreed-upon conditions be damned).

The casualties of that takeover were the American people. I can’t imagine anyone watching the debate came away with anything other than a headache. Heck, I’m guessing a lot of people turned it off about 20 minutes in, just to spare themselves a headache.

If you think a missed opportunity like that is helpful to a candidate who’s a clear underdog at this point in the race, think again. And if you think that Biden losing his cool at times, and saying things like, “Would you shut up, man?” hurt him with voters, it’s probably worth considering how many people watching the debate at home were saying pretty much the same thing.

And then there was — to use another professional wrestling metaphor — the third man in the ring: Chris Wallace. Wallace has taken heat from both sides for his performance last night as the debate’s moderator.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell complained that Wallace allowed Trump to “bulldoze” Biden.

MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace argued that “Chris Wallace did not act as a moderator,” and added that “he didn’t hold [Trump’s] feet to the fire” in regard to the debate rules.

“He did not have control of the debate stage for much of the evening,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “[He] didn’t remind the president he was violating the rules until 1 hour and 13 minutes into the event.”

On the other side of the aisle, media-conservatives (including some of Wallace’s own Fox News colleagues) took aim at him for, in their view, working in concert with Biden.

Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade tweeted during the debate, “Why is @JoeBiden allowed to interrupt? @realDonaldTrump is not.” He added in a separate tweet (that has since been deleted), “Looks like 2 v 1 at times tonight.”

The Five’s Greg Gutfeld retweeted, and replied in agreement with, criticisms of Wallace from conservative blogger Stephen Miller… including this one:

…and this one:

Mollie Hemingway, a regular on Fox News’s Special Report, complained that the “candidates should have been allowed to debate.”

And Fox News regular, Dana Loesch, tore into Wallace throughout the night:

Wallace’s constant interruptions? Good grief.

It goes without saying that Wallace was in an extraordinarily tough position last night. As Geraghty wrote in his column, “no moderator ever faced a challenge like this before.”

The fact of the matter is that one of the debaters repeatedly violated the rules that both sides had agreed on, prior to the debate. Complaining about Wallace appropriately reining that debater in, and blaming him for the sh*t show we witnessed last night, is absurd.

Was Wallace perfect in the role? No. Throughout the chaos, as incessant cross-talk consumed the stage, I think there were times when he could have blown past Trump’s bluster and pressed Biden to answer certain unanswered questions (like he did with Trump). Of course, that’s easy for me to say, being that I wasn’t entangled in the pandemonium, and trying to restore order (while keeping one eye on the clock).

All in all, I think Wallace did a very good job, and much of the criticism he’s receiving is unreasonable. In fact, I’m not sure anyone else could have done any better under the circumstances.

Regardless of how frustrated one is with our viable choices in this presidential election, and the media’s often disproportional treatment of those choices, the fact of the matter is that last night’s completely unproductive debacle, during a very serious and sensitive time in our nation’s history, was caused by one person. And it wasn’t Biden or Wallace.

If you think what happened in Cleveland was bad for Trump, blame him.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!

The Art of Follow-Up Questioning

Being that Donald Trump has been president for more than three and a half years, and a politician for more than five, it’s rather remarkable that two of his most constructive (and talked about) interviews have occurred just within the past month. The first, with Chris Wallace, was aired on Fox News Sunday on July 19th. The second, conducted by Axios’s Jonathan Swan, ran just a couple days ago.

Typically, an interview with Trump falls into one of two categories:

If it’s done by a pro-Trump partisan, like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs, you might as well be watching a game of doubles sand volleyball, but with only one team on the court. The “interviewer” repeatedly sets up Trump for easy spikes over the net (at the names of his critics and opponents written in the sand) without Trump having to worry about the ball ever being returned.

Then there are his more challenging (but less frequent) ones, usually with mainstream journalists, who do push back against certain statements by the president, but are also inclined to let him go in any direction he wants to with his answers. They recognize that Trump’s particular brand of bluster makes for good television, and they’re often more interested in outrageous soundbites, and getting in as many questions as possible in their limited time with the president, than they are securing definitive, qualitative answers.

Both approaches are typically good for ratings, but they often fail to serve one of the key purposes of news journalism, which is to hold people in power accountable. It’s not always the interviewer’s fault. While Trump is rarely at a loss of words, he’s a tough interview in the sense that he’s overbearing, difficult to keep focused, and has no qualms with saying lots of dishonest and contradictory things (to the point that they’re hard to keep up with).

Wallace and Swan, however, seem to have figured out the right way to question this president. In fact, I’d say their interviews were more productive, and effective at holding him accountable to the American people, than probably any since Trump took office. The formula they used wasn’t even all that complex: they came extremely well prepared with the data surrounding the topics they would be raising, they studied up on Trump’s recent rhetoric on those topics, and then they fact-checked and drilled down into dubious assertions made by the president at the precise moment he made them.

In the Wallace interview, the most notable instance of this came when Trump claimed that his general election opponent, Joe Biden, wants to defund and abolish the police, and that he had said so in a “charter” he’d written with Bernie Sanders. This was a talking point that Trump and his team had already been using in press conferences and campaign ads. Wallace immediately pushed back on the claim, pointing out that Biden has, in fact, stated opposition to defunding the police. This led to Trump asking for a copy of the document in question, and after thumbing through it for a while, Wallace was proven right.

It was also in the Wallace interview that viewers were finally given a better understanding of the “very hard” (Trump’s words) cognitive test that our president had been bragging for weeks about “acing.” Trump had apparently asked to take the test (at Walter Reed) to shoot down concerns from his critics that he was mentally ill-equipped for the presidency. Some may even remember Trump saying that the doctors who administered the test were blown away by how well he’d done.

While most in the media had just kind of dismissed the crowing (perhaps believing the test didn’t even exist), Wallace actually did some research and found the type that Trump had taken. When Trump bragged again in the interview about passing it, and challenged Biden to do the same, Wallace revealed the test to be a handful of easy exercises that assess very basic human reasoning. In fact, the point of the test is to identify whether or not someone has dementia. In other words, it should have been “aced” by anyone not suffering from the disease.

The Swan interview was a more aggressive, with the Axios reporter not giving Trump an inch on just about any answer or assertion that didn’t pass the smell test.

When Trump, who strangely said back in June that he told his administration to slow down coronavirus testing, stated that “there are those who say you can test too much,” Swan called him out on it:

Swan: “Who says that?”

Trump: “Just read the manuals, read the books.”

Swan: “What manuals?”

Trump: “Read the books.”

Swan: “What books?”

Trump had no answers.

When Trump insisted that the U.S. government’s handling of the health crisis, when compared to other countries, should be judged by COVID-19 deaths as a proportion of cases, instead of as a proportion of population, Swan immediately challenged the narrative. As well he should have, being that Trump’s figure is reflective of the work of the doctors and nurses treating the infected… not the government’s mitigation efforts.

When asked about the intelligence on Russia paying (or offering to pay) the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, and whether Trump has brought up the matter with Vladimir Putin, Trump said he hadn’t because “many people” believed it to be fake news. When Swan asked him who, specifically, Trump had no names. When Trump said the intelligence had never even made it to his desk, Swan quickly pointed out that it was indeed included in one of the president’s daily intelligence briefings.

Swan used the same drill-drown approach on many more issues, including health-crisis messaging, the Tulsa rally, the possible contesting of November’s election results, conflicting views on mail-in ballots, the controversial comment about Ghislaine Maxwell, the violence in Portland (and the federal response), Black Lives Matter, the legacy of John Lewis, and more. The result was a sharper focus on the context and topics at hand (rather than a swirling stream of the president’s consciousness), and a proper accounting of Trump’s spin and falsehoods.

As far as I’m concerned, it was a public service.

That said, a journalist friend of mine did express a problem he had with Swan’s style. While he has no objection to tough interviews, he felt there was a lack of respect (which he sees from other young journalists) in the way Swan spoke to the president. Swan, many times throughout the interview, treated Trump more like a peer than our nation’s commander-in-chief, repeatedly talking over the president and reacting to his words with animated facial expressions. It’s a fair criticism, though I wasn’t particularly bothered by what Swan did, especially considering that Trump himself doesn’t place a lot of value in political decorum. Regardless, it’s definitely an element that distinguished Swan’s approach from Wallace’s.

The consensus among those who watched both interviews is that they were pretty brutal for Trump, not in the sense that they’ll necessarily change anyone’s mind when it comes time to vote, but in the sense that the president was made to answer for — in a way he rarely is — his efforts to mislead Americans on some rather significant issues. That’s a win not just for journalism, but also for the public.

I also think Trump should be given credit for talking to both men, who he knew to be much tougher questioners than the cheerleaders on Fox News prime-time, whose company he much prefers. When Trump and his supporters point out how Joe Biden hasn’t been talking to tough interrogators like Wallace and Swan, they’re making a valid point.

Ideally, with just a few months left until the election, both presidential candidates would be fielding hard, uncomfortable questions for the benefit of the American people. Let’s hope it happens, and happens soon.

Order John A. Daly’s novel “Safeguard” today!

Off the Cuff: Trump’s Spite for the News Side of Fox News

President Trump doesn’t like it when Fox News acts like a news organization. That’s the topic of my new “Off the Cuff” audio commentary.

You can listen to it by clicking on the play (arrow) button below.


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The Conservative Media Impeaches Taylor and Kent

President Trump’s impeachment hearings began on Wednesday, and after some fairly partisan opening statements from congressional leaders, we were introduced to the proceedings’ first two witnesses: William Taylor (our U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine) and George Kent (a deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs).

Both men were there by subpoena, and answered questions on what they knew of (and had previously expressed concerns over) the hold Trump placed on Ukraine’s security assistance, as well as the president’s controversial communications with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (Much of the Democrats’ stated basis for impeachment is the implication that the congressionally approved assistance was contingent on Zelenskiy digging up political dirt on Joe Biden).

Taylor and Kent seemed to quickly establish themselves as credible, highly competent individuals — men who’ve served their country honorably, and under multiple administrations. And early in their testimony, they even gave supporters of President Trump some nuggets to cheer for:

But as things continued, and the two described their concerns over the president’s irregular maneuvering (which included the firing of an ambassador, and Rudy Giuliani leading a politically-motivated “investigation” under the mantel of U.S. foreign policy), it became clear that their testimony was rather compelling…and potentially damaging to President Trump.

That didn’t stop some on the right from continuing to find bright spots:

Of course, pretending that this was an important exchange is rather silly. Ratcliffe’s question is a perfectly legitimate one when asked of the Democrats holding the impeachment hearings, but not of the witnesses. Taylor and Kent were subpoenaed fact-witnesses, called on to testify to what they know. They aren’t the ones pursuing impeachment, nor are they burdened with having to make that determination.

To Fleischer’s credit, he didn’t attack the credibility and character of the witnesses. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for some of his colleagues in the conservative media.

While the hearings were underway, Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, tore into Taylor and Kent, calling them “deep state” operatives and “professional nerds who wear their bow ties, and they have their proper diplo-speak.”

“These guys are simply ticked off that they were not listened to,” Limbaugh added. “They are ticked off that they were not heard… There hasn’t been anything but a bunch of self-important, narcissistic, ‘we run the world’ kind of guys really ticked off that they were ignored, that they were not listened to.”

This went on for some time. Here’s a little more:

“They are from a different world, and it’s a world where they think they are in charge. It’s a world they think they run. They don’t get to determine foreign policy. But in their world, they do. In their world, they are in charge of foreign policy. They believe in their own superiority. They believe in their own competence and importance with a complete cluelessness.”

For a little perspective, one of those “clueless” “self-important nerds” (as Limbaugh referred to him), who had the gall to express his concerns over what he believed to be improper government conduct, is a former captain and company commander in the U.S. Army, who voluntarily served in Vietnam. I’m talking about Taylor, who also happened to earn a Bronze Star and an Air Medal for valor.

Regardless, Sean Hannity shared Limbaugh’s sentiment on his own radio program:

“What you’re really watching are these nerdy guys that don’t know President Trump, never met with President Trump, that speak to the European Union ambassador, make interpretations out of his conversations that actually contradict his testimony, and obviously they have a level of self-importance that is just nauseating to me.”

Aside from the obvious takeaway — that it’s pretty darned funny for Limbaugh and Hannity to be calling anyone “nerds” — it’s interesting that they appeared to be reading from the same script.

Hannity, carrying that script over to his Fox News show, later called the two witnesses “self-important” and “uncompelling.” He said they “seem to care more about Ukraine-first policies than America-first policies.”

Mark Levin, a guest on Hannity’s show agreed, describing Taylor and Kent as “two homeless guys.”

On Tucker Carlson’s show, guest Christian Whiton called the witnesses “deep state crybabies” and said they “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.”

Carlson himself described them as “washed up bureaucrats.”

Fox News’s Chris Wallace had a very different take earlier in the day, saying that “William Taylor was a very impressive witness and was very damaging to the president.”

This royally upset frequent Trump defender, Sean Davis of The Federalist:

Yes, Davis, who prides himself as someone who exposes unfair media narratives, said that Chris Wallace, one of the most evenhanded national journalists we have, “is every bit as deranged with Trump hatred as the nuttiest guests on CNN or MSNBC.”

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

There’s a perfectly reasonable (and probably effective) argument to be made that what Trump did doesn’t rise to the level impeachment, and that the Democrats are pursuing this initiative for purely political reasons.  But as is often the case with the conservative media these days, it’s not enough to simply make such an argument. Anyone of notoriety who puts forth potentially detrimental information (or even detrimental commentary for that matter) on this president must be both discredited and burned at the stake.

This serves as a regular reminder that Trump Derangement Syndrome goes both ways, chronically suffered not just by those who can’t find anything right with the president, but also by those who can’t find anything wrong.

Megyn Kelly, on John A. Daly’s new novel, Safeguard.

Trump Slams Fox News for Disobedience

Last Sunday, Pete Buttigieg participated in a Fox News town hall in New Hampshire — the third installment of FNC’s televised forums featuring Democratic presidential hopefuls. The event was hosted by Chris Wallace and was held in a high school gymnasium where Wallace and members of the audience asked the Buttigieg a variety of questions.

Though the ratings for the broadcast haven’t been reported as of the time of this column, the program is sure to have pulled an impressive number, just as Bernie Sanders’ Fox News town hall did last month. Among that viewing audience was President Trump, who took to Twitter to express disappointment that his favorite news network had granted one of his political opponents a platform, thus doing a great disservice to its viewers:

Trump even took a personal shot at Chris Wallace for having the gall to pay Buttigieg a compliment, evoking the memory of Wallace’s dead father to emphasize his disapproval:

Of course, it’s nothing new for our president to use his Twitter account to attack political rivals (along with pretty much anyone of note who says less than flattering things about him), but what Trump does with tweets like these is discredit Fox News in a way that the network’s longtime critics could only ever hope to do.

Make no mistake about it. Trump is affirming that the network is in the tank for him, his administration, and his loyal supporters; which is the same case that FNC’s most vocal detractors have been making for quite some time. And by offering his political opponents an hour-long, respectful platform (from which to field questions, spread their messages, and criticize him), Trump feels betrayed.

Sadly, it’s hard to blame him.

After all, with the exception of a handful of news-driven programs like Special Report and Fox News Sunday, our president is reliably fawned over and reflexively defended every single day on FNC. The network’s commentary lineup used to offer a diverse range of views and perspectives (albeit most of them center-right) — including from the shows’ hosts who felt quite comfortable deviating from partisan talking points. But things have changed.

Today, most hosts and their regular guests act like they’ve vying for a spot on The Apprentice, competing for Trump’s approval and affection. And the president has become quite accustomed to the servility.

The weekend shows are even more sycophantic than what airs during the week, so when Trump tunes into the network on a Sunday evening and sees it behaving like a legitimate news institution, he’s understandably left with a sense of disappointment… and again, betrayal.

None of this is to say that Fox News doesn’t have a strong, credible, well-oiled news division. They do, and Chris Wallace is the cream of the crop. As Brit Hume pointed out, Trump is keenly aware of this:

The problem however, as Trump plainly illustrates, is that the network is overwhelmingly defined by its commentary shows that take up all but a few hours of each day’s programming. And those shows are so embarrassingly beholden to Trump that not even he can bring himself to accept the channel as a serious news organization.

People can argue all day long that the other cable news networks are just as embarrassing, and just as in the tank for partisans, and those people would be absolutely right. But Fox News used to be better than the rest… and they no longer are.

Trump’s tweets are a painful reminder of that.