HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. ― Lester Holt didn’t go the Matt Lauer route.
While the “Today” show host faced heavy criticism earlier this month for failing to challenge Donald Trump’s persistent lie at a presidential forum that he was a staunch opponent of the Iraq War, Holt pointed out during Monday night’s debate that the Republican nominee had actually been on record supporting the war.
Trump didn’t accept the fact-check, calling it “mainstream media nonsense.” The Republican nominee ― who has claimed there are 25 different stories proving he was anti-war and yet has been unable to produce one ― said Monday night that he voiced opposition to the war during private, off-air conversations with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
The biggest critique of Holt one could make ― and some did on social media ― was that he was too hands-off. However, moderators try to avoid becoming the third debater on stage, and instead force the candidates to spar with one another. There were moments, especially early on, that Holt could have been more forceful in maintaining order. But he also wisely used his discretion to keep the debate going at times instead of sticking to the somewhat arbitrary 15 minutes allotted for each segment.
Trump said after the debate he thought Holt “did a great job,” but some members of his team suggested otherwise.
“I wouldn’t say he was unfair. It was just obvious,” said national press secretary Katrina Pierson. “When we had the crowd admonishment, it was only when they cheered for Donald Trump.”
“Lester did OK,” senior adviser Boris Epshteyn said. “Yes, he followed up with Donald Trump much more than he did with Hillary Clinton and he did to a degree succumb to pressure from the liberal media and the left because of the blowback Matt Lauer got. It probably played a role.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani went as far as to suggest Trump not attend any further debates because of the moderator’s performance.
The debate du jour in media and political circles over the past few weeks has been whether the journalist moderator should also serve as fact-checker if necessary. On several occasions, Holt stepped into that controversial role.
For instance, Trump suggested he could not release his tax returns because he was under IRS audit, thus breaking a four-decade tradition of presidential nominees disclosing their returns to the public.
Holt pointed out that Trump’s excuse, which the candidate only began using in February, doesn’t prevent him from releasing his returns. Next, Trump suggested he’d release his tax returns against his lawyers’ advice if Clinton released all the emails from her time as secretary of state.
“So it’s negotiable?” Holt asked, effectively pointing out that Trump’s audit excuse is just that. “It’s not negotiable, no,” Trump said, again asserting he’d release the returns in exchange for the emails.
In one memorable exchange, Holt challenged Trump’s recent claim that he put the issue of President Barack Obama’s birthplace to rest when the president revealed his birth certificate in 2011. The Republican nominee actually kept fueling the racist lie that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii for five more years in interviews and on social media.
Still, Trump refused Monday to acknowledge he kept pushing the birther conspiracy.
And when Trump touted the effects of stop and frisk policing in New York City, Holt followed up to point out the tactic was “ruled unconstitutional” because it “largely singled out black and Hispanic young men.”
Trump said Holt was “wrong” and that a “very against-police judge” had adjudicated the case.
While Trump may not want to accept the facts, Holt deserves credit for pointing them out.
Sam Stein contributed reporting.