NBC News anchor Lester Holt took a largely passive role Monday as the moderator of the first presidential debate of 2016, staying in the background as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump traded verbal blows on the economy, race relations and national security.
From the start, Holt's role was itself under debate. Clinton's camp urged him to call out any inaccurate or false statements by Trump as they occurred during the debate. Trump argued that such an approach would interrupt the proceedings and introduce potential bias. He has advocated doing away with the moderator altogether.
Several times, Holt asked both candidates to answer the same question in turn, a strategy that seemed designed to create an even chance for the two rivals. He began by asking both, “Why are you a better choice than your opponent at creating jobs that will put more money in workers’ pockets?”
Holt may have been mindful that posing different sets of questions to the candidates could foster the sort of criticism that dogged his NBC colleague, Matt Lauer, after his moderation of recent town-hall interviews. Lauer devoted a significant part of his interview with Clinton to her deleted emails but ignored a number of controversies in questioning Trump, drawing outrage from Clinton's supporters.
Holt declined to call out Trump's assertion early in the debate that Ford Motor Co. was "leaving" the country; Ford, in fact, is opening a new plant in Mexico, but the company isn't closing its domestic factories. Instead he simply asked Clinton to respond to Trump's claim.
The moderator also didn't referee Clinton's statement that Trump had called climate change "a hoax" perpetrated by the Chinese. Trump himself objected to this repeatedly, interrupting Clinton to do so. Trump actually did make such a claim.
Throughout the debate, both candidates repeatedly talked over Holt’s attempts to rein them in. At several junctures, Trump simply ignored Holt’s efforts to get him to cede the microphone to his opponent.
Holt, who replaced Brian Williams as the anchor of "NBC Nightly News" last year, also had to navigate the subtle gender dynamics of the Clinton vs. Trump meeting — the first in U.S. history in which a woman is the nominee of a major party. He seemed to be mindful that pushing Clinton too hard might be interpreted as badgering and sexist by her supporters. Trump had argued that Clinton would be treated with excessive deference because she is a woman.
But Holt dug in from time to time, too, and seemed to push harder on the Republican businessman.
In a discussion about Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns, he asked the nominee, “Does the public’s right to know [about your tax returns] outweigh your” personal privacy?
When Trump said he would release his returns when Clinton releases the 33,000 emails deleted from her private server as secretary of state, Holt responded, “So it’s negotiable?”
Holt eschewed long preambles and kept his questions short and direct. At one point, during a discussion of race relations, he asked Trump simply, “How do you heal the divide?”
Holt said, "Stop and frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York. . . . The argument is that it's a form of racial profiling." Trump disputed that it was unconstitutional; in fact, it was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.
Holt also followed up on Trump’s assertion that he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“The record shows otherwise,” Holt said.
Trump rolled over Holt’s attempts to pin him down and quickly segued to a boast that his temperament is superior to Clinton’s.
The moderator's questions hopscotched across numerous topics during the 90-minute debate, held at Hofstra University in New York. Among others, he prompted discussion about income inequality and job creation, outsourcing, tax cuts, Trump's apparent reversal on "birtherism;" cybersecurity; terrorism; and nuclear weapons proliferation.
But he avoided or had insufficient time to ask about a host of other important issues: Supreme Court nominations, Social Security, gun control, abortion, student loans, military affairs and health care, especially the Affordable Care Act.
Nor did he address such matters as how the two candidates make decisions, how they would work across the aisle as president, or what role their spouses would play in the White House.
He didn't ask Trump about his string of inflammatory comments about Muslims, Mexicans, women and the disabled; his favorable comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin; his relationship, if any, to the white supremacist movement; his treatment of the news media; or how he would resolve potential conflicts between his personal business interests and his responsibilities as president.
Clinton escaped direct questioning about her role in the aftermath of the Benghazi terrorist attacks while she was secretary of state; her private email server and deleted emails during her time in office; or her "deplorables" comment.
Trump has made the moderator of the debates an issue from the beginning of his campaign. He publicly criticized Fox News host Megyn Kelly for the questions she asked in the first Republican candidates’ debate nearly 14 months ago. His complaints about Kelly prompted him to boycott a debate sponsored by Fox News before the Iowa caucus in January.
The audience for Monday's debate, the first of three, may exceed the record of 80.6 million viewers who watched the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. Monday's debate was carried live on the major broadcast networks and cable networks such as Fox News and CNN, and streamed live on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, among others.