The Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, whose tough grilling of Donald Trump in a one-hour interview last month was must-see TV, has been named as one of the moderators of the three presidential debates this fall, along with Steve Scully, the political editor of C-Span, and Kristen Welker, the White House correspondent for NBC News. Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, will moderate the vice-presidential debate.
In 2016, when he presided over the third debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Wallace, the son of broadcasting legend Mike Wallace, was the first anchor from Fox News ever to moderate a presidential debate. He received strong reviews from longtime political observers and even rival journalists. Wallace “delivered a sterling performance,” said CNN, “focusing on substantive issues that matter to American voters.” The New Yorker’s then TV critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted, “Gotta say, Chris Wallace is a pro. Cool demeanor, asking clear follow-ups.” The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens tweeted near the debate’s close, “So far the winner of this debate is Chris Wallace.” Even the author Stephen King weighed in, tweeting, “Chris Wallace did a good job. Taking no shit, like a veteran teacher monitoring detention hall.”
Of course, the person who won that 2016 election and is now in the White House may not be thrilled to see Wallace in the moderator’s chair when the first debate occurs on September 29 at Case Western University in Cleveland. Over the past three years, Wallace has emerged as Trump’s least favorite anchor on Fox News. In a brutal Fox News Sunday interview with the president in July, Wallace pressed Trump as few Fox journalists have, even fact-checking him in real time when the president made misleading or outright false statements.
It was also the first time that Trump brought up the now infamous “People, woman, man, camera, TV” cognitive test, saying he had “aced” it. Wallace, 72, responded he had also taken the test after reading that the president had done so. “It’s not the hardest test,” he said. “They have a picture, and it says ‘What’s that,’ and it’s an elephant.”
“Trump’s interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace was a painful affair from start to finish,” a columnist for the Washington Post wrote afterward. “Wallace is always a good and tough interviewer, unlike the Fox opinion hosts Trump frequents, and he is always prepared, but this was on another level.”
And Wallace has been a frequent target of Trump’s tweets in recent years, even before that interview. “Just watched Mike Wallace wannabe, Chris Wallace, on @FoxNews,” the president tweeted in April. “I am now convinced that he is even worse than Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Meet the Press (please!), or the people over at Deface the Nation. What the hell is happening to @FoxNews. It’s a whole new ballgame over there!”
Unlike in past years, there will be only one moderator at each of the debates, not a panel of journalists, a reflection of the coronavirus pandemic and the need to maintain social distancing. It’s not clear yet if there will be an audience or not (though “not” seems the likeliest scenario). Earlier, two of the announced sites, Notre Dame and the University of Michigan, decided to drop out because of concerns over holding a debate in the middle of a pandemic.
The second debate, to be moderated by Scully, will be held on October 15 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, and the third, moderated by Welker, will be on October 22 at Belmont University in Nashville. The vice-presidential debate, to be moderated by Page, will be on October 7 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.