Behind the scenes, there was anger, even before the first question, but this time it wasn’t from President Trump.
NBC employees seethed that they had agreed to host a Trump townhall in the same hour that ABC was hosting a similar Biden event. It was counterprograming, they complained, a clear attempt by the incumbent to force a split-screen moment and pull the eyeballs of the electorate away from the Democratic challenger.
They were not alone, and others went public with that sentiment. Actors and producers and on-air talent put their frustration to paper in an open letter to NBC asking the network to “air the president’s town hall either before or after Joe Biden’s so that American voters can have the opportunity to watch both.”
NBC executives didn’t budge. But while Trump got half the national spotlight, Savannah Guthrie made sure he paid for it with sharp questions that kept coming, one after the other.
Did he have any remaining COVID symptoms? Did he ever develop a case of pneumonia? Did he take a coronavirus test before the debate with Biden as required by the Commission on Presidential Debates?
Trump said he is symptom-free at the moment, said he didn’t “do too much asking” about his chest X-rays while a patient at Walter Reed medical center, and said he wasn’t sure if he had or hadn’t tested before the debate: “The doctor has very accurate information -- if you are president, you have a lot of doctors you're surrounded by -- I was in great shape for the debate, and sometime after the debate, I tested positive.”
Why hadn’t he condemned white supremacy on the debate stage?
Trump said he did condemn white supremacy on stage and always has “denounced white supremacy” and then complained that the press “always starts off with the question.” Interrupting as Guthrie tried a follow-up, the exasperated president asked, “Are you listening? I denounce white supremacy!”
Why won’t he condemn Q-Anon for spreading a conspiracy theory about satanic cult of pedophiles controlling the Democratic Party?
Trump said three times that he didn’t know about the group before adding that the only knowledge he had was that they were “very much against pedophilia” and that “they fight it very hard.” The president expressed frustration that Guthrie didn’t ask him about antifa and that the press had not asked Biden about antifa.
She said it was because Biden wasn’t there, a not-so-subtle reminder to the audience about why the two presidential candidates weren’t together on stage.
”How cute,” he replied.
Why did he retweet an article claiming that Navy SEALS killed a body double of Osama bin Laden, while secretly capturing the real bin Laden, and that former President Obama may have had the SEALS killed to hide the plot?
The commander-in-chief replied that it was “an opinion of somebody” and that it “was a retweet.” While he didn’t endorse the idea, he added, he was simply putting it “out there.”
At this Guthrie responded, “I don’t get that. You're the president, not like someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.” Trump said he does a lot of retweets because “the media is so fake and so corrupt” and that without social media he “wouldn’t be able to get the word out.”
The grilling went on like this for 20 minutes without a single question from the audience. At the first commercial break, White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah hurried over to the president. Three other aides quickly followed. And although voters finally got their chance to ask questions when programming returned, Guthrie did her best to keep Trump on the ropes with her own follow-ups.
The evening was not supposed to go this way. It was supposed to feature a second presidential debate – moderated by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully with a townhall format -- but was cancelled after the debate commission insisted on a virtual event and Trump refused to participate. Without a Democrat to attack, the Trump campaign returned to familiar form. They went after the moderator. And vice versa.
“Even though the commission canceled the in-person debate that could have happened tonight, one occurred anyway, and President Trump soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate,” Trump spokesman Tim Murtaugh said at the end of the night.
Others were delighted with the journalist’s performance. The liberal website Vox crooned that “Guthrie delivered the Trump interview we’ve been wanting for years.” Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wished she would moderate a townhall with Trump “every night between now and election day.”
To Trump loyalists, Guthrie’s adversarial attitude, and the cheering section it engendered, merely confirmed the president’s oft-stated view that the media has taken sides in this election. But, in their view, the night was not at all a waste.
“Obviously, she was trying to placate liberal critics who attacked NBC for giving Trump a platform at all,” a conservative operative close to the campaign told RCP. “Savannah’s decision to aggressively debate Trump instead of interview him or allow voters to speak at the townhall allowed Trump to appear the optimist and turned the studio audience to his side.”
This was particularly true over the left shoulder of the president. Throughout the night one woman nodded with enthusiastic agreement and gave thumbs up regularly when he spoke, earning her both online gratitude and infamy.
Conservative corners of the Internet heralded her as “the hero we need right now,” while liberal social media users suspected a plant who was pulling off “a psychological trick.” Perhaps that reaction encapsulates the entire evening – and even the Trump presidency itself. Although aggressive, the questioning from Guthrie was nothing Trump hasn’t faced before. And after four years, the nation has grown accustomed to a president who pushes back equally hard.
Did the Republican win a strategic victory then by drawing attention away from the Democrat? “Definitely,” the conservative operative explained. “That’s why liberals were up in arms in anger against NBC, knowing Trump is must-watch and Biden is a snooze-fest.”
When the night was finally over and Guthrie was out of questions, Trump press aide Dan Scavino shared a “behind the scenes” video of the night on Twitter. The president was working over a delighted crowd. As MSNBC returned to regular programming, Rachel Maddow tried distancing her cable network from parent company NBC.
“Well, that happened,” the liberal talk show host said to start her show. Guthrie’s question were fine, she added. NBC, not MSNBC, she sighed, had produced what “was a strange replacement for what was otherwise supposed to be the second presidential debate of this general election season.”