Holt kept control of the session despite periodic testy flare-ups between the candidates. At one point, Trump, the Republican nominee, talked over one of Holt’s questions as he went on a tangent about Clinton’s policy proposals and the ISIS terror organization. But Holt barreled through and kept the debate on pace and held the candidates to their two-minute response time limits.
Going into the debate there was much discussion about the role of the moderator as a fact-checker of the candidates’ statements. The perception about that obligation was heightened over the weekend when the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers published reports detailing numerous misstatements of fact and misleading claims made by Trump during the course of his unorthodox campaign.
Holt challenged Trump directly on a handful of issues but was not particularly aggressive in questioning either candidate. Holt’s most forceful question came with the confrontation about Trump’s “birther” claims for years that President Obama was not born in the United States and thus not legally eligible to be president.
“What took you so long,” he asked Trump flatly regarding the candidate’s recent public acknowledgement that Obama was in fact born in the U.S. Trump did his best to turn the tables on the question.
“I was the one who got him to produce the birth certificate,” Trump said.
Holt pressed Trump again about why he continued to raise the question of Obama’s citizenship even after the birth certificate was made public. “I just want to get the answer here,” Holt said.
Holt’s queries ranged from economic and trade policy to security concerns, the threat of cyber attacks to the state of race relations and policing in America. He challenged Trump’s assertion regarding the effectiveness of New York City’s stop-and-frisk law allowing police broad leeway in detaining people they suspect of criminal activity. Holt corrected the candidate in telling him the law had been struck down as unconstitutional by the courts.
Holt made little attempt to referee between Clinton and Trump as they sparred on issues and more personal matters, including Trump’s questioning of whether Clinton had the “stamina” to be president. At one point, Trump hammered his view that the “mainstream media” had sided with Clinton, a broad-brush categorization that presumably would include Holt and NBC News. But Holt did not push back.
In closing, Holt thanked the candidates for a “spirited debate” as he brought it to a close right down to the second. “We’ve covered a lot of ground,” although not as much as he’d hoped, Holt told the audience.
Predictably, Holt’s performance brought mixed reviews from both sides of the partisan divide. Criticism of the media’s questioning of the candidates has been a persistent theme during the 2016 campaign. On the first of three planned Clinton-Trump showdowns, Holt played it right down the middle.
Here’s a sampling of reaction on social media to Holt’s work as moderator:
We need to get better moderators. Lester Holt and former moderators are so passive exerting no control.
— reggie watts (@reggiewatts) September 27, 2016
Lester Holt has done a fine job as moderator. Not too intrusive, moving this along, fact-checking when necessary. #debates
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) September 27, 2016
Why didn't Lester Holt insist that he answer one question? Why?
— Ellen Barkin (@EllenBarkin) September 27, 2016