Tuesday night's presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was an ugly spectacle. The president refused to disavow white supremacists, and called on some of his most radical supporters to "stand by." There was crosstalk, yelling, endless interruptions by Trump, and what to many felt like a general sense of chaos on the stage. As a result, the Commission on Presidential Debates says it will look at adding "additional structure" to the two remaining debates between Trump and Biden. GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath discussed the debate, and the debates still to come, with GBH Beat the Press host Emily Rooney. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: Let's start off with what we heard most recently from the Commission on Presidential Debates about additional structure. What do you think we need?
Emily Rooney: Look, they haven't said what that is. And by the way, both campaigns are going to have to agree to whatever it is. And having a mic mute is not going to work. The Trump campaign will not go along with that because they're going to be the ones who are getting muted the most.
Rath: Even if there was additional structure, whatever that might be, would that have helped moderator Chris Wallace last night? I mean, he's taking a lot of flak for his performance.
Rooney: Yeah, and I disagree with that. I don't think there is anybody on the face of the Earth who could have done better. I was stunned to hear CNN's Jake Tapper go after him. He said that Chris Wallace waited an hour and 13 minutes before he called attention to the fact that Trump was interrupting more times than Biden. But all along the way, from the opening statement practically on, from his opening introduction, he tried to set the stage.
Trump set him off. Trump said right off the bat, 'I'm being treated unfairly, it looks like I'm debating you, not him.' And so he put Chris Wallace on edge. I think that's one of the reasons Chris kept almost pandering, saying, 'Well, Mr. President, you're going to like the next question.' I think he was trying to soften the moment so the president would shut up.
Rath: Wallace had said he wanted to be invisible, but interestingly, he did end up fact-checking the president a couple of times, which is something he said he didn't want to do.
Rooney: He did a few times. He felt like he had to, because Biden would say something, and Wallace would say, well, I agree with you. And then Trump said later on, 'I'm debating two, it's two against one,' which it wasn't. I mean, honest to goodness, I thought that there is nobody more evenhanded that could have handled this than Chris Wallace.
Frankly, I'm worried about the next few debates, because C-SPAN's Steve Scully is going to be doing this in the next one, which is a town hall forum, so it's slightly different. We saw when George Stephanopoulos moderated one of those with the president a week or so ago — Trump was much tamer. He was much more moderated because he was taking questions from the audience. So I'm hoping that's the case, because Steve Scully is a great guy, but he's not as tough as Chris Wallace.
Rath: It was a town hall format, if I recall correctly, against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where Donald Trump was looming around and using his physical presence in a very aggressive way.
Rooney: Yes. Imposing over her, walking in front of her. That won't happen this time because of COVID. But yeah, he's a master at gamesmanship. I'm not sure it was that effective last night.
Rath: I want to ask you, because of Beat the Press and the way that you follow this — Chris Wallace was there for Fox News, and I was watching Fox News as the lead-in to the debate, which at that point had Tucker Carlson, who was in fact repeating discredited Russian propaganda talking points about Hillary Clinton. The Fox News website's lead was these nutty allegations from President Trump about Biden using a secret earpiece or secret performance enhancing drugs. So what I'm wondering is, as journalists and presidential historians are aghast at what they saw from the president, how differently does this play to people who watch Fox News?
Rooney: Even Geraldo Rivera said last night that he credited Chris Wallace, and that was on Fox. He said Wallace thought he was going to moderate a debate, and instead he ended up intervening in a knife fight. So I think there was a lot of reasonable analysis from people who would normally be Trump supporters. This did not play to his advantage in any way. And I realize what you're saying — I flipped over to Fox right after the debate ended, after I listened to Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. Fox News was more introspective than normal. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson were not among the panelists, because they would not have been.
Rath: Finally, you talked about a sense of dread about the upcoming debates. Are you among those who think that we just shouldn't be doing debates if they're like this?
Rooney: No, you've got to do them. I think the vice presidential debate will be fine. But you can't just back off because somebody behaved badly. I mean, we the people, the citizenry of the United States, deserve to hear something substantive from both of these candidates. I feel like I haven't heard enough from either Joe Biden or Trump on substantive issues, and this is the opportunity to do that. I mean, the rest of it is all noise, all day in and day out, but usually you get a little something out of the debates. So I'm hopeful that that the next two, anyway, will be better.