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Chris Wallace Struggled to Rein In an Unruly Trump at First Debate

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On the eve of Tuesday night’s presidential debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News declared his goal as the evening’s moderator: “My job is to be as invisible as possible.”

Quite.

With a pugilistic President Trump relentlessly interrupting his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Wallace struggled to keep the proceedings coherent, reduced at times to pleading with the president to pause and allow the Democratic presidential nominee to speak.

“Mr. President, I am the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer it,” Mr. Wallace, sounding more headmaster than moderator, instructed Mr. Trump early on. (Mr. Trump did not accede.)

Known for his sharp interrogations of political figures, Mr. Wallace — the veteran Fox News anchor who at 72 was the youngest of the three men onstage — succeeded in keeping Mr. Trump more or less in check during his first go-round as moderator four years ago, when pundits declared him a clear winner of the night.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wallace was facing harsher notices, as viewers assessed his performance on social media. “Moderate this debate — now,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, demanded on Twitter 15 minutes in.

Mr. Trump did not make it easy. In a brute-force style, the president flouted the agreed-upon ground rules and refused to allow Mr. Biden his two minutes to respond to questions, leaving Mr. Wallace yelping at one point, “Let him answer!”

Not satisfied with merely speaking over his Democratic opponent, Mr. Trump took aim at the moderator, too. “I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s OK, I’m not surprised,” Mr. Trump said after one Wallace query he disliked.

The debate had no breaks. But at the midway point, perhaps sensing that Mr. Trump was threatening to steamroller the event, Mr. Wallace did something unusual for a presidential moderator: He effectively called the debate to a temporary halt.

“The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions,” Mr. Wallace said, directly asking Mr. Trump to yield a higher civic ideal. “I’m appealing to you, sir, to do it.”

“And him, too?” the president replied defiantly, nodding at Mr. Biden.

“Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Mr. Wallace replied.

Few journalists envied the moderator his task heading into the night.

Mr. Trump’s onstage intensity and logorrhea have proved a formidable challenge for some of the nation’s leading interviewers. And with the president ignoring the traditional parameters of debate decorum, Mr. Wallace was left with few good options to keep Mr. Trump from chattering without pause.

He tried humor: “If you want to switch seats, we can do that,” Mr. Wallace told the president at one point, arching a brow. (Mr. Trump did not parry.) He said he regretted having to raise his voice, “but why should I be different than the two of you?”

On social media, some viewers at home called for the president’s microphone to be shut off, but that was a power Mr. Wallace did not possess: Neither campaign would have agreed beforehand to such a mechanism.

Mr. Wallace, son of the “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace, drew on the entirety of his on-screen repertoire: the defusing aside, a self-deprecating remark, a jabbing question. None seemed to knock Mr. Trump off his determination to dominate the night.

It was a far cry from Mr. Wallace’s stated goal for the debate. “I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other,’” he had said beforehand.

Instead, he closed the evening with Mr. Trump still talking offscreen, attempting to argue over Mr. Wallace’s signoff. “This is the end of this debate,” the Fox News anchor said, drawing a deep breath. “It’s been an interesting hour and a half.”

Two more matchups are scheduled between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, and the next moderator assigned to maintain control will be a TV personality known less for jousting with lawmakers than listening, quietly and attentively, to rambling on-air callers: Steve Scully of C-SPAN.

The message from Tuesday night: good luck.

John Koblin contributed reporting.

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How the Biden-Trump Debate Will Play on TV (Don’t Expect Fact-Checks)

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Chris Wallace does not hold mock debates. Instead, the “Fox News Sunday” anchor and presidential debate moderator has been honing his questions at his weekend home on Chesapeake Bay, before he flies to Cleveland to take charge of the opening bout between Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump.

Tuesday’s debate, which airs commercial free from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time on every major network, is likely to attract a television and livestreaming audience of close to 100 million for the kind of civic gathering increasingly rare in a polarized, pandemic-stricken age.

A fragmented news media means that many voters will consume the Biden-Trump clash through a preferred, possibly biased lens, be it partisan cable news stations, custom-tailored social media feeds or online outlets that cater to ideological tribes.

But the few-frills format of Tuesday’s debate — two candidates, two lecterns, one moderator — is a break from highly produced events, like virtual conventions and overloaded primary debates, that have otherwise defined the major television moments of the 2020 presidential race.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan nonprofit group, controls the look and feel of Tuesday’s event, which is designed to evoke a more retro era of political combat. Because of social distancing, barely 100 people are expected to attend in person. Each candidate has two minutes to respond to a question, a Tolstoyan span by rapid-fire TV news standards.

Mr. Wallace, who won rave reviews in 2016 for his stewardship of the third debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, is now in the catbird seat: The opening round typically attracts the largest audience of the campaign. The Fox News anchor will also face intense scrutiny on how he handles the evening, particularly given Mr. Trump’s tendency to hurl false and baseless claims at his opponents.

“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Mr. Wallace, who has declined outside interviews ahead of his Tuesday appearance, said during a Fox News segment on Sunday. “I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of, ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other.’”

That sink-into-the-background approach extends to fact-checking, which Mr. Wallace has regularly argued is outside the purview of a debate moderator, calling it “a step too far.”

“I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad,” Mr. Wallace said in the run-up to his 2016 debate. “It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.” Those comments caused a minor stir at the time, but the debates’ organizers have made clear they agree.

“There’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, told CNN on Sunday. “We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact checkers. The minute the TV is off, there are going to be plenty of fact checkers in every newspaper and every television station in the world. That’s not the role, the main role of our moderators.”

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Some media pundits have called on TV networks to impose their own fact-checks in real-time, through onscreen graphics, clarifying captions or cutaways to reporters offering context. Anchors on CNN and MSNBC occasionally broke into speeches during the Republican National Convention in August, pointing out falsehoods or baseless accusations.

Eighty-four million Americans tuned in for Mr. Trump’s first debate with Ms. Clinton in 2016, on a par with major football games and last century’s sitcom finales. This year’s ratings may not match that, in part because so many viewers now use streaming services that cannot be credibly measured.

But some in the industry believe that the appeal of seeing Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump joust for the first time will be hard to resist.

“We’ve all seen a lot of politics on TV for months and months,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former producer of political event coverage at NBC News. “But Trump face to face with Biden is new.”

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Chris Wallace, Insider and Outlier at Fox News

Chris Wallace is a registered Democrat who hosts “Fox News Sunday,” a child of two Jews who keeps a rosary by his bedside, a Washington wonk who has vacationed in Italy with George Clooney.

A son of the renowned correspondent Mike Wallace, he was schooled at Hotchkiss and Harvard and worked at NBC and ABC (including as host of “Meet the Press”) before landing at Fox News, an organization founded in part to bedevil the pieties of the Eastern establishment that had shaped him.

Presidents of both parties have regarded him with suspicion. Bill Clinton once accused him of having a “little smirk on your face,” Barack Obama avoided his program for eight years, and President Trump declared him “nasty & obnoxious” and a “Mike Wallace wannabe.”

All that is to say that Mr. Wallace, 72, is comfortable being a bit of an enigma. For every Trump loyalist who views him as a heretic, there is a liberal who wishes he’d denounce colleagues like Sean Hannity. (To be clear: He won’t.)

He broke ranks at Fox News by speaking out in December against Mr. Trump’s “direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press.” But he has also scolded mainstream journalists for showing an anti-Trump bias — “a big mistake,” in his words.

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Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

In an interview from his weekend home in Maryland on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where he has been working remotely since March, Mr. Wallace was asked over Zoom if he experienced discomfort with the pro-Trump cheerleading spouted by Fox News’s opinion stars.

“Look, I work at Fox. Do I agree with some of the stuff I hear? Absolutely not,” said Mr. Wallace, who was hired by Rupert Murdoch and the network’s founder, Roger E. Ailes, in 2003. “In the end, I have decided that what matters to me is what I am allowed to do. And the fact is, in the 16 and a half years I’ve been at Fox News, I have never — by Roger Ailes first, now by the Murdochs — I’ve never been second-guessed on a guest I booked, a question I’ve asked.”

“I don’t pull punches, I’m not playing favorites,” he added. “That’s what matters ultimately to me.”

It is Mr. Wallace’s dual role as insider and outlier at Fox News that has made him an object of media fascination in the Trump era.

His occasional critiques of the administration are often met with rapture on Liberal Twitter, even as he recoils from what he sees as the showboating style of reporters like Jim Acosta of CNN. His restraint may be a throwback from his father’s heyday, but it can make Mr. Wallace’s appraisals all the more withering.

In recent weeks, he challenged the surgeon general, Jerome M. Adams, for playing down the risks of the coronavirus; pressed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on his “rosy predictions” for the post-pandemic economy; and mocked the administration’s defense of Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. Last month, he castigated the president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, after she chided White House reporters at a briefing for questions she deemed irrelevant.

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Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“I would have gotten up and walked out,” Mr. Wallace, who covered the Reagan White House for six years for NBC, said in the interview. “I don’t need somebody telling me what to say or what questions to ask.”

And yet Mr. Trump — who has turned Mr. Wallace into a regular piñata on Twitter, accusing the anchor of anti-Republican bias — remains susceptible to the Wallace allure. He granted Mr. Wallace lengthy interviews in 2016 and 2018, and the anchor would relish a reprise.

It would be another milestone for Mr. Wallace, who earned Fox News’s first Emmy Award nomination for a tense 2018 interview with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and in 2016 became the first Fox News journalist to moderate a general-election presidential debate.

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Credit…Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, via TASS

This month, Mr. Wallace published his first book, “Countdown 1945,” a chronicle of the 116 days in which Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency and decided to drop atomic bombs on Japan in World War II.

“One of the things I loved most about coming up with the idea for the book, researching the book, writing the book, and now talking about the book, is it has nothing to do with Donald Trump,” Mr. Wallace said, laughing in the home studio — complete with Purell and disinfectant wipes — he uses for on-camera appearances.

Mr. Wallace rummaged the archives at the Truman Library in Missouri, where he was impressed by the president’s agonized decision-making as he weighed the moral costs of a nuclear attack. The book, he said, was a chance “to take a key moment in history and really drill down, almost like a novel.”

The “Countdown” title was his idea. “Frankly, I thought it could be replicable,” Mr. Wallace said. “If you can do ‘Countdown 1945,’ we can do ‘Countdown Something Else.’”

He knows history is happening in real time, too, comparing the protests sweeping the nation to the tumult of 1968. “We seem almost paralyzed by our polarization today,” he said at an online forum last week, though he was quick to add a pox-on-both-houses caveat: “It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. It’s been a steady decline in the 40 years I’ve been in Washington.”

As a teenager Mr. Wallace worked as a gofer for Walter Cronkite at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. He covered student protests for Harvard’s radio station, filing from a county jail where he had been detained. (“This is Chris Wallace in custody,” he signed off.)

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Credit…Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

After a stint at The Boston Globe, he joined NBC News in 1975, rising to co-anchor of the “Today” show and moderator of “Meet the Press.” As the network’s chief White House correspondent, he had a feisty reputation, squabbling with Sam Donaldson of ABC News over camera positions in the briefing room. British authorities once threatened to revoke his press credentials after he shouted a question at Margaret Thatcher during a photo-op.

When he jumped to “Fox News Sunday” in 2003 from ABC News, where he had worked since 1989, skeptics said Mr. Ailes would use Mr. Wallace’s presence to bring gravitas and a famous broadcasting name to a news channel whose most popular shows — then and now — were sharp conservative punditry.

“He’s an argument that Fox uses to say it’s fair and balanced,” Carl Cameron, the network’s former chief political correspondent, said in an interview.

Mr. Cameron, who left Fox News in 2017, called Mr. Wallace “a different bird” at the network. He noted that Mr. Wallace’s independence and tough interviews benefited the channel and viewers alike, adding, “He’s fighting the good fight.”

Mr. Wallace has occasionally needled his Fox News colleagues, including an on-camera rebuke to the hosts of “Fox & Friends” in 2008 for their carping coverage of Mr. Obama. But in interviews, he repeatedly demurred when pressed about his comfort level with Fox News’s pro-Trump prime-time.

“Why would anyone want to parade what they think about their colleagues in public?” he said, adding: “I’m responsible for myself.”

“If Donald Trump loses and Joe Biden is elected in November, Fox News will go on,” Mr. Wallace said. “The Trump era will be over, but Fox News will go on and the opinion side will push other issues and other people.”

But is the Fox News brand now too closely associated with Trump?

“The president doesn’t seem to think so,” Mr. Wallace replied. “He’s pretty critical of Fox. He’s certainly critical of me.”

Rivals continue to take notice of Mr. Wallace’s skills: CBS approached him about taking over the “Evening News” anchor chair in 2017, though he ultimately declined. “Chris is a master of the old ways: sobriety, objectivity, a willingness to go wherever the facts take him,” said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has said the anchor “will never be his father,” seizing on the complicated relationship between Mike Wallace and his son.

Mr. Wallace’s parents divorced when he was a year old, and he was raised by his mother and stepfather, Bill Leonard, a former president of CBS News. When Mr. Wallace was in high school, his older brother, Peter, died in a climbing accident in Greece, prompting father and son to reconnect. The Wallaces eventually became close, barring some hiccups — like when Mike stole an interview from Chris with the comedian Chris Rock.

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Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

Though his parents were both Jewish, Mr. Wallace — named Christopher because he was born on Columbus Day — attended Episcopalian prep school in a uniform bearing a small cross, startling his Jewish grandmother.

“It’s where I first learned the expression ‘oy gevalt,’” Mr. Wallace said.

His wife, Lorraine, who was formerly married to Dick Smothers of the Smothers Brothers, is Catholic, and the two attend church on Christmas and New Year’s. At home, the anchor, who has four children from a previous marriage, keeps a rosary on his bedside table, a gift from his wife. “I touch it every night and say a little prayer,” he said.

“Countdown 1945” is dedicated to Lorraine, and it was she who brokered the couple’s Italian jaunt with Mr. Clooney.

The anchor and movie star had bonded over family business: the actor’s father, Nick Clooney, was a longtime news anchor. (Mr. Wallace said he last spoke with Mr. Clooney at the start of lockdown period: “He was in Los Angeles, and he was complaining that he had to do all the dishes and much of the laundry.”)

In 2012, at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Lorraine Wallace mentioned to Mr. Clooney that she’d always wanted to visit Lake Como, where he keeps a villa. “She has the guts of a burglar,” Mr. Wallace said, admiringly.

Months later, the couple was soaking up the Italian sun when Mr. Wallace’s inbox began to light up. Mitt Romney had just named Paul Ryan as his running mate. Would the anchor fly back to Washington for an exclusive interview?

Mr. Wallace’s response was swift: “Are you out of your mind?”

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