TV Newsers React to First Trump-Biden Debate of 2020: ‘That Was the Worst Debate I Have Ever Seen’

By A.J. Katz 

Tonight, President Donald Trump and former vp Joe Biden are going at it for the first of three presidential debates, sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The first debate of 2020 is taking place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace is the moderator.

Wallace moderated the most recent presidential debate as well, debate No. 3 between Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016.

With the former vice president up in the polls, how will the incumbent react this evening? With President Trump, one can always expect the unexpected.


If you’re not sure where to watch tonight’s event, we’ve got it all laid out for you … and then some.

It’s worth noting that ABC News contributor Chris Christie led President Trump’s debate prep, and he will be part of the network’s coverage tonight.

Roughly 84 million total viewers watched the first presidential debate of 2016 across 13 Nielsen-measured English- and Spanish-language networks, a record. That 84 million figure does not include viewers watching digital platforms, or on unrated networks like Bloomberg or C-SPAN.

It’s doubtful tonight’s debate can match that. Debate No. 1 of 2016 was an event without an incumbent, and featured an outspoken, celebrity businessman in Trump versus one of the best-known women on the planet, Clinton, going head-to-head for the first time.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a bit more bullish (granted, the chairman is taking digital into account)

Below, a presidential debate ratings history.

Presidential Debate Telecasts: 1960 – 2016

YEAR NETWORK DATE CANDIDATES RATING % Households (in millions) Total Viewers (in millions)
2020 Sept. 29 (Debate #1) Trump – Biden TBD TBD TBD
2016 14 Networks Sept. 26 (Debate #1) H. Clinton – Trump 47.6 56.4 84.0
2016 11 Networks Oct. 9 (Debate #2) 37.1 44 66.55
2016 13 Networks Oct. 19 (Debate #3) 41.7 49.5 71.6
2012 12 Networks Oct. 3 (Debate #1) Obama – Romney 40.4 46.2 67.2
 2012 12 Networks Oct. 16 (Debate #2)   40 45.6 65.6
 2012 11 Networks Oct. 22 (Debate #3) 35.9 41.2 59.2
2008 13 Networks Sept. 26 (Debate #1) Obama – McCain 31.6 36.2 52.4
 2008 13 Networks Oct. 7 (Debate #2)   38.8 44.4 63.2
 2008 12 Networks Oct. 15**** (Debate #3)   35.0 40.0 56.5
2004 7 Networks Sept. 30 (Debate #1) Bush – Kerry 39.4 43.0 62.5
 2004 7 Networks Oct. 8 (Debate #2) 29.6 32.5 46.7
 2004  7 Networks Oct. 13**** (Debate #3) 32.6 36.3 51.2
2000 7 Networks Oct. 3*** Gore – Bush 31.7 32.4 46.6
2000 7 Networks Oct. 11**** 26.8 27.5 37.6
 2000 7 Networks Oct. 17 25.9 26.3 37.7
1996 5 Networks Oct. 6 Clinton – Dole 31.6 30.6 36.1
1996 5 Networks Oct. 16 * 26.1 25.3 36.3
1992 4 Networks Oct. 11 ** Bush – Clinton – Perot 38.3 35.7 62.4
1992 4 Networks Oct. 15 46.3 43.1 69.9
1992  4 Networks Oct. 19 45.2 42.1 66.9
1988 3 Networks Sept. 25 Bush – Dukakis 36.8 33.3 65.1
 1988  3 Networks Oct. 13 35.9 32.5 67.3
1984 3 Networks Oct. 7 Reagan – Mondale 45.3 38.5 65.1
 1984  3 Networks Oct. 21 46.0 39.1 67.3
1980 3 Networks Oct 28 Carter – Reagan 58.9 45.8 80.6
1976 3 Networks Sept. 23 Ford – Carter 53.5 38.0 69.7
 1976  3 Networks Oct. 6 52.4 37.3 63.9
 1976  3 Networks Oct. 22 47.8 34.0 62.7
1960 3 Networks Sept. 26 Nixon – Kennedy 59.5 28.1 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 7 59.1 27.9 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 13 61.0 28.8 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 21 57.8 27.3 N/A

Source: Nielsen Live+Same Day. Viewing Prior to 2006 is Live.

Ari Melber is ready to rock:

As is Chris Wallace, although I’m not sure what happened here:

And here come the reviews, fast and some furious. The consensus early on seems to be that Wallace is having a tough time controlling these two candidates.


Lots of interruptions so far.

Colleagues of Wallace’s slam him:

However, not everyone wants to pile on the Fox News Sunday anchor:

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote:

Although some media observers were quick to trash the veteran broadcaster, that may have been unfair. It’s hard to know what he — or anyone — could have done, given President Trump’s refusal to abide by the rules or observe even a modicum of decorum.

The 90-minute debate fell, almost immediately, into chaos and cross-talking, not because Wallace isn’t a capable broadcast interviewer but because Trump was out of control.


The postgame analysis from cable and broadcast news is that Wallace couldn’t control the proceedings, and that this particular debate won’t change anyone’s minds.

“Clearly, this was the most chaotic presidential debate I’ve ever seen, and I suspect most of you, if not all of you, have ever seen,” said Wolf Blitzer. “It will certainly raise a lot questions about a future presidential debate between these two candidates. But we shall see.”

Jake Tapper, never one to mince words, called it “the worst debate I have ever seen,” adding, “It wasn’t even a debate, it was a disgrace, and it’s primarily because of President Trump.”

“That was a shitshow,” said Dana Bash (gotta love cable!)

CNN contributor Rick Santorum said that Wallace “actually did a pretty good job of shutting him [Trump] down,” and made the case that the Fox Newser probably didn’t expect what he would have to deal with going in.

ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, typically more measured, agreed with Tapper:

Speaking of ABC News, with Chris Christie sitting in the same room, ABC News contributor Yvette Simpson called it “an unmitigated disaster … the people who lose are the American people.” ABC News special contributor Matthew Dowd beamed in, and used similar language, adding that people living in foreign countries are “embarrassed.”

Martha Raddatz added, Chris Wallace tried, but it was “mud wrestling in the middle of a pandemic.”

Christie said that the problems the president had tonight “can potentially be fixed.” Christie attacked Biden, but said that Trump was “too hot.”

Over at NBC, Lester Holt said, “If hearing that this debate is over was music to your ears, you may not be alone,” adding, “What could have been a low point in American political discourse, certainly in any modern debate we’ve seen, just took place over an hour and a half.”

Savannah Guthrie added, “You can’t pretend that this was a normal debate, a normal example of American democracy at work, a normal tussle between foes. This was different. This was an all-out grudge match. It was undignified at many times. It was cringeworthy at many times.”

CBS News political analyst John Dickerson: “When the stakes were that high, the debate couldn’t have been lower, and it was not an equal opportunity experience. … And they are looking to these two gentlemen to take the country over in the midst of this period of jaggedness, and the president came, it seemed, with just a sawtooth.”

MSNBC’s Brian Williams: “What a dark event we have just witnessed. A tip of the hat to Cormack McCarthy when we say ‘If that wasn’t a mess, it will do until the mess gets here.'”

Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum seemed a bit more subdued than folks on other networks. “You wonder if America maybe lost on the substance of the heart of the issues and whether they really got to them over some of that back and forth,” said Baier.

“It was a tumultuous back-and-forth, no holds barred. They both dove in really hard, and I think obviously, there was a ton of talking over each other,” responded MacCallum.

Sean Hannity had a different take. Hosting his program in the 11 p.m. hour from the site of the debate, he remarked, “The extremely weak, the frail, the confused, kind of angry Joe Biden just got steamrolled by President Trump.”

Hannity praised Trump, as did former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders; however, Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer wasn’t as impressed with either candidate, saying, “Sean, I’ve got to say, these shouldn’t be gladiators and this shouldn’t be a food fight. This was a train wreck tonight. Both candidates. Too much back and forth, and it’s just not good for the country. There may be people who like to have this thing for the entertainment value … this was way over the top tonight.”

Hannity responded by saying he personally “likes a fight,” and that he “likes real,” and claimed “the American people like real too.”

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said as part of his postmortem: “I understand that Chris Wallace, last night, Willie [Geist], was thrown into the middle of something that no debate moderator has ever been thrown in before. And while it was extraordinarily frustrating, I think all of us need to walk a mile in his shoes before the morning after saying, well, he could have done this, he could have done that.”

*UPDATE (3 p.m. ET, Wednesday): The CPD released a statement this afternoon, “Additional structure will be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”