Throughout the debate season, there has been a lot of focus on the moderators and whether it is their duty to fact-check the presidential candidates in real time. At Sunday’s debate in St. Louis, a lengthy back and forth between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, in which debate moderator Raddatz pushed back on some of Trump’s contentions, is certain to fuel further debate over the debates.
The moment came about two-thirds of the way through the evening’s tilt between Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. At issue was Syria, where the ongoing civil war has led the parts of the country into near-ruin, spawned a massive refugee crisis, and created havens in which the Islamic State operates. Raddatz set up her question like so:
RADDATZ: The heartbreaking video of a 5-year-old Syrian boy named Omran sitting in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble after an airstrike in Aleppo focused the world’s attention on the horrors of the war in Syria, with 136 million views on Facebook alone.
But there are much worse images coming out of Aleppo every day now, where the past few weeks alone, 400 people have been killed, at least 100 of them children. Just days ago, the State Department called for a war crimes investigation of the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad and its allies Russia for the bombardment of Aleppo. So this next question comes from social media through Facebook. Diana from Pennsylvania asked, if you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? Isn’t it a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?
Clinton was the first to answer, referring to “the situation in Syria” as “catastophic,” and renewing her call for a “no-fly zone in safe zones” above the country. Her advocacy is by no means uncontroversial; some Pentagon leaders insist that the imposition of a no-fly zone would inevitably lead the United States and its allies into conflict with both Syrian and Russian aircraft ― fueling further escalation. Clinton, however, was dismissive of Russia: “Russia has decided that it’s all in in Syria. And they also decided who they want to see become president of the United States, too. And it’s not me.”
When Trump’s turn came to answer, he launched into an extended critique of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state instead of answering the original question. Raddatz prompted Trump that his time was up, at which point he attempted to quickly circle back, saying, “I don’t like Assad at all. But Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy.”
At this point, Raddatz determined that her original question had not been answered satisfactorily:
RADDATZ: Mr. Trump, let me repeat the question. If you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. And I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved with airstrikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.
TRUMP: OK. He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree.
RADDATZ: You disagree with your running mate?
But Trump moved on, saying, “We have to knock out ISIS,” and accusing the Obama administration of empowering Iran and Russia. Raddatz again tried to turn the conversation back to the humanitarian crisis:
RADDATZ: What do you think will happen if Aleppo falls?
TRUMP: I think Aleppo is a disaster humanitarian-wise.
RADDATZ: What do you think will happen if it falls?
TRUMP: I think that it basically has fallen. OK? It basically has fallen.
It’s debatable whether Aleppo has formally “fallen,” as rebel forces currently remain in control of part of the city. But it’s fair to allow Trump some rhetorical room to simply express an appropriately downcast view of Aleppo’s future.
It was at this point, however, that Trump began critiquing the military’s approach to fighting ISIS in Iraq. And Raddatz pushed back on his assertions aggressively.
TRUMP: The biggest problem I have with the stupidity of our foreign policy is, we have Mosul. They think a lot of the ISIS leaders are in Mosul. So we have a lot of announcements coming out of Washington and coming out of Iraq, we will be attacking Mosul in three weeks or four weeks. All of these bad leaders from ISIS are leaving Mosul. Why can’t they do it quietly? Why can’t they do the attack, make it a sneak attack. After the attack is made, inform the American public that we have knocked out the leaders, we’ve had tremendous success. People leave. Why do they have to say we’re going to be attacking Mosul within the next four to six weeks? Which is what they are saying. How stupid is our country?
RADDATZ: There are sometimes reasons the military does that. Psychological warfare.
TRUMP: I can’t think of any. I can’t think of any. And I’m pretty good at it.
RADDATZ: It might be to help get civilians out.
TRUMP: And we have General Flynn. And we have ― look, I have 200 generals and admirals who endorsed me. I have 21 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients who endorsed me. We talk about it all the time. They understand, why can’t they do something secretively, where they go in and they knock out the leadership? How ― why would these people stay there? I’ve been reading now ...
RADDATZ: Tell me what your strategy is.
TRUMP: I’ve been reading now for weeks about Mosul, that it’s the harbor of where ― you know, between Raqqa and Mosul, this is where they think the ISIS leaders are.
It may have been impossible to expect Raddatz, a foreign policy reporter par excellence, to remain silent in the face of Trump’s contentions. But for better or for worse, Raddatz noticeably injected herself into the proceedings.
There were those who gave Raddatz credit for flexing her expertise:
But she had her critics as well:
So far in these debates, we’ve seen the moderators insist that the candidates answer their questions, occasionally dialing in with a fact-check on the fly if a specific answer flies in the face of their knowledge. In all likelihood, the moderators have largely failed to satisfy both the “fact-check relentlessly” camp and the “remain steadfastly neutral” camp. This portion of the debate from Raddatz was notable in its length and in her assertions of knowledge, and will probably end up being discussed extensively in any after-action reports.
The final debate, scheduled for Oct. 19, will be moderated by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. Wallace has insisted it is not his duty to serve as a “truth squad” in the sessions, and that this responsibility remains with the candidates.
But as anyone who has ever watched him will attest, Wallace does not brook a personal challenge from politicians. When he feels challenged, he responds. It will be interesting to see if he keeps that tendency in check if he’s pushed.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.