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Chris Wallace on debate: 'I'm disappointed for the country'

'It could have been a much more useful evening than it turned out to be'

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace expressed disappointment with the way the first 2020 presidential debate turned out, lamenting in an interview with the New York Times that he couldn't maintain control over the candidates.

"I'm just sad with the way last night turned out," Wallace said. "I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did."

The debate was a brutal slugfest between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden. Rather than an exchange of ideas, the two candidates traded insults, personal attacks, interruptions, leaving Wallace at times helpless and ineffective as a moderator. Many reviews called the debate chaotic, with journalists singling out Trump's performance as "monstrous," though Biden called Trump names like "clown" and told the president to "shut up."

"I've read some of the reviews, I know people think, Well, gee, I didn't jump in soon enough," Wallace said. "I guess I didn't realize — and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20 — that this was going to be the president's strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate."

The rules of the debate provided each candidate two minutes to answer the questions however they wanted before being permitted to engage each other. Trump interrupted Biden incessantly, and Biden returned the favor in kind. At times both candidates were talking over each other so loudly that whatever points they were attempting to make were rendered unintelligible to the audience.

At one point, Wallace asked Trump to stop the interruptions, saying "the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions."

He says he felt a sense of "desperation" as he pleaded with the candidates.

"If I didn't try to seize control of the debate — which I don't know that I ever really did — then it was going to just go completely off the tracks," Wallace said.

Though Wallace said Trump's behavior "certainly didn't help" the situation, he declined to put all the blame on the president.

"To quote the president, 'It is what it is,'" he said.

In response to the overwhelmingly negative reception of the debate proceedings, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday it will adopt changes to the debate format. The debate "made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the commission said.

The Associated Press reported that one idea being toyed with is to allow the moderators to shut off the candidates' microphones if they become unruly while their opponent is speaking.

Wallace is vehemently opposed to the idea.

"As a practical matter, even if the president's microphone had been shut, he still could have continued to interrupt, and it might well have been picked up on Biden's microphone, and it still would have disrupted the proceedings in the hall," he said.

He worries how the American people would react to the debate moderator silencing either one of the candidates at his or her discretion.

"People have to remember, and too many people forget, both of these candidates have the support of tens of millions of Americans," Wallace explained.

He offered advice to C-SPAN's Steve Scully, who will moderate the next presidential debate on Oct. 15: "If either man goes down this road, I hope you'll be quicker to realize what's going on than I was. I didn't have that advance warning."

"Generally speaking, I did as well as I could, so I don't have any second thoughts there," Wallace said. "I'm just disappointed with the results. For me, but much more importantly, I'm disappointed for the country, because it could have been a much more useful evening than it turned out to be."

One last thing…
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