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Here’s what you need to know about Lester Holt and Monday’s Trump-Clinton debate

Meet your moderator.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Sep 25, 2016   Updated on May 25, 2021, 10:36 pm CDT

On Monday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and real estate mogul Donald Trump will face off for the first presidential debate of the 2016 general election. When Trump and Clinton square up to their respective podiums at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York at 9pm ET, Lester Holt will be the the person tasked with keeping every from devolving into unintelligible yelling.

Here’s a quick rundown of what you should know about Holt and the context surrounding his moderation of the first presidential debate between Trump and Clinton.

Who is Lester Holt?

Holt is best known as the anchor of weekday edition of the NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC. Holt began his time behind the desk at Nightly News last year, after Brian Williams was suspended for falsely claiming a helicopter he was riding in Iraq was hit by enemy gunfire. Holt kept the position after Williams returned to NBC following the conclusion his suspension.

When Holt was named as Williams’s replacement, he became, as CNN noted, the first African-American solo anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast.

A San Francisco Bay Area native, Holt spent 18 years as a reporter at CBS stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago before moving to MSNBC in 2000. He anchored a number of different shows on NBC networks, eventually anchoring the weekend edition of the Nightly News. In addition, he’s also hosted shows for the History Channel, Syfy Channel, and NBC’s coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Holt also plays bass guitar and has performed with Earth, Wind, and Fire.

What do the Trump and Clinton campaigns have to say about Holt?

After Holt was named as debate moderator, Trump went on the attack—slamming Holt as a democratic partisan. “By the way, Lester is a Democrat,” Trump told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats. It’s a very unfair system.”

Trump’s assertions, however, were incorrect.

Trump’s concerns about Holt’s political affiliation aren’t the only ways the former reality TV star has attempted to pressure Holt into giving him more favorable treatment. In a recent interview on Fox & Friends, Trump insisted that Holt shouldn’t attempt to fact-check statements made by either candidate.

“I think he has to be a moderator,” Trump said. “I mean, if you’re debating somebody, and if she makes a mistake or I make a mistake … we’ll take each other on. … But I certainly don’t think you want Candy Crowley again.”

Crowley is a CNN journalist who moderated a 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. During that debate, she famously interjected to correct Romney’s assertion that it took two full weeks for Obama to publicly acknowledge the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya was an “act of terror.”

The Clinton campaign has said little about Holt himself, but they do hope he fact-checks during the debate. 

“For the moderator to let lies that come out of his mouth at this debate to go unchallenged would give Donald Trump an unfair advantage,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters on Friday. “We do believe it is the role of the moderator in this case to call out those lies and to do so in real time.”

Why does Clinton want fact-checking and Trump doesn’t? 

While Trump has said he hopes debate moderators don’t fact-check either candidate, fact-checkers have been far rougher to Trump than to his opponent. Of the 259 of Trump’s statements analyzed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organization PolitiFact, only 4 percent have been rated as completely “true” and another 11 percent rated “mostly true,” whereas 53 percent have been labeled “false” (34 percent) or “pants on fire” (19 percent). 

In contrast, PolitiFact has rated 22 percent of Clinton’s statements as “true” and another 28 percent as “mostly true.” The share of “false” (11 percent) or “pants on fire” (2 percent) ratings in the collection of Clinton’s statements evaluated by PolitiFact is just 13 percent in total.

Is Holt getting pressure from anywhere else?

Yes, from all sides. This right-leaning group of “1,215 Americans educating the country about free-enterprise solutions to climate change” is promoting a story on Facebook urging Holt to ask the candidates about its cause.

Conversely, an online petition from the progressive group is pushing for Holt to ask about “how they’ll eliminate barriers to civic participation and their visions for how we will take a step toward achieving the promise of our democracy, a vision of political equality for all Americans.”

Who decides what questions Holt will ask Trump and Clinton?

Holt himself. According to the organization that controls the debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), “moderators alone select the questions to be asked.”

What topics will Holt cover?

Unclear. In a press release, the CPD indicated that the three topics Holt plans on discussing during the debate are “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and, “Securing America,” which could mean virtually anything.

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*First Published: Sep 25, 2016, 12:24 pm CDT