NBC’s Holt Worked To Keep Control Of Debate

Lester Holt asked questions about job creation and home-grown terrorism in Monday's first debate, and also hit on specific issues regarding the birther controversy, Trump's decision not to release his tax returns and Clinton's email scandal. The sole journalist onstage, Holt was responsible for the questions asked and for steering the conversation.

NEW YORK (AP) — After initially taking a hands-off approach to the two strong-willed presidential candidates before him, NBC’s Lester Holt more aggressively challenged Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the general election’s first debate wore on and he warmed to the often-thankless role of moderator.

Holt asked questions about job creation and home-grown terrorism in Monday’s first debate, and also hit on specific issues regarding the birther controversy, Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns and Clinton’s email scandal. The sole journalist onstage, Holt was responsible for the questions asked and for steering the conversation.

While some Republicans rushed online to accuse the NBC News veteran of being unfair to their candidate, Trump himself praised Holt for his work.

“I thought it was great,” Trump said, adding that he thought Holt had done a very good job.

It was the NBC “Nightly News” anchor’s first general election debate, after doing a Democratic forum during the primaries. Holt has been NBC’s top anchor for more than a year, taking over from Brian Williams after Williams was caught lying about his role in news stories.


With an initial discussion about the economy and trade practices, Holt let the conversation flow and the candidates go after each other. It’s a strategy many debate moderators prefer but left him vulnerable to charges that he had lost control of the action. The first subject area that Holt introduced, intended to last for 15 minutes, stretched for nearly 45 minutes.

He constantly needed to remind the candidates to stick to time limits, which was tough when they decided to steamroll over him. At one point he said, “20 seconds” when Trump tried to make a point, but it stretched to 55 seconds before Holt could get in another question.

Later in the debate, Holt interjected some fact-checking, raising Trump’s ire in the process. That had been a major issue going into Monday evening, with the Clinton campaign arguing that fact-checking should be part of a moderator’s job and the Trump campaign saying it should be left up to the candidates.

Holt’s NBC colleague, Matt Lauer, was criticized for not challenging Trump at a forum earlier this month when the candidate said he had opposed the war in Iraq – when there is interview footage from 2002 that shows otherwise. The issue came up again Monday, with Trump saying it was “wrong, wrong, wrong” that he initially supported the war.

“I was against the war in Iraq,” Trump said.

Replied Holt: “The record shows otherwise.”

“The record shows that I’m right,” Trump argued.

When Trump advocated for the “stop-and-frisk” police policy, Holt told him that it was declared unconstitutional in New York largely because it singled out black and Latino young men.

“No, you’re wrong,” Trump said, adding that he believed the court decision would have been overturned on appeal.

Holt later brought up the issue of Trump’s questioning whether President Barack Obama had been born in the United States, and asked him what made him conclude this month that Obama was indeed a legitimate citizen. Trump twice did not address the question, and cut Holt off when he tried a third approach.

“What do you say to American people of color…” Holt started asking.

“I say nothing,” Trump replied.

Republicans criticized Holt after the debate for bringing up more issues that were damaging to Trump and ignoring issues that would have reflected more poorly on Clinton.

“Lester Holt clearly heard cries of his colleagues in the liberal media to be tough on Trump and ease up on Hillary loud and clear,” tweeted Brent Bozell, president of the conservative media watchdogs Media Research Center.

One media observer, columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, tweeted that “Lester Holt has done a fine job as moderator. Not too intrusive, moving things along, fact-checking when necessary.”

In a reflection of the attention paid to Holt, his voter registration became an issue last week.

“Lester is a Democrat,” Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview. “It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats.”

Holt, however, is a registered Republican, according to New York state voting records.

Asked about the misstatement on Monday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said on MSNBC that it wasn’t a lie because Trump didn’t know Holt’s voter registration.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz will team up to moderate the second presidential debate, with Chris Wallace of Fox News in charge of the third.

Comments (9)

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kendra campbell says:

September 27, 2016 at 8:01 am

Holt was a big disappointment – letting Trump get away with constant interruptions. Not a Lauer train wreck, but very weak and timid.

    John Bagwell says:

    September 27, 2016 at 9:31 am

    It is a difficult position to be in. If he were to do what you said, then he would be considered bias towards Hillary. If he doesn’t push Trump enough, then he is weak and timid. It is a lose/lose situation. Everybody wants the moderator to be biased towards their candidate.

Gene Johnson says:

September 27, 2016 at 10:30 am

He largely let Trump be Trump, including his interruptions. How the electorate will take all of Trump’s mannerisms, including the interruptions and sighs, remains to be seen.

Sergio Rataus says:

September 27, 2016 at 11:16 am

When exactly did Holt ask any question about e-mails? What a bunch of lies…Holt attacked Trump 5 times, assailed him on the birther issue, when it’s Hillary who first brought it up in the 2008 primaries, yet she gets a free pass and Trumop gets grilled? He was a business man she was a sitting Senator? Same with the Iraq War support where Hillary actually VOTED for it, but again, because Trump casually mentioned “why not” on Howard Stern HE gets grilled. Plus Holtcolpletely LIED about “Stop and Frisk” being “ruled” unconstitutional…only the Supreme Court can do that and it never made it there…BS Left-wing lies, over and over and over…who would EVER trust Democrats!

    John Bagwell says:

    September 27, 2016 at 11:31 am

    Exactly my point…BennyJets hates Hillary so he thinks that Lester was biased towards Hillary and too hard on Trump. jdshaw hates Trump and thinks Lester was too easy on him. It is a lose/lose situation for a moderator.

    Jack Steele says:

    September 27, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    Trump was the one who brought up the emails, not Holt.

Ellen Samrock says:

September 27, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Lester Holt is being referred to as the third debater because even in the supposedly neutral format of a presidential debate the bias came out. Holt relentlessly hammered Trump about the birther controversy, his tax returns, and his past comments about women while ignoring Clinton’s email scandal, lies she told about Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation pay-for-play controversy or the deception surrounding her health. Even when Trump brought up the topic of the emails and how certain members of Clinton’s staff pleading the fifth because of it, Holt glossed over it. Unfortunately for Trump, Clinton is a practiced debater who baited him. Despite the warnings from his coaches that this would happen, Trump took the bait and lost it.

Don Richards says:

September 27, 2016 at 2:04 pm

I thought that Holt did a good job trying to get Trump to answer a specific question. Candidates often ignore questions and launch into their personal agenda. My take was that Holt listened to the rants then simply repeated the question trying to get a relevant answer.

    Joe Adalian says:

    September 27, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    “Candidates often ignore questions and launch into their personal agenda” I may be completely wrong but Hillary’s comments on the first questions asked – about creating jobs – sounded more like take from the rich to make it all fine. Because, of course, they are evil. That won’t work here but it will sure keep politicians like her employed. At least Trump’s approach goes after actual jobs that have left the country. But that will put too many people here to work. And most of Hillary’s fan base don’t want that.

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