Holt fact-checks Trump, not Clinton

Throughout much of the evening, Lester Holt was the invisible moderator at Monday night's presidential debate. 

The NBC anchor frequently fell into the background as Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE jabbed at one another from the debate stage. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Holt said before the event, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, that Clinton and Trump were the show, and there were long segments on Monday night where the candidates talked over each other. 

“So wait. There was a moderator?" said Lee Hartley Carter, president of Maslansky and Partners, a New York-based language strategy firm. “He allowed them to fight like school children for the first 20 minutes. He was a non-moderator.”

Conservatives also ripped Holt for asking questions about Trump's tax returns but not asking Clinton about her family's charitable foundation or the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server as secretary of State.

A big question coming into the debate was if Holt would fact-check Trump and Clinton, two candidates with low marks in polls over honesty.

Holt did indeed fact-check on several occasions, almost exclusively with Trump.

Holt said the GOP nominee had once supported the Iraq War, a statement that Trump pushed back upon.

“I did not support the war in Iraq,” Trump said. 

When Holt began to mention a 2002 interview with Howard Stern in which Trump did voice support for the war, the real estate magnate called it “mainstream media nonsense” put out by Clinton.

A few seconds later, Holt said “the records shows otherwise” before asking a separate question.

Some observers said Holt’s treatment of Trump showed he was affected by pre-debate pressure.

Fellow NBC anchor Matt Lauer of the “Today” show was criticized for not pressing Trump on whether he once backed the Iraq War when Lauer moderated a military forum earlier this month.

"Lester Holt felt the pressure on him to be Trump's fact-checker, and it showed,” said Noah Rothman, assistant online editor for Commentary Magazine.

Trump and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, both praised Trump after the debate, though Conway noted that Clinton was not pressed on the email issue.

David Shuster, a former MSNBC anchor and reporter who worked with Holt, says the moderator did the best he could with two volatile candidates. 

“Lester did about as well as any moderator possibly could have," explains Shuster. "No golfer would ever expect to shoot below par if they had to play an entire round amidst a thunder and lightning storm.   

“But Lester got through it without getting electrocuted. And for surviving relatively unscathed, he should be commended.”

Some observers said they believe Holt wanted to make sure he didn’t become the story — as Lauer did after the military forum.

“Lester Holt was dull as toast...and that means he did a great job,” said Rick Ungar, Sirius XM POTUS co-host and Forbes Magazine columnist. “He stayed out of the way and managed as well as he could when controlling the contestants.”

But Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University, felt Holt wasn't as strong as he needed to be. 

“I have much respect for Lester Holt, but this was not a good night for him," McCall says. “He allowed the candidates to walk all over him. He lost control early on and never got it back. Candidates were constantly interrupting and begging for response time, and he let them do it.

“Holt appeared to challenge Trump more often than Clinton, so he will
likely get some criticism from Trump supporters for that,” McCall continues. “Holt fact-checked Trump on taxes, Iraq , and stop-and-frisk. He really didn't have a similar approach for Clinton.”