In a debate that went back and forth between charges and countercharges by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many experts wondered when moderator Lester Holt would step in.
Holt stayed largely on the sidelines as debate moderator, reserving his interjections for fact-checking questions on Trump’s statements regarding the invasion of Iraq, birther claims and “stop and frisk” policies
“Hello moderator, are you there?“ Karen Hinton, former spokeswoman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter.
Pundits said Holt was forced to walk a fine line, urged by Democrats to act as a fact checker, and by Republicans to let the two candidates debate. But Holt did save his interjections for several key issues as Clinton called for “fact checkers” to weigh in.
Holt picked up on whether Trump supported the Iraq War before the 2003 invasion.
Holt’s NBC colleague Matt Lauer was hit with withering criticism after a previous military town hall for not challenging Trump’s assertion that he never backed the invasion despite telling Howard Stern in 2002, “Yeah, I guess so,” when asked if he supported it.
Holt’s question led to a testy exchange with Trump, when the moderator tried to correct Trump’s assertion that he never supported the war.
“You supported the war in 2002,” Holt said as Trump denied the claim and blamed the mainstream media.
“The record states otherwise,” Holt said.
After the debate, Trump shook hands with Holt and later told reporters, “Lester Holt did a great job.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates said Holt’s job was not necessarily to keep time, but “to drill down on issues.”
“That thud you heard was the sound of my knees buckling at a potential audience of 100 million people,” Holt said before the debate. “As you can imagine, this is not an easy job.”
In many cases, the candidates spoke over him and he struggled to regain control and stay on topic before moving on. Holt also struggled to control the audience, which he admonished for applauding during the first mention of Clinton’s emails.
Several Clinton campaign staffers and former Obama advisers, including Dan Pfeiffer, praised Holt’s work and said he did a good job.
Clinton campaign manager John Podesta said Holt fact-checked the debate and the birther issue. He questioned if Trump would still agree to the two remaining debates.
Several conservatives criticized Holt for not further pressing Clinton on issues like her emails and the Clinton Foundation.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump supporter, said Clinton didn’t answer for her 30,000 emails.
“Lester Holt didn’t hold her accountable for it,” Christie said.
Trump also bluntly cut off Holt in some of his questioning, such as on “stop and frisk,” when Holt corrected him by noting the practice was found unconstitutional because of racial profiling.
“You’re wrong,” Trump told Holt, arguing that de Blasio failed to appeal the ruling.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani blasted Holt after the debate for questioning the legality of the practice and said Trump should stop doing debates with moderators who challenge him.
“What’s he doing interfering? Hillary Clinton should be the one correcting Donald Trump, not a journalist,” Giuliani told reporters after the debates. “If I was Trump, I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised the journalist agreed to act like a journalist and not an ignorant, incorrect fact checker.”
Holt also asked Trump about his previous statements questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Trump said he put the issue to rest by admitting Obama was born in the United States, but was unable to answer Holt’s follow-up questions asking why he continued to raise the issue for four years after Obama produced his Hawaiian birth certificate in 2011.