Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was surprised by the ugly contentiousness of the first 2020 debate between President Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, on Tuesday, but he believes the clash still offered viewers plenty of insights about the two candidates.
"Obviously It was not the debate I had planned for, and to that degree I was disappointed," Wallace, 72, said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Times. "I think debates are about revealing what [the candidates] think. You certainly gained an insight into Donald Trump and what he's thinking and where he wants to take the country and how he wants to take the country there. To that degree I thought it was a success. It may not have been pretty, but it was revealing."
The chaos caused largely by Trump's frequent interruptions led TV pundits and social media to describe the debate as the worst in American history. Wallace weathered criticism over his efforts to control the proceedings, although some analysts said it was a lost cause with Trump at one of the lecterns.
Wallace said he was initially encouraged when Trump and Biden exchanged views on whether to put forward a Supreme Court nominee before the election. He believed the candidates could have a freewheeling exchange instead of "parallel press conferences" that debates can turn into. But that hope was short-lived.
"My initial reaction was, 'This is great. They're going to go at it, and I can take the evening off,'" Wallace said. "But you know, it became clear at a certain point that the president wasn't planning to back off and was going to keep interrupting throughout the evening."
The evening did elicit a moment that could go down as one of the most stunning answers in presidential debate history.
Wallace offered Trump the chance to denounce white supremacist groups — something the president has been under pressure to do since he said in 2017 that there were "good people on both sides" following a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Trump did not take that opportunity, and his comment that one right-wing group, the Proud Boys, should "stand back and stand by" was immediately adapted as a rallying cry on social media. Members of the administration tried to rationalize the president's remarks throughout the day.
"I think people will read into that what they want to," Wallace said. "What was clear to me was he was given a direct opportunity several times by both me and by the vice president to call out the Proud Boys and white supremacists and he refused to do so."
Overall, Wallace said Trump's behavior on stage at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland became an obstacle in questioning both candidates.
"While I do think that there was a lot of worthwhile stuff in the debate, I had really prepared for a serious policy discussion," Wallace said. "The interruptions got in the way of a substantive discussion of serious issues and follow-ups to those issues. I thought it wasted a lot of time."
Wallace found Trump's willingness to keep interrupting "curious" after it became apparent that Biden, prone to making gaffes in his public appearances, was not going to be rattled by the strategy.
"Trump never went to Plan B," Wallace said. "He just stayed on Plan A the entire evening, and I don't think it served him especially well."
After the debate, Biden came up to Wallace and whispered in his ear: "I bet you didn't think you were signing up for a boxing match." Trump nodded to Wallace but said nothing to the moderator before exiting the stage.
Wallace was also attacked by Trump on Twitter, accusing the moderator of siding with Biden. The barbs did not come as a surprise.
"Have you been around the last four years?" said Wallace, whose journalism is cited for its evenhandedness among the conservative commentators who drive the large ratings delivered by Fox News.
Wallace, who anchors the weekly Washington roundtable program "Fox News Sunday," said he received accolades from his colleagues at Fox News and its parent, Fox Corp.
Lachlan Murdoch, executive chairman and chief executive of Fox Corp.; Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media; and Jay Wallace, president of Fox News Media, gave a Champagne toast to Wallace and his team at the airport before they departed from Cleveland.
"Lachlan Murdoch came from California to Cleveland for the debate, and we had a talk afterwards, and he could not have been more supportive of the job I did," Wallace said.
Wallace's presence as moderator helped give Fox News the largest audience of any network for the debate, with 17.8 million viewers. Around 73 million viewers watched across all of the networks that carried the event, according to Nielsen, a significant drop from the 84 million who watched Trump's first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Commission on Presidential Debates also praised Wallace's performance, but announced it will consider changes to the formats in the next two meetings between Trump and Biden, scheduled for Oct. 15 and 22.
“Last night’s debate made clear that 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. “The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
Wallace was skeptical of some of the adjustments he has heard the commission is considering, such as cutting off a candidate's microphone or altering speaking time if an interruption occurs.
"The idea that you're going to cut off their microphone — that's a pretty tough call," Wallace said. "I certainly wouldn't have wanted to make it, so on a practical level I wonder if that's going to work. It just it strikes me as a bridge too far."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.