NEW YORK — NBC’s Lester Holt struggled to keep control of the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, learning the dangers of fact-checking in the midst of a tense confrontation being viewed by tens of millions of people.
The NBC News veteran was moderating his first general election debate Monday night, making him solely responsible for the questions asked each candidate and for steering the conversation. He asked tough questions on the birther controversy, Donald Trump’s decision not to release tax returns and Clinton’s e-mail scandal.
His tensest confrontations came with Trump, and some of the Republican’s supporters rushed to defend their candidate online.
At first, Holt let the conversation flow and the candidates go after each other. It’s a strategy many debate moderators prefer but left him vulnerable to criticism that he had lost control of the action. The first subject area that Holt introduced, intended to last for 15 minutes, stretched for nearly 45 minutes.
He constantly needed to remind the candidates to stick to time limits, which was tough when they decided to steamroll over him. At one point he said, “20 seconds” when Trump tried to make a point, but it stretched to 55 seconds before Holt could get in another question.
Later in the debate, Holt interjected some fact-checking, raising Trump’s ire in the process. That had been a major issue going into Monday evening, with the Clinton campaign arguing that fact-checking should be part of a moderator’s job and the Trump campaign saying it should be left up to the candidates.
Holt’s NBC colleague, Matt Lauer, was criticized for not challenging Trump at a forum earlier this month when the candidate said he had opposed the war in Iraq — when there is interview footage from 2002 that shows otherwise. The issue came up again Monday, with Trump saying it was “wrong, wrong, wrong” that he initially supported the war.
“I was against the war in Iraq,” Trump said.
Replied Holt: “The record shows otherwise.”
“The record shows that I’m right,” Trump argued.
When Trump advocated for the “stop-and-frisk” police policy, Holt told him that it was declared unconstitutional in New York largely because it singled out black and Latino young men.
“No, you’re wrong,” Trump said, adding that he believed the court decision would have been overturned on appeal.
Holt later brought up the issue of Trump’s questioning whether President Barack Obama had been born in the United States, and asked him what made him conclude this month that Obama was indeed a legitimate citizen. Trump twice did not address the question, and cut Holt off when he tried a third approach.
“What do you say to American people of color,” Holt started asking.
“I say nothing,” Trump replied.
Republicans criticized Holt after the debate for bringing up more issues that were damaging to Trump and ignoring issues that would have reflected more poorly on Clinton.
“Lester Holt clearly heard cries of his colleagues in the liberal media to be tough on Trump and ease up on Hillary loud and clear,” tweeted Brent Bozell, president of the conservative media watchdogs Media Research Center.
In an interview after the debate, however, Trump said he thought Holt “did a really good job. I thought it was great.” He said he thought a lot of good and important topics were brought up.
One media observer, columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, tweeted that “Lester Holt has done a fine job as moderator. Not too intrusive, moving things along, fact-checking when necessary.”
In a reflection of the attention paid to Holt, his voter registration became an issue last week.
“Lester is a Democrat,” Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview. “It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats.”
Holt, however, is a registered Republican, according to New York state voting records.
Asked about the misstatement on Monday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said on MSNBC that it wasn’t a lie because Trump didn’t know Holt’s voter registration.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz will team up to moderate the second presidential debate, with Chris Wallace of Fox News in charge of the third.