Less than 12 hours after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his campaign praised NBC’s Lester Holt for asking “very fair” questions during the first presidential debate, Trump walked back his support of Holt, stating that he asked “very unfair questions at the end” of the debate. Trump’s reversal echoed right-wing media figures who claimed Holt was tougher on Trump than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and argued that Holt should have brought up Clinton’s emails and the Clinton Foundation.
Trump Campaign Praised Holt Immediately After Debate
Trump: “Lester Holt Did A Great Job.” Immediately after the first 2016 presidential debate, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told CNN’s Dylan Byers that he thought Lester Holt did “a great job” moderating the debate and he praised the NBC host for asking “very fair” questions. From a September 27 CNNMoney article:
“I thought Lester did a great job. Honestly, I thought Lester did a great job,” Trump told CNNMoney shortly after the debate was over.
When asked if the questions had been fair, Trump replied: “Yeah, I thought it was very fair.”
Trump's positive assessment of the moderator was matched by his own campaign manager, who said Holt “did a great job as a moderator under tough circumstances,” as well as many media critics and observers on social media. [CNN.com, 9/27/16]
Trump Campaign Manager: “Lester Holt Did A Great Job … Under Tough Circumstances.” In an interview following the debate, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Holt “did a great job as a moderator under tough circumstances.” From the September 26 edition of CNN’s Debate Night in America:
JIM ACOSTA: Do you feel the debate was handled properly by the moderator? Do you feel that -- do you agree with the topics that were discussed and the questions that were asked? Are you calling into question the way the debate was handled tonight?
KELLYANNE CONWAY: I thought Lester Holt did a great job as a moderator under tough circumstances. Meaning you just have a worldwide audience of many, and the clash to the titans before you on the stage. There are many issues that did not get covered. I was glad that Mr. Trump raised Hillary Clinton’s email --.
ACOSTA: You're not questioning his handling of the job.
CONWAY: I already just said that he did a great job. So I don't need to repeat that. [CNN, Debate Night In America, 9/26/16]
Right-Wing Media Pan Holt’s Performance
Breitbart: Lester Holt “Shilled For Hillary Clinton At First Debate.” Breitbart News’ Joel B. Pollak called Holt a shill for Clinton, claiming the NBC anchor “bow[ed] to pressure from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the liberal media” when he fact-checked Trump. Pollack also criticized Holt for reportedly refusing to allow the crowd to cheer for Trump. From a September 26 Breitbart News post:
NBC News’ Lester Holt had his “Candy Crowley” moment at the first debate of the 2016 presidential election on Monday night, bowing to pressure from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the liberal media by “fact-checking” Republican nominee Donald Trump on the question of his support for the Iraq War.
Holt lived up to the expectations of his peers. But he lived down to the worst expectations of conservatives, who routinely see Republican candidates treated unfairly by debate moderators.
Again and again, Holt asked Trump tough questions that were straight from the Clinton campaign’s talking points, and which were obvious set-ups for Clinton to attack (and for fact-checkers to pounce on whatever Trump asserted in his own defense).
In addition, the audience repeatedly interjected — almost always in Clinton’s favor — and Holt did not stop them, though it was against the rules. He only stopped the audience when there were cheers for Trump calling for Clinton’s emails. Bow again, Lester Holt. You did your job. [Breitbart News, 9/26/16]
RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer: “There Was Clearly A Difference Between How Mr. Trump Was Treated” Versus Clinton. In an interview with Media Matters president Bradley Beychok, RNC communications director Sean Spicer claimed that Holt treated Trump and Clinton differently by Holt, saying “there was zero follow-up at her” and that the difference was “pretty striking”:
BRADLEY BEYCHOK: And were you happy with Holt’s performance tonight?
SEAN SPICER: With what?
BEYCHOK: Lester Holt’s performance as a moderator?
SPICER: Honestly, I think that for all the whining the Democrats did -- look I’m not -- there was clearly a difference between how Mr. Trump was treated and how [Clinton] was. That’s just -- I don’t think, there was zero follow up at her and there was no discussion of Obamacare, there was no discussion of the Clinton Foundation, there was really no discussion -- there wasn’t any single question about her emails. He asked her literally is there anything you want to add. It was pretty striking the difference. [Media Matters, Interview with Sean Spicer, 9/26/16]
NY Post: “Arguing With Trump Is Clinton’s Job, Not Holt’s.” New York Post’s Kyle Smith wrote an opinion piece claiming Holt doesn’t “know the meaning of impartial” because he got into “an unfortunate bickering match” with Trump over his support for the Iraq War. Smith claimed Holt put the Republican presidential nominee “on the hot seat” but offered no pushback to Clinton, effectively getting into a “tug-of-war” with Trump. From a September 26 New York Post piece:
The ref not only made himself part of the game on Monday night, he ran up to the scrimmage line, then sacked the quarterback three times.
In the early going, it looked like it was going to be an ideal, Jim Lehrer-style performance from Lester Holt, the NBC Nightly News anchor. Lehrer was so boringly nonpartisan, so unwilling to play gotcha that he was always hotly in demand to moderate debates. For the first half or so, Holt gave simple, broad, open-ended questions and let the candidates go at it. He didn’t venture into live fact-checking, didn’t much quarrel with the nominees, didn’t ask persnickety questions.
For the most part, Holt asked the kinds of basic questions that gave Hillary Clinton and Trump plenty of opportunities to repeat favored talking points: What would you do to pump some life into the job market? How would you heal the race divide? Are police biased against minorities? What’s your policy on homegrown terrorist attacks?
But in the last half of the show, Holt started going after Trump. He got into an unfortunate bickering match with the Republican nominee over the latter’s (apparently offhand) support for the Iraq War in a 2002 Howard Stern interview. It was perfectly reasonable to bring up the point, but the exchange became tiresome on both sides, with the two men talking past each other. Holt would have been wiser to simply say, “In 2002, you told Howard Stern you supported the Iraq War. Tonight you say you didn’t. Can you explain?” Arguing with Trump is Clinton’s job, not Holt’s.
Trump’s birther argle-bargle is something the media have shown far too much interest in given its relative non-importance, but it was also fair of Holt to give Trump a chance to put the question to rest in front of a large audience. Trump bungled the opportunity, but it was hardly an unfair topic to bring up given that questioning President Obama’s birthplace is how Trump became a national political figure in the first place, and given that Trump made a circus out of the matter just 10 days earlier.
Still, having put Trump on the hot seat on a couple of questions, and giving no such pushback to Clinton, Holt then got into a third tug-of-war with the GOP standard-bearer, demanding that Trump answer for his remark that Clinton didn’t have “the look” of a president. [New York Post, 9/26/16]
Wash. Times Rated Holt’s Debate Performance An “F.” The Washington Time’s Kelly Riddell gave Holt an “F” for his performance as debate moderator. Riddell said Holt got the message to “go after Donald Trump” but that “no independent minds have been changed” as a result of the first presidential debate. From a September 26 Washington Times article:
So the first presidential debate has concluded and the verdict is in: NBC News host and moderator Lester Holt got the message, go after Donald Trump. If you liked Mr. Trump before the contest, you probably think he withstood the fire just fine. If you preferred Hillary Clinton, she’s clearly the winner. Bottom line: No independent minds have been changed. Here’s the debate round-up, graded, from Mr. Holt and the candidates, to the school.
Lester Holt: F [The Washington Times, 9/26/16]
Fox Contributor Laura Ingraham: Holt “Kept Interrupting Trump,” And The Lack Of Questions About Clinton’s Foundation Was “Disappointing From Lester Holt.” While appearing on Fox News’ post-debate coverage, contributor Laura Ingraham argued that Holt “kept interrupting Trump” and lamented the fact Holt failed to mention “the Clinton Foundation. Nothing on pay to play. Nothing on Saudi Arabia,” which she called “disappointing from Lester Holt.” Ingraham concluded it “was obvious to the audience” that “Hillary got a lot more play and didn’t get the interruptions.” From the September 26 edition of Fox New's Post Debate Coverage:
MEGYN KELLY (CO-HOST): Laura, what did you think about the fact that there weren't any questions asked about Clinton Foundation?
LAURA INGRAHAM: Unbelievable, Megyn you took the words right out of my mouth. Lester Holt, and I always liked Lester, I used to work over at that network a long time ago. Always liked him, but did you notice he kept interrupting Trump, and rarely interrupted Hillary Clinton. Went after Trump of course on the tax returns which is not all that surprising. But nothing on the Clinton Foundation. Nothing on the pay to play. Nothing on Saudi Arabia. Nothing on the Russia-uranium deal. None of that was mentioned and I mean really nothing on Benghazi. Nothing on not being in the situation room. Maybe that will come in later debates, but I thought that was disappointing from Lester Holt and it was a little bit surprising for me because you know, I've known him throughout the years but I think that was obvious to the audience. Hillary got a lot more play and didn't get the interruptions and that is why I think you saw Trump interrupting a few times by saying, “No, that is not accurate. No. That is not right.” [Fox News, Coverage of the First 2016 Presidential Debate, 9/26/16]
CNN’s Corey Lewandowski: “Not Once Was The Word ‘Clinton Foundation’ Mentioned.” Former Trump campaign manager and CNN commentator Corey Lewandowski faulted Holt for not bringing up Clinton’s emails, the Clinton Foundation or Benghazi, despite bringing up Trump’s tax returns. Lewandowski called it a moderator’s “due diligence” to “raise the two largest issues in this discussion … Trump’s taxes and Hillary Clinton lying to the FBI.” From the September 26 edition of CNN's post-debate coverage:
COREY LEWANDOWSKI: What this debate was not about was an FBI investigation. Not once was the word “Clinton Foundation” mentioned in the 90 minute debate. Not once was the moderator bringing up the issue of emails. Donald Trump brought up those issues. Donald Trump brought up the issue of TPP, Benghazi, FBI investigation. Where is the issue of the Wall Street transcripts? Never discussed. Where's the issue of Hillary Clinton talking about the “deplorables” and what that means for all of the 14 million people who supported Donald Trump in the primary and those tens of millions of people that are supporting him today. None of the issues were discussed.
ANDERSON COOPER (HOST): Is that Lester Holt's failure in your opinion, or Donald Trump's for not bringing them up? Because Hillary Clinton seemed to be able to, whether she was asked about something, bring up an issue that was in her favor. It didn't seem -- which is clearly a matter of preparation, no?
LEWANDOWSKI: Well look, I think Lester Holt brought up the issue of the tax returns. Right? That was a statement, that was a question directed directly by the moderator to Donald Trump regarding his taxes. There was no question from the moderator regarding the Clinton Foundation or an FBI investigation. Not even a mention that a sit-down conversation took place with the FBI. I think that is a due diligence of the moderator to raise the two largest issues in this discussion, this debate, in this presidential cycle, which is Donald Trump's taxes and Hillary Clinton lying to the FBI. The moderator should have had the opportunity to raise at least both of those issues. [CNN, Coverage of the First 2016 Presidential Debate, 9/26/16]
HeatStreet: “Trump Faced Off Not Just Against Hillary Clinton, But Against … Holt.” Rupert Murdoch-owned HeatStreet called the first presidential debate a “game of two-on-one,” claiming Trump debated not just Clinton but Holt as well. The article slammed Holt for “grill[ing]” Trump on stop and frisk, taxes, and women while not asking Clinton about her foundation or emails. From the September 26 HeatStreet post:
At tonight’s debate, Donald Trump faced off not just against Hillary Clinton, but against moderator Lester Holt.
The game of two-on-one saw Holt ask no questions about:
- Hillary’s emails
- The Clinton Foundation
While ignoring these issues, Holt grilled Trump on stop-and-frisk, the birther story, his comments about women, his many bankruptcies, why he hasn’t released his tax returns — and a host of other issues the media sees as unfriendly to the Republican candidate.
Holt also repeatedly attempted to “fact check” on some of Trump’s positions, such as his claim to have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. Holt interrupted Trump several times to interject, but rarely succeeded (and may have come across as weak and impotent). [HeatStreet, 9/26/16]
Commentator Richard Grenell: Holt “Asked 3 Questions On Birtherism And Nothing On The Clinton Foundation”
NBC's @LesterHoltNBC asked 3 questions on birtherism and nothing on the Clinton Foundation.
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) September 27, 2016
Fox’s Howard Kurtz: “Nearly All Of Holt’s Followups And Fact-Checking Efforts Were Directed At Trump, Not Clinton.”
Nearly all of Holt's followups and fact-checking efforts were directed at Trump, not Clinton. Look for a big debate over his role
— HowardKurtz (@HowardKurtz) September 27, 2016
Trump Reverses Course, Repeats Right-Wing Media’s Critiques
Trump On Fox & Friends: “Lester Holt Gave Me Very Unfair Questions At The End” Of The Debate. On Fox & Friends Trump walked back his initial praise of Holt, saying he should have asked questions about Benghazi, emails and the Clinton Foundation instead of bringing up “45-year-old lawsuits” against him. Later during the interview Trump gave Holt a “C, C-plus” grade for his moderation, claiming that “he was OK … Nothing outstanding,” adding “he gave me very unfair questions at the end.” From the September 27 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
DONALD TRUMP: I brought it up pretty strong. I talked about it, I talked about pleading and don't forget, Lester should have brought up the emails. That should have been a question.
AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): What about Benghazi? And the Clinton Foundation --
TRUMP: Well, I would have liked to have done that but the questions were -- you know don't forget you are asked a question as to progress or as to something, and it's hard to get off to Benghazi sometimes the way the questions were framed. You start off at a totally -- the opposite of Benghazi, and so Benghazi can't get brought up, but it was a very interesting evening. I thought it was good. I thought Lester was really good for the half, because he was bringing up general and main subjects that were important. You know, things like the economy. And then in the end, I mean, they start bringing up 45-year-old lawsuits.
STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): And what grade you give Lester Holt?
TRUMP: I’d give a C, C-plus. I thought he was OK. I thought he was fine. Nothing outstanding. I thought he gave me very unfair questions at the end, the last three, four questions, but I'm not complaining about that. I thought he was OK.