Donald Trump took on the two moderators of Sunday’s presidential debate almost as avidly as he assailed his opponent Hillary Clinton, repeatedly needling them and at one point implicitly calling them unfair.
“It’s nice,” Trump said sardonically at one point, after moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN interrupted him. “It’s one-on-three here.”
At another point, moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News appeared to debate Trump, replying to his critique of U.S. military announcements preceding invasions of enemy strongholds. “There are sometimes reasons the military does that,” she said.
Both Cooper and Raddatz repeatedly interrupted Trump in an effort to get him to respond directly to questions asked by audience members and by the moderators themselves, or to to keep him within time limits. Barely halfway through the 90-minute event at Washington University in St. Louis, the Republican National Committee — in an evident effort to criticize the moderators — emailed reporters that Raddatz and Cooper had interrupted Trump 14 times to only three for Clinton.
Moments after the email was sent, Cooper interrupted Trump to admonish him to stop interrupting Clinton because she hadn’t interrupted him.
Unlike the first presidential and vice-presidential debates, Sunday’s showdown featured a town-hall format that was designed to play down the moderators’ involvement. By design, half the questions came from undecided voters in the audience, with the other half chosen by Raddatz and Cooper from a list submitted by readers online. The moderators were permitted to ask follow-up questions.
Despite rules favoring the public, Cooper and Raddatz nevertheless played a prominent role. Cooper followed up the opening question from an audience member by reminding Trump of his lewd comments about women in a 2005 tape from the “Access Hollywood” TV show that leaked Friday.
“You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women,” Cooper asserted. “Do you understand that?”
Soon after, Raddatz tried to bring Trump back to the topic after he deflected the matter. “When you walked off that bus at age 59, were you a different man, or did that behavior continue?”
Trump repeated that his discussion on the tape, which included comments about grabbing women’s genitals, was “locker-room talk.” He quickly steered the discussion toward an attack on Bill Clinton’s behavior toward women.
After Trump criticized Clinton for deleting 33,000 emails from her private server while she was secretary of state, Raddatz recounted her use of the server and asked her bluntly, “You don’t call that extremely careless?”
But Cooper and Raddatz soon assumed their roles as timekeepers and referees as Trump hectored Clinton while she answered, and Clinton repeatedly exceeded her allotted time. Cooper admonished Trump, “Please allow her to respond. She didn’t talk when you talked.”
Trump then turned on Cooper. “I’d like to know why you didn’t bring up the emails, Anderson,” he said.
When Cooper said the issue had already been raised, Trump replied, “It’s nice. It’s one-on-three.”
Trump also chastised Raddatz. Asked if his ban on Muslim immigrants was still his policy, Trump responded by noting that Clinton voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Raddatz interrupted him and asked him to respond to the question.
“Why don’t you interrupt her?” he shot back. “You interrupt me all the time.”
He later complained to Raddatz, “She went a minute over [in her answer] and you don’t stop her. When I go one second over, it’s like a big deal.”
Raddatz, who has specialized in foreign and military reporting throughout her career, attempted to pin Trump down on his approach to ending the civil war in Syria. “Tell me what your strategy is in Syria,” she asked several times.
Trump ignored the question and criticized military announcements of pending actions, as against Islamic State-held Mosul in Iraq.
Raddatz interjected that “there are sometimes reasons the military does that,” including as psychological warfare against the enemy.
Raddatz previously made waves as a moderator during a Democratic primary debate in December when she pressed Clinton to elaborate on her plans for a no-fly zone in Syria. “So would you shoot down a Syrian military aircraft or a Russian airplane?” she asked.
This was Cooper’s first time moderating a presidential debate, although he did handle the job at a Republican primary town-hall event in March. During that event, after Trump defended his retweeting of a nasty comment about Ted Cruz’s wife, Cooper admonished him, “But, sir, with all due respect, that’s the argument of a 5-year-old.”
Cooper also moderated the first debate of the Democratic primary last year, wherein he noted Clinton’s changing positions on several issues and pointedly asked her, “Will you say anything to get elected?”
Trump presaged his attitude toward Cooper in an interview with The Washington Post last month: “I don’t think Anderson Cooper should be a moderator because Anderson Cooper works for CNN, and over the last couple of days, I’ve seen how Anderson Cooper behaves. He’ll be very biased, very biased.” he said. “CNN is the Clinton News Network, and Anderson Cooper, I don’t think he can be fair.”