Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed over the coronavirus crisis and racism in the final presidential debate of the 2020 US election on Thursday night, but many political pundits named someone else the winner: moderator and NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker.
Welker, 44, the only person of color chosen to moderate presidential debate this year, quickly earned plaudits as the event unfolded in a calmer and less chaotic manner than the first presidential debate in Cleveland. That debate last month was widely panned after Trump aggressively and consistently interrupted Biden and Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchor and the moderator. In contrast, Welker rarely let Trump derail the debate or drown out Biden’s answers, and stood her ground when enforcing the rules.
The winner of Thursday night’s debate was “obviously” Welker, tweeted New York Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie.
Following the debate, Wallace, whose own moderation was widely criticized after the first debate, was asked on air what he thought of the tenor of the final debate moderated by Welker. “First of all, I’m jealous,” he said.
Trump, who is trying to appeal to female voters as he trails Biden in national polling, also praised Welker after spending the days before the debate criticizing her.
“So far, I respect very much the way you’re handling this,” Trump said to Welker when she gave him time to respond to Biden at one point.
The praise came after Trump attacked her on Twitter over the weekend.
She has “always been terrible and unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters”, he tweeted at the time. Trump has repeatedly fought with, belittled or denigrated members of the media during his tenure in office.
Prior to the debate, Libby Leist, executive producer of NBC’s Today show who was on Welker’s debate prep team, told the Washington Post: “You just have to do your job, do your research, do your prep, do your reading, do your phone calls, do your reporting and ignore everything else,” Leist said.
“I know Kristen’s head is down and is focusing on what’s happening Thursday night … The rest of that is noise,” she said.
Trump and Biden debated for just over 90 minutes at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday night. The face-off included substantive debate on a number of topics including the response to the coronavirus pandemic, immigration and how each would handle climate change as president.
The nominees’ first debate was so raucous that changes were enacted to make the next one more orderly. Those modifications included a mute button controlled by a representative of the Commission on Presidential Debates, to ensure that each candidate would have two full minutes uninterrupted for opening answers on each topic.
Welker was the youngest of the four journalists chosen by the Commission on Presidential Debates to oversee the presidential debates this year.
At a time when racial inequality and systemic racism are significant issues for voters, she offered both candidates multiple opportunities to talk directly to Black Americans. Both men said they understood the challenges Black citizens face, but the segment amounted mostly to them blasting each other.
Trump blamed Biden as an almost singular force behind mass incarceration, especially of “young Black men”. Trump declared himself “the least racist person in this room” and repeated his claim that “nobody has done what I’ve done” for Black Americans “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, possible exception”.
Biden, incredulous, called Trump a “racist” who “pours fuel on every single racist fire”.
Polls suggest many young voters of color do not support Trump but aren’t particularly enthusiastic about Biden either. It’s unlikely the final debate altered that view.