The presidential candidates will take the stage at University of Nevada, Las Vegas Wednesday for the 25th and, mercifully, last debate of the 2016 election. It’s the third time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet, and given how far off the rails their second matchup went – Trump loomed menacingly behind Clinton throughout, in a style one of his surrogates later likened, favorably, to that of a Silverback gorilla – the moderator has an especially critical role this time around.
For one thing, Trump is even more embattled than he was before. Way down in the polls (an average of seven points, according to Real Clear Politics), he’s been abandoned by a succession of high-profile Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain, and left to face an onslaught of sexual assault allegations without the full support of his party behind him. He’s not taking it well, either: The GOP nominee has spent the last several days complaining the election will be “rigged” at rallies and on Twitter.
It’s safe to assume there will be fireworks during the last 90 minutes Trump has to change a majority of Americans’ minds about him. Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday, meanwhile, will have the challenge of trying to maintain order as Trump presumably tries to burn the whole place down.
Some have speculated that Trump, who complained of moderator bias in both previous presidential debates, had an advantage this time around in the fact that he received help preparing for the debates from Roger Ailes, Fox News’ CEO – and Wallace’s longtime boss – until he was ousted in August over a torrent of sexual harassment claims. According to a report on Wednesday, Trump and Ailes are no longer speaking.
Wallace, the first Fox News host to moderate a general election debate in the network’s history, earned wide praise for his sharp questioning of Trump during Fox News’ Republican primary debate. For that, Wallace had full-screen graphics made in advance illustrating the absurdity of Trump’s promises that he could eliminate the deficit by disbanding the EPA and Department of Education (cuts that together would amount to less than one sixth of the deficit) and save $300 billion on Medicare drug costs when actual spending was just $78 billion.
“Mr. Trump, your numbers don’t add up,” Wallace memorably scolded Trump.
Wallace deserves only some of the credit for the display, according to New York magazine. He and his two co-moderators reportedly received a directive from Rupert Murdoch, CEO of Fox News’ parent company, News Corp, to kneecap Trump’s candidacy at the debate. “A few days before the first GOP debate on Fox in August 2015, Murdoch called [recently ousted Fox CEO Roger] Ailes at home. ‘This has gone on long enough,’ Murdoch said, according to a person briefed on the conversation. Murdoch told Ailes he wanted Fox’s debate moderators – [Megyn] Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace – to hammer Trump on a variety of issues,” Gabriel Sherman reported earlier this month.
Wallace will be on his own this time, though. Fox News, the network owned by Murdoch, was responsible for producing the primary debate. General election debates are different: All three are produced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and each moderator is solely responsible for the content of his or her questions.
Wallace has indicated that he will take a different tack than he did in the primary. He’s not interested in challenging the factual basis of either candidates’ claims, as he recently told Fox’s Howard Kurtz. “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. I certainly am going to try to maintain some reasonable semblance of equal time,” Wallace said.
Wallace reiterated that position in an interview with fellow Fox News host Bret Baier. “If I think there’s a need for me to intervene, I will. But I would prefer not to. Basically, you’re there as a timekeeper,” Wallace recently told Baier. “But you’re not a participant. You’re there just to make sure that they engage in the most interesting and fairest way possible.”
He added, “And I take it very seriously. It’s not a TV show that we’re doing.”
Trump, meanwhile, appears intent on treating the debate like a sweeps week series finale. The Republican seated three of Bill Clinton’s accusers in the front row of the second debate in an apparent attempt to psych out his opponent. His campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, confirmed to CNN the Republican nominee would be attempting a similar stunt on Wednesday: He’s inviting the mother of soldier who died in Benghazi, President Obama’s half-brother Malik (inexplicably) and at least one other “surprise” guest.