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Sophia Tesfaye

Trump's town hall stunt backfires

Donald Trump made the wrong choice when he refused to appear for a virtual face-off against Joe Biden.

NBC News was nothing short of reckless in its pursuit to offer the president a platform to continue to promote his dangerous lies even after contracting COVID-19. As Salon's Melanie McFarland wrote, NBC executives' decision to fall back on their long history of providing Trump a national audience "is terrible for democracy." So given the grim state of American media, it's notable that Trump's panicked play to refuse a second debate against the former vice president may have backfired.

A sweaty and often out of breath Trump floundered on his stool under the bright studio lights and accompanying Miami weather Thursday night. While he looked almost suspiciously triumphant over his recent COVID diagnosis, a relentless grilling from moderator Savannah Guthrie certainly didn't do him any favors — at least outside of his already secured base whose Pavlovian disgust for the media was undoubtedly reinvigorated.

Guthrie's past experience working with disgraced "Today" show host Matt Lauer may have prepared her well for managing a most unruly Trump. More than merely moderating questions from would-be voters in the audience, Guthrie was quick to offer relevant follow-ups and fact checks. She was often able to pin down the president's familiar pattern of interrupting the preamble to a question, talking about whatever he wants, pretending the interviewer is interrupting him when she tries to finish, then moving on to the next question. She was prepared and pointed, delivering the grilling I suspect many anti-Trump voters found reassuring.

There was a missed opportunity for Guthrie to work with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the moderator of Biden's debate which aired at the same time, to have coordinated questions and give voters the debate they were deprived of in a roundabout way — but, alas, television is a business.

With no other reporter to go to, Trump struggled to dodge Guthrie's follow-up questions. In twenty minutes of questioning before turning to the first town hall attendee, Guthrie got Trump to admit that he wasn't tested for COVID before the debate, that he has more than $400 million in foreign debt and that he doesn't read his own retweets. The best part was when she backed him into simultaneously failing to disavow a dangerous and growing conspiracy theory while also disappointing its rabid believers whom he counts as his most fervent supporters.

"Let me ask you about QAnon," Guthrie, a trained lawyer, opened. "It is this theory that Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring, and that you are the savior of that. Now can you just once and for all state that that is completely not true and that –"

Trump interjected: "I know nothing about QAnon ... I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard. But I know nothing about it."

If you've seen even one video testimony from a QAnon devotee, you understand how incredibly deflating Trump's non-denial must feel. This comes the same week that Attorney General Bill Barr admits that he can't deliver John Durham's report on the origins of the Russia investigation before the election. Trump offering his base such dejection this close to Election Day can't be mobilizing.

Clicking away to Biden on ABC offered quite the contrast.

Biden did his best to appear rational and bipartisan, even if he was a bit rambling and evasive in his answers. If you answer questions honestly, however, the opportunity for the Guthrie-sort of grilling vanishes. For that reason, the boring feel of the Biden town hall helped sell him as presidential. That he stuck around and conducted an impromptu, unscripted Q&A further undermines the right-wing push to paint Biden as having dementia.

Ultimately, however, we all lose.

Trump showed himself to be a glib, shameless liar. And that's nothing new. Guthrie's grilling certainly played right into his "liberal" media complaints. But he again spread the lie that masks do not help stop the spread of the coronavirus and with more than 200,000 dead Americans, we're in danger every time he's able to talk to an audience.

This is why we should just cancel the remaining 2020 debates


Wednesday night's debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris — the first and only vice presidential debate of this campaign — actually changed my mind about the 2020 election.

After last week's disastrous joke of a debate between former vice president Joe Biden and President Trump, I somehow remained onboard with holding the remaining debates as scheduled, if for no other reason than to allow Americans a sense of normalcy and order in what has otherwise been a chaotic and upending year.

Yeah, no. "Normal" is what landed us here. Trump's announcement on Thursday morning that he would not participate in next week's town-hall debate with Biden, after the debate commission announced plans to hold it remotely, may actually be a blessing. (If the president can be counted on not to change his mind, which of course he cannot.)

In the event, both "debates" to this point have been pathetic. No one actually answers questions, and the moderators have shown no will to actually moderate. More specifically, the matchup between Harris and Pence will be remembered for its historical first — with the first Black woman and first Asian-American on such a debate stage, embodied in the same person — but perhaps even more so because it should never have occurred.

As PressWatch and Salon columnist Dan Froomkin wrote ahead of Wednesday's debate, Pence's "very presence [was] an affront to public health guidance the rest of the country is supposed to be following." The vice president's reddened left eye didn't help buttress CDC Director Robert Redfeld's absurd claim that Pence couldn't be considered a "close contact" of President Trump, who confirmed he had tested positive for COVID-19 after his debate with Biden last week, giving Pence the all-clear to appear on the debate stage in Salt Lake City.

Top brass at the Pentagon are quarantining after at least two high-ranking military officers tested positive for the coronavirus in the past week. More people in Trump's orbit have tested positive in that time period than in all of Taiwan. Still, second lady Karen Pence insisted on appearing inside the debate hall maskless, and the vice president posed for pictures in definitively close contact with former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker — of course, without a mask.

Even though debate moderator Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief, opened on the topic of the coronavirus, the question was pointed first at Harris. When the question of whether the White House was being remotely honest about Trump's medical condition was posed to Pence, Page allowed him to filibuster and what-about his way out of an answer. Like the trained politician he is, Pence was able to adeptly weave most of his non-answers back to his push to confirm right-wing jurist Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. As a recent poll showed a 15-point margin in favor of confirming Barrett, the hard push seems to be working with voters, perhaps the only real bright spot for Republicans in recent political news.

Of course Pence lied — profusely. As with his boss, the vice president's penchant for untruths is a given. But Page, a frequent panelist on Fox News' "Special Report With Bret Baier," somehow did an even worse job at attempting to hold the candidates to account than Fox News' Chris Wallace did last week. She brought up foreign policy, only to ignore Afghanistan days after a sobering new report about children of U.S. service members replacing their parents on the battlefield.

Page brought up the possible or likely reversal of Roe v. Wade in a manner that allowed Pence to evade the answer, on the same day it was reported that the specialty drug cocktail Trump received as part of his COVID-19 regimen includes an antibody treatment first tested using cells derived from an abortion procedure, exactly the sort of stem-cell science Pence has attempted to shut down on the federal level. The issue of immigration was ignored and LGBTQ rights were never mentioned — the second time for a vice presidential debate featuring Pence, who as governor of Indiana signed anti-trans legislation into law.

For her part, Harris evaded the question of whether a potential Biden administration would "pack" the Supreme Court (that is, expand it) — and that provided the most promising moment for progressives of the whole night.

Even as she was obviously trying to walk a Biden-esque middle road on issues like tax hikes and fracking — Pence correctly observed that she opposed the latter during her own presidential campaign — Harris avoided the trap of unequivocally backing away from expanding the high court in response to Republicans' likely confirmation of Barrett. That question is a purely political ploy, staged by people who all gave straightforward answers on filling an election-year opening, and then unanimously broke their promises. After all, Republicans still haven't explained how they plan to provide Americans with health insurance if they succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act. (How many times, exactly, as Trump promised a "great plan"?) The pseudo-issue of "court-packing" is simply a demand that Democrats give up their leverage. Harris correctly turned the question around to Mitch McConnell's brutal remaking of the federal courts by stuffing them with underqualified right-wing white men.

Otherwise this debate was worse than useless.

Harris was supposed to prosecute the case against Trump, but couldn't get a straight answer out of Pence. It was noteworthy that Pence was the only one who brought up impeachment.

The pair of running mates agreed on too much for my comfort, perhaps fueled by Pence's unctuous politeness. It reminded me how inhibited by their donors Democrats remain. Too often, Harris sold an upcoming Biden administration as Republican-lite.

On tax hikes, Harris reminded us that the Biden plan raises the rate to $400,000 from $250,000 under Obama. On fracking, Harris, who formerly supported the Green New Deal legislation authored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., was left to brag about the inadequacies of Biden's climate plan. While this is a function of Electoral College politics, the notion that you have to defend the environmentally devastating process of fracking to win Pennsylvania isn't backed by the most recent polling, or even by the general trend line. An August CBS/YouGov poll of Pennsylvanians found that a majority of voters now opposes fracking, and more recent polls in the Keystone State appear to show that opposition is growing.

If Trump's intransigence means the remaining debates are scrubbed, that will stand as one of his few positive accomplishments. At least that means no more people will be infected by the reckless president and his entourage.

Here's why Chris Wallace blew it

Ihate to say, "I told you so," so let me just say: Elizabeth Warren told you so.

So did Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee. Both rejected offers from Fox News to host political events during the 2020 Democratic primary, a town hall in Warren's case and a candidate debate for the DNC.

"A Fox News town hall adds money to the hate-for-profit machine. To which I say: hard pass," Warren plainly stated. And while he claimed "Chris Wallace isn't my concern," Perez correctly identified that "at the highest levels of Fox News they" — meaning right-wing ideologues — "have infiltrated the news side." Perez had to defend his decision to Democrats at the time, but Chris Wallace's hapless performance as a presidential debate "moderator" on Tuesday evening may have finally made clear that Fox News is not an honest media broker. Not one host from the network can be trusted to present facts outside the requisite right-wing narrative.

It's easy to feel for Wallace. At no point during that rage-inducing national embarrassment did Donald Trump allow the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign to play out as planned, at least according to what Wallace repeatedly reminded the president were the mutually agreed-upon rules. Wallace lost control in the first 90 seconds and Trump ran roughshod over him for the next 90 minutes.

"I'm the moderator of this debate and I'd like to ask my question," Wallace pleaded with Trump at one point.

The host of "Fox News Sunday" told The New York Times earlier this week, "If I've done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, 'That was a great debate, who was the moderator?'" Wallace not only failed to meet his own low standard of uselessness, he actively aided Trump by peddling dangerous misinformation and pushing modulated versions of the same right-wing narrative deployed by Trump, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

Despite Trump's day-after complaints, for much of Tuesday's debate it was clear that Wallace simply let the president moderate. "If you want to switch seats, we can do that," Wallace offered Trump a little more than an hour into the debate. Wallace repeatedly interrupted Biden to ask Trump questions. He then permitted Trump to keep talking over Biden without cutting him off, and allowed lie after lie to go unchallenged. Much too late, Wallace tried to exert some control, but he rarely, if ever, succeeded.

To be fair, no moderator deemed acceptable to the Trump campaign would conceivably have the chops to rein in the president. That would defeat his whole debate strategy. Indeed, I'd predict that Wallace will eventually be graded the highest of the three presidential debate moderators after CSPAN call-in host Steve Scully and NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker get their turn.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, the idea that either of them "can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially." On Wednesday, the the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it may do just that: "Last night's debate made clear additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the commission said in a statement, adding that it is "considering the changes" and will "announce those measures shortly."

But what was even more troublesome than Wallace impotently shouting "Mr. President!" in exactly the way I ask my 10-month-old to not put every single thing he picks up into his mouth was the frame and premise Wallace deployed for several of the night's most serious topics.

On police violence and the ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, the Fox News host portrayed the issue as nightly riots by the protesters — rather than nightly violence by police. People have assembled in Portland to protest police violence every night and cops have responded by brutalizing them. Wallace didn't mention the Trump supporters driving down the streets following a pro-Trump rally, shooting random people with paintball guns and pepper-spraying them. Wallace brought up antifa — all-purpose right-wing bugaboo of the moment — but made no mention of the men who traveled to a Walmart in El Paso and a synagogue in Pittsburgh to carry out what they interpreted as a mission of violent racial animus supported by the president.

Even if Wallace deserves plaudits for pressing Trump to denounce white supremacists, we wouldn't even be in this situation if Fox News and the right-wing media hadn't spent decades and billions of dollars promoting hate. Trump's most rambling monologues on Tuesday night were hard to follow for anyone not completely immersed in the Fox News conspiracy universe.

Right after his horrific call-out to the Proud Boys, Trump declined an invitation to call for restraint following the election, calling instead for his supporters to show up as an intimidating force at the polls. Wallace then just let him go on unabated, making groundless allegations about election integrity.

When Wallace asked Trump why he insisted on holding campaign rallies in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump falsely said all of his rallies had been outdoors. Wallace simply replied: "You are right." Wallace also tried to get Trump to shut up by promising him a softball: "You'll like this next question."

Give Wallace credit for asking a climate change question, the first in a presidential debate since 2008, and almost getting an answer. But he failed as a moderator because Fox News can't be trusted when the network's entire motive is propaganda. The network even ran Trump campaign propaganda after the debate. Wallace's own colleagues won't defend him from Trump, even in the next hour, because they rely on Trump and his viewers.

And no, Bernie Sanders, who famously held a Fox News town hall, would not have fared better. Although Sanders' Fox appearance was widely perceived as successful (he got wild applause for mention of Medicare for All), the Fox News website posted no viral clip of Sanders explaining why health care is a human right. Instead, his answer to a gotcha question about why he didn't personally cut a check to the IRS if he wanted higher taxes was weaponized for wide dissemination. Media's fake commitment to "fair and balanced" goes beyond Fox News. It is killing people and our democracy.

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"President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," McConnell vowed shortly after it was reported that Trump is expected to announce his choice within days. "In the last midterm election before Justice Scalia's death in 2016, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because we pledged to check and balance the last days of a lame-duck president's second term. We kept our promise. Since the 1880s, no Senate has confirmed an opposite-party president's Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year."

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Like the seasoned reality TV star that he is, President Trump is again creating a spectacle that distracts the masses from the nearly unbearable triple threats posed by a deadly pandemic, a downward-spiraling economy and emboldened agents of the state terrorizing the nation. Every single day, Trump claims he's done something he hasn't and will do something he cannot. Every few weeks he signs a nonsensical or illegal executive order so he can have a ceremony and pretend he's governing. Meanwhile, 156,000 Americans have died dead while he claims things are getting better every day. Republican recalcitrance — despite what the Trump administration claims — stands to materially harm millions, with the aim of benefiting the party electorally.

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