Fox News played a key role in Donald Trump’s ascension to the Republican presidential nomination. Now one of the network’s hosts, Chris Wallace, is preparing to moderate tonight’s final debate of the election cycle.
Trump used regular appearances on Fox to build a political following during and following his 2011 birther crusade. During the Republican primary, the network gave him more than double the interview time of any other candidate, regularly providing him a friendly venue to speak to its conservative audience. In recent months, Trump has retreated almost completely to Fox News, with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the network’s Fox & Friends hosts providing virtually all of his national TV interviews.
The Commission on Presidential Debates responded by granting a Fox employee a coveted role as a presidential debate moderator for the first time in the network’s history.
As Media Matters and others have pointed out, Wallace has a massive conflict of interest. Over the summer, Fox News founder Roger Ailes was removed from his position as network chief following allegations from dozens of women that he had engaged in a pattern of workplace sexual harassment. Following Ailes’ resignation, Wallace praised him as a mentor and personal friend. Ailes is now reportedly advising both the Trump campaign and Wallace’s boss, Rupert Murdoch.
Wallace’s defenders have cited his tough interview style and the “grilling” he gave Trump during the Republican primary debates. Media Matters has at times highlighted tough questions that Wallace has asked Republicans on his Fox News Sunday program. But in recent interviews, Wallace has explicitly said that he has no intention of providing such a forum tonight, claiming that the proper role of a moderator is as a “timekeeper,” not a “truth squad.”
Given the constraints Wallace says he has placed on himself -- and his network’s history of conservative misinformation -- here’s what we expect to see at tonight’s debate.
With No Moderator Fact-Checking, Trump Has Free Rein To Lie With Abandon
The only way for viewers to get accurate information when Trump is a participant in a debate is for the moderator to “fact-check him” “in real time.” That’s what Wallace said after the Fox host deployed a series of pre-made graphics about some of Trump’s most common lies during a March primary debate.
Wallace is right. Trump lies constantly, in a manner unprecedented for a presidential candidate. If he lies on the debate stage and the other candidate is the only one prepared to respond, viewers will be left without a clear answer on matters of simple fact.
But since being named a general election moderator, Wallace has changed his tune. Asked last month how he would respond if the nominees “make assertions that you know to be untrue,” Wallace replied, “That's not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It's up to the other person to catch them on that.” He later added that such “truth squading” is “a step too far.”
Trump will benefit from this stance, which is likely why he praised Wallace’s comments.
Trump Will Run Wild If Wallace Just Acts As “A Timekeeper”
The last two debates have seen the moderators stretched to their limits as they tried to get Trump to answer their questions and he evaded them and countered with seemingly endless tangential attacks on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump doesn’t have to worry about that this time. Wallace said during a Sunday interview that as a moderator, “you're there as a timekeeper, but you're not a participant. You're there just to make sure that they engage in the most interesting and fairest way possible.”
If that’s the case, we could see a version of Trump completely unhindered by any restrictions, at a time when he’s shown a willingness to descend to the most conspiratorial depths.
Wallace’s Questions Will Set Up A False Equivalence Between Clinton And Trump
Wallace has decided that one of the six 15-minute debate periods will be devoted to the issue of each nominee's “fitness to be president.” This will likely involve both Clinton and Trump fielding questions from the moderator about issues that suggest they are not fit to be president.
This sets up a classic false equivalence trap.
Trump is an unprecedented major party nominee. He has received support from white nationalists; called for an unconstitutional Muslim ban; issued racist attacks on Mexican immigrants; fomented violence against protestors and the press; shown little interest in policy or the constraints of the presidency; and operated a foundation as a self-dealing scam. He has a long history of failed business ventures that left everyone else holding the bag, and he is currently responding to allegations of sexual assault from at least 10 women by declaring that a massive conspiracy by the media, as well as unsubstantiated voter fraud, are all that can keep him from the presidency. He has drawn opposition from numerous Republican and conservative leaders as well as newspaper editorial boards that have supported every GOP nominee for decades.
Meanwhile, Clinton is a well-known politician with decades of experience in public service who has drawn scrutiny from the press regarding her email setup and foundation.
If Wallace devotes equal attention to the “fitness” of both candidates, he cannot help but mislead his audience.
Wallace Will Bring Up Benghazi
It seems overwhelmingly unlikely that the first Fox News-hosted presidential debate will ignore the topic that has consumed that network since 2012: the attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. Fox has sought to keep the “scandal” alive with myth after myth for too long to let it go on the biggest possible stage. Indeed, after the first debate, Wallace’s colleagues complained that the the terror attack hadn’t come up.
There Will Be No Mention Of The Elephant In The Room
It should be impossible for Wallace to avoid asking Trump about the many women who have come forward over the past 10 days and said that the 2005 video of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was consistent with their experiences with the GOP nominee.
But one factor is unlikely to come up: the Trump campaign advisor who was forced out of his previous job after dozens of women came forward to say that he had sexually harassed them. The founder of Wallace’s place of employment. The man Wallace called “the best boss I’ve had” and said he “loved” and for whom he has shed tears. The man who built the conservative media infrastructure and modern Republican Party in which a man like Trump could claim the nomination. Roger Ailes.