Chris Wallace successfully scolded the presidential contenders and the audience into silence a few times, kept them from shouting over each other more than his predecessors could and deftly paced the third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The veteran Fox News anchor was prepared when he set foot on the stage Wednesday night in Las Vegas. But he teetered between absentee host of the clash and a full participant himself. The move left him contorted in a way that would make the Cirque du Soleil acrobats proud and allowed him to shine as perhaps the best moderator of the messy 2016 debates.
“Hold on, folks,” Wallace said at one point, sending the brawlers back to their corners. “This doesn’t do any good for anyone.”
Wallace interjected himself when he needed to during the 90-minute prize fight. But debates are some of the toughest assignments in journalism, and there are limits to how anyone could have controlled this pair of candidates: Clinton, a skilled politician who uses logic and facts, faced the blustery billionaire reality star who had no qualms about interjecting his one-word commentary (“Wrong!”) when he found himself boxed into a corner.
Wallace merely wanted to avoid the errant jab and land of a few of his own. After all, this may be the last grilling the candidates get before Nov. 8.
The evening at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada began with a sleepy Trump determined to curb his outlandish antics from the first two debates. Advisers had told him that shouting over Clinton and the other moderators didn’t win him voters. Clinton was happy to parry, and Wallace seemed pleased to keep focused on facts and policy.
But as Wallace asked questions designed to break new ground, Trump became bored with being boring. Trump got feisty, and Wallace got out of the way and let the candidates engage each other, even on sometimes-shaky ground. His Fox News bone fides insulated him against allegations he was part of a liberal conspiracy and forced Trump to answer—for the most part.
Although Wallace had interviewed Trump on Japan’s nuclear weapons and Clinton was citing that exchange, Wallace didn’t call out the candidate. “You’re not going to find a quote from me,” Trump said. Wallace didn’t reach for it, but within three minutes, the Clinton campaign’s two-page research document proving Trump had said it landed in reporters’ inboxes.
Yet other times, Wallace couldn’t help but step in, especially when it seemed that Trump would not respect the results of the election, a cornerstone of democracies.
"I will look at it at the time. ... I will keep you in suspense,” said Trump, ever the showman.
Wallace seemed aghast at the break in protocol. “But, sir, there is a tradition in this country,” Wallace said. “The loser concedes to the winner. … The country comes together.” Trump didn’t care.
During another session, Wallace challenged Trump on his use of charity money to settle a zoning dispute at his Mar-a-Largo resort. “The money came from your foundation,” Wallace said. Trump did not dispute it.
When Trump tried to explain his economic plan, Wallace was dubious. “That’s not going to help on entitlements,” Wallace said. It was the same when Trump tried to filibuster a question about his errors about Syria. “If I may just finish here,” Wallace continued.
And when Trump repeatedly pointed to conservative videos that purported to prove Clinton’s allies conspired to incite violence, Clinton and Wallace both ignored his claims and tried to steer the conversation to other topics. Litigating hidden-camera footage would do no one in this trio any good, especially when voters were either already convinced they were a bombshell or a fraud.
With 20 days until Election Day, the clash was one of the last times the pair will share a stage. (They were due to attend a fundraiser for Catholic charities in New York City on Thursday.) Clinton did her best to score points against Trump, who seems to sliding in state and national polls. Trump, who for the first time took part in traditional debate preparations, delivered his most orthodox performance to date.
But it was Wallace who seemed most determined to have a sound showing. Wednesday was the first time a Fox News anchor has hosted a head-to-head general election debate, and Wallace acquitted himself well. He had the advantage of seeing the pair face-off twice before and Fox News’ research staffers are no slouches. He did nothing to blackball the network from another opportunity in four years.
But he knew his limits. With just 90 minutes scheduled for the debate, trying to correct Trump would have used up time and, perhaps, turned the billionaire’s fans against the anchor of conservatives’ favorite network. Similarly, Trump couldn't go after a respected Fox News journalist. It wasn't as if Wallace went easy on Clinton for her family's charities or her time as Secretary of State. It was just that he, as Megyn Kelly had before, finally found a place where Trump could not wiggle.
“Your two minutes are up,” Wallace told Trump. And, more than at any other debate, Trump heeded. Perhaps he knew his campaign was nearing its expiration date, too.