The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump campaign has figured out how to exploit debate moderators’ fear of fact-checking

Moderator Elaine Quijano opted not to live fact-check Tuesday's vice-presidential debate (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)
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Donald Trump's running mate just handed him a playbook for victory in the next two presidential debates: Say whatever you want — true or not — because the moderator probably won't be able to fact-check everything.

The consensus among political commentators is that Mike Pence got the better of Tim Kaine in Tuesday's vice-presidential debate. An instant poll of registered voters conducted by CNN gave Pence the win, 48 percent to 42 percent. Yet Pence did well by ignoring basic facts about Trump. He got away with it because he spoke with confidence — and because moderator Elaine Quijano didn't correct him.

Mike Pence spent most of the vice-presidential debate defending a Donald Trump that doesn’t exist

Whether Quijano should have blown the whistle on Pence is a debate in itself.

Veteran moderators Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer have said fact-checking should be left to the candidates, in most cases. And the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the events, discourages moderators from intervening. “I don't think it's a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Janet Brown, the commission's executive director, told CNN in September. “And I think it's better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit.”

Thus you had exchanges like this one, in which Kaine accused Trump of encouraging nuclear proliferation:

KAINE: More nations should get nuclear weapons. Try to defend that.
PENCE: Don't put words in my mouth. Well, he never said that, Senator.
KAINE: He absolutely said it. Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan.
PENCE: Most of the stuff you've said, he's never said.
QUIJANO: Gentlemen, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and has provided crucial military support to the Assad regime. What steps, if any, would your administration take to counter these actions? Senator Kaine?

What a perfect encapsulation of the evening. Kaine would make a claim about Trump, Pence would deny it, and Quijano would move on to another subject without weighing in. The cycle repeated itself over and over.

For the record, here is the reality of what Trump has said about nuclear proliferation, as explained by The Washington Post Fact Checker:

Trump has, indeed, said that countries like South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia should have nuclear weapons because nuclear proliferation is inevitable. Trump has said that countries like Japan and South Korea would be “better off” if they were armed with nuclear weapons, in order to defend themselves from North Korea. And Trump said he considers nuclear weapons a last resort, though he would not “rule anything out” regarding their use.
For example, during a CNN town hall in March, Trump was asked: “So if you said, Japan, yes, it's fine, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?”
Trump answered: “Can I be honest with you? It's going to happen, anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”

It's easy to second-guess Quijano and argue that she should have tried to referee the dispute between Pence and Kaine, but such a fact-check would have required a lengthy interruption to read Trump's previous remarks — assuming she had them memorized or on her desk — and surely would have outraged the Republican presidential nominee's supporters, who undoubtedly would have said Trump was merely acknowledging an unpleasant reality, not gleefully endorsing the spread of nuclear weapons.

And here's the thing about Trump: He is a master of crafting provocative statements that are ever-so-slightly open to alternative interpretations, making it difficult for journalists to report what he meant with 100 percent certainty.

Another example from the VP debate: Kaine repeatedly accused Trump of saying Putin is a “better” leader than President Obama. Pence denied that Trump has said any such thing. The word Trump actually has used is “stronger.” Strong is good, right? Strong is better than “weak” — a word Trump often uses to describe Obama — right? It is logical to conclude that what Trump means is that Putin is better than Obama. But he hasn't said exactly that.

It would be difficult, therefore, for a moderator to jump in with a cut-and-dried fact-check. And this year's moderators are almost certainly mindful of what happened in 2012 when Candy Crowley tried to fact-check Mitt Romney on Obama's characterization of that year's attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Romney said Obama failed to call the attack an “act of terror” right away; Crowley disputed the claim. The problem for Crowley was that the president's words on the day after the attack could reasonably be interpreted different ways. In an address from the White House Rose Garden, Obama talked about Benghazi, referred to 9/11 and said “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” Crowley clearly thought Obama was putting Benghazi in the “acts of terror” category, but others thought he was simply talking about terrorism, in general, and not putting a label on what happened in Libya.

Moderators don't want to invite the onslaught of criticism that Crowley faced four years ago — and the debate commission doesn't want them to serve as live fact-checkers, anyway. The conditions are perfect for Team Trump.

Post reporter David Weigel asked Trump's deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, whether Pence made a conscious decision to “lie about old quotes.”

That's not exactly a no from Bossie. Whether distorting the truth was the strategy Tuesday or not, it worked for Pence. And it's a strategy Trump could emulate Sunday, when he takes on Hillary Clinton again.