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Kristen Welker’s Debate Dilemma

Trump has too many crimes, misdeeds, and failures to cover in 90 minutes.
October 22, 2020
Kristen Welker’s Debate Dilemma
Student volunteers stand in for President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during rehersals for the second presidential debate at the Curb Event Center on the campus of Belmont University October 21, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are scheduled to square off for the final debate, 12 days before Election Day. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald Trump didn’t do very well at the first debate. He was irascible and boorish and, well, pretty much just a dick. Dan Bongino liked it. Voters didn’t.

The ensuing days didn’t go much better. The president contracted the novel coronavirus from a superspreader event at his own White House, was hospitalized, dramatically returned from to the White House with some freak-show Mark-Burnett-meets-Mussolini vibes, held a petulant town hall with Savannah Guthrie where he defended QAnon, and then went back on the campaign trail for the “Oh No . . . Not Another 20 years of Donald Trumpcontagion tour.

In between all that, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris held a debate that was only really notable thanks to the appearance of a fly.

This is all just in the last three weeks. It is impossible to keep up.

And therein lies the real problem that the debate moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, faces tonight: No mortal can cover all of this president’s grotesqueries and atrocities in just 90 minutes.

Don’t believe me?

Well after two debates—debates in which President Trump and Vice President Pence were largely on the defensive—they managed to avoid being asked about some of the most egregious actions of their administration.

The unconscionable gassing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square has not been mentioned.

Neither has the monstrous separation of migrant children from their parents at the border, nor how hundreds of these innocent children have still not been reconnected with their families.

They have not been asked about the pernicious lie that they have spread about their campaign being spied upon by President Obama.

Or about Trump leading a racist chant demanding that four women of color, three of them born in America, “go back” to where they came from.

They have not been asked about the president’s stated belief—based on Vladimir Putin’s word—that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election and that the president trusts Putin over our own intelligence services.

Nor have they been asked about the fact that they ran cover for Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Washington Post contributor.

They haven’t been asked about why Mexico isn’t paying for the wall.

Or how foreign interests are paying Trump businesses.

The president hasn’t even been confronted about an issue as fundamental as Parkland and how he hasn’t followed up on his promise to address gun violence in schools.

I could go on, but you get the point.

This is all part of the implicit biases that have favored Trump ever since he came down the escalator. Jonathan Chait aptly describes Trump as having been held to a “more forgiving standard than any modern president.”

And yet rather than adjusting how he’s treated to meet the challenge, the established structures—in politics and the press—have tended to roll over or accommodate Trump while he lambastes them and depicts himself as a victim.

This same old song and dance is happening ahead of tonight’s showdown.

Trump is “working the refs,” smearing moderator Kristen Welker and complaining about the topics for the debate. And his work is working.

The debate commission changed the rules and decided to mute each candidate’s microphone when the other is giving two-minute answers. This change is liable to help Trump, protecting him from his worst impulses and making him seem like less of a child. Meanwhile Trump is complaining about it, hoping to lower expectations or obtain further accommodations. It’s a win-win.

As for the topics, Welker is limited by the broad categories approved by the commission, which will preclude narrow questions about Trump’s behavior. On top of that, the usual conservative commentators have joined the president in claiming “unfairness” before she has uttered a word. Under these pressures, it is simply human nature for her to try to ensure some “balance” in the types of questions. And the prism through which many pundits and voters view the debate will be judging whether she is fair to him. Once again Trump wins.

The good news is that the reason Trump and his butt boys have to commit so much time to pre-fighting on the atmospherics is because they know that if the debate is about his actual record, he’s playing a losing hand.

He needs to be graded on a curve to even have a chance.

The only challenge for Welker is deciding which of his crimes and failures don’t merit a mention.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.