In the sea of takes over who won the debate last night, it's almost hard to remember that one question dominated pre-debate commentary: will Lester Holt fact-check the candidates?
"The moderator shouldn't sit there like a potted plant while a candidate says something that is obviously inaccurate," PolitiFact editor Angie Holan told Poynter a few days ago. At about the same time, a staffer in the know told CNN that "Lester is not going to be a potted plant."
So, which was it? With Donald Trump surrogates spinning Holt's interventions as "ignorant fact check," we take a more dispassionate look at major moments where the moderator could have or did intervene on matters of fact.
In honor of political fact-checkers' whimsical rating scales, we will grade Holt with the newly minted Potted-Plant-O-Meter (™ - not really). Ignoring an easy fact check will get three potted plants (🌱🌱🌱), while vigorously intervening will get a fallen leaf (🍂). Find the full context of the exchanges mentioned below in the transcript annotated by NPR here.
On China's alleged climate change hoax
Hillary Clinton accused Trump of thinking climate change is "a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese," to which the Republican candidate interjected "I did not. I do not say that."
Holt could easily have quoted the tweet back to Trump in a follow-up question. While Trump has described that tweet as a joke, the exchange would have highlighted Trump's tendency of making boisterous claims and walking them back unfazed.
On trade deals and the gold standard
On the topic of trade, Trump attacked Clinton heavily. Trade was a key differentiating issue between Bernie Sanders and Clinton. And in this all-round anomalous election, the Republican is far less pro-trade than the Democrat.
So, a fact check on this topic would have provided viewers at home with clarity on an important topic. In particular, the candidates got in an argument about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Trump said Clinton "called it the gold standard." She hedged and following his repeating the claim, Clinton replied "No. Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are, I did say, I hoped it would be a good deal."
Clinton did actually say in 2012 that the TPP was the gold standard. Her position evolved, and it is true the deal was agreed after she left office.
But a follow-up question by Holt, noting that she said those words and asking what made her change her mind would have been a good way to highlight this inconsistency. Holt probably felt Clinton partly addressed that and perhaps dragging on the topic wouldn't have reduced the spin. But it did feel like a lost opportunity.
On tax returns
Trump made it seem at first like he wasn't releasing his tax returns because he was being audited. "I’m under a routine audit. And it will be released. And as soon as the audit’s finished, it will be released."
Holt did not miss a beat. And, despite Trump's pivot to trade in his answer, he pressed the candidate again, saying "You're perfectly free to release your taxes during an audit. And so the question does the public’s right to know outweigh..."
The moderator made a point of fact, didn't belabor it, and brought the conversation back to a crucial unanswered question of this campaign. To quote no one in particular, this would be a "gold standard" for low-key debate fact-checking.
On the invasion of Iraq
Ignoring Trump's flip-flop on Iraq in a pre-debate forum — rightly or wrongly, given Hillary Clinton's own position on the war — not only led to Matt Lauer being skewered almost universally by media watchers.
It was in good part the reason why there was so much pressure on Holt to fact-check himself. So when the moment arrived, Holt was thankfully prepared.
Mr. Trump, a lot of these are judgment questions. You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion.
I did not support the war in Iraq. That is a mainstream media nonsense put out by her because she frankly — I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.
My question is, since you supported it, why is your judgment…
I was against the war — wait a minute, I was against the war in Iraq.
The record shows otherwise.
It seems to an outsider that Holt wanted to use the minimum number of words possible in interjecting, to avoid accusations of overstepping his role. By not wavering, he led Trump to explain by himself that he had made a passing remark to Howard Stern about it, which is the case. His subsequent claim that he told Sean Hannity many times wasn't worth picking a fight on.
On crime going up and down
This is another key dividing issue of the campaign, with one candidate vowing to "Make America Safe Again" and the other reticent to disavow the track record of the eight years of Democratic administration. Last night, Trump and Clinton sparred on whether murders were up or down in New York City. Clinton also said that "violent crime is one half of what it was in 1991; property crime is down 40 percent."
With public concern about crime at a 15-year high, showing some actual numbers would have been helpful and important. Grossly simplifying, crime has fallen historically over most of Obama's term, but there seems to be a reversal in the latest available data in some big cities (for more see fact-checking here and here).
In a dream scenario, Holt would have put up both the long-term trend line of violent crime and the latest numbers. He would have said to the candidates, "While crime has fallen for much of the past decade, recent data have some concerned we could be on the verge of a reversal. In light of these statistics, what do you propose to do?"
Granted, telling viewers that crime has gone down and up would have taken some time, which Holt did not seem to want to take from the candidates. Still he could have introduced more facts in the debate, but chose to move on.