PoliticsMatt Lauer Going Soft Will Now Make the Debates Harder for Trump
If Trump can barely squeak by Lauer's softball questions, he is going to have a real tough time during the actual debates.
The Clinton campaign—not to mention every sentient human being whose last name isn’t Trump or who doesn’t draw a paycheck from someone with that last name—is angry at Matt Lauer for his handling of last night’s primetime “commander-in-chief” presidential forum.
It wasn’t that the NBC news anchor wasted ten of the 30 minutes allotted to questioning Hillary Clinton with multiple queries about her email practices—so that when, for instance, an audience member got around to asking Clinton to describe her plan to defeat ISIS, Lauer had to cut in to remind the candidate, “As briefly as you can.” It was because Lauer allowed Donald Trump to walk all over him. When Trump repeated his demonstrably false claim that he opposed the Iraq War, Lauer didn’t bother to challenge him—and in response to every one of Lauer’s vague, softball questions about whether Trump was prepared to be commander-in-chief, the candidate produced a word salad of fact-free boasts and bombastic pronouncements.
But that’s not the only good news for the Clinton campaign. Yes, they’re pissed at Lauer now, but he actually may have done Hillary a favor last night. That’s because, thanks to his awful performance, the four news anchors who will be moderating those three Trump-Clinton debates—NBC’s Lester Holt, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and Fox News’s Chris Wallace—will almost certainly not repeat Lauer’s mistakes. That’s potentially bad news for Trump.
Wallace caused a bit of a stir last week when he said of his debate moderator role, “I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad.” But, after last night, it’s now hard to imagine Trump, say, repeating his false claim that he opposed the Iraq War and Wallace—or any other debate moderator—not calling him out on that.
The problem for Trump, though, won’t be truth-squading so much as the kinds of questions the debate moderators will likely ask him. Learning from Lauer’s poor example, they’ll be specific rather than general and they’ll repeat the question if Trump doesn’t answer. Granted a two-candidate debate is quite unlike a one-on-one interview, but if the moderators want a template for how to ask—rather than not ask—questions of Trump, they should check out this interview CNN’s Jake Tapper did with him in June.
Before last night, the ghost hovering over the 2016 presidential debates was Candy Crowley, who after famously fact-checking Mitt Romney during one 2012 debate, became the focus of unwanted attention and later lost her job at CNN. It seemed likely that the 2016 moderators would go out of their way to avoid Crowley’s fate. Now the cautionary tale is Lauer—and the 2016 moderators are probably now thinking to themselves that they could do a lot worse than following Crowley’s example.
Jason Zengerle is GQ's Political Correspondent