Trump-Biden brawl in Cleveland prompts debate commission to consider format changes

Ledyard King and Phillip M. Bailey, USA TODAY
·6 mins read

WASHINGTON – High school teacher James Miller was skeptical about tuning in to Tuesday's debate between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, but his wife convinced him to watch.

Now he regrets turning on the television.

"It was a brawl, it was not a debate," Miller, 49, former debate coach at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky, told USA TODAY. "It was two old guys arguing at the back table in the bar. "As somebody who teaches persuasion, rhetoric and debate, that was definitely not a debate."

Widespread criticism of the raucous confrontation in Cleveland prompted the Commission on Presidential Debates to announce that it would be adding "additional tools" to the two remaining encounters between the White House contenders to prevent a repeat of the chaos.

More: Chris Wallace lost control of the Trump-Biden debate on a historically bad night of TV

"Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the commission said.

The debate planners said they were "carefully considering" changes and would announce them shortly.

The second of three debates between Trump and Biden is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami.

Biden's supporters want future moderators to be able to shut off microphones to prevent Trump from talking over his opponent. The president's allies took umbrage over Biden's performance, too. The former vice president called the president a "clown" and told him to "shut up" as Trump jabbed at him.

More: 'Will you shut up, man?': Testy exchanges on health care, Supreme Court among debate top moments

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said any changes would treat the president unfairly.

"They’re only doing this because their guy got pummeled last night," he said in a statement. "President Trump was the dominant force and now Joe Biden is trying to work the refs. They shouldn’t be moving the goalposts and changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

At the Cleveland debate, moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News often tried in vain to prevent continuous interruptions, more of them by Trump than Biden.

The two candidates interrupted either Wallace’s questions or their opponent’s 93 times in the 90-minute debate, according to the Washington Post. Trump was responsible for 71 of them, compared to Biden’s 22.

Chris Wallace tried to control the flow of the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Chris Wallace tried to control the flow of the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

"I have no idea who won this debate. But I do know we're all worse off because of it," Todd Graham, director of debate at Southern Illinois University and a three-time national college debate coach of the year, wrote in a column for CNN.

"There are too many life-changing issues for Americans that ought to have been discussed (like, for example, a substantive exploration of the purported topics of this debate, which fell away or got systematically scrambled in the cacophony of chatter the President directed at his frustrated adversary)," Graham wrote.

The Miami debate will take the form of a town hall meeting, in which the questions will be posed by citizens from the South Florida area.

Each candidate will have two minutes to respond to each question and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate further discussion, according to the commission.

But Wallace had trouble keeping both candidates, especially Trump, on any kind of clock. When Wallace asked Trump to stop interrupting, the president claimed Biden was interrupting, too.

More: 'I guess I'm debating you': Trump and moderator Chris Wallace clash in raucous debate

"Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Wallace told Trump, at one time asking the president if he would like to change seats and become the moderator.

On Wednesday, Wallace told The New York Times he's not keen on cutting off microphones, saying it won't stop one candidate from being disruptive to another sharing the same stage.

Wallace said he was "disappointed" how the debate spun out of control "because it could have been a much more useful evening than it turned out to be.”

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday he doesn't believe the format changes the commission might be contemplating will do much to rein in the cross-talk or the interruptions.

"I'm not sure there's a format change that solves that problem," he told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped the president prepare for the debate, said on ABC News that he thought Trump showed too much "heat."

"I think it was the right thing to be aggressive but that was too hot. I think what happens is with all that heat, you lose the light. That potentially can be fixed. Maybe. Maybe not. We'll have to see," he said.

Christie also critiqued Biden's performance, saying the former vice president appeared to lose steam over the course of the hour and a half debate. Echoing Trump's criticisms of Biden, the former governor questioned if the Democratic contender, who is 77 years old, had the stamina to do the job.

"Because if you're not up to being able to stand there for 90 minutes and be consistently coherent, people are going to wonder whether you'll be able to do that when you're sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office," Christie said.

Some of Trump's supporters criticized Wallace, saying the Fox News host was helping bail out Biden at key moments in the debate.

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed over COVID-19, crime and election integrity during the first presidential debate.
President Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed over COVID-19, crime and election integrity during the first presidential debate.

"Hard to believe how biased (and) corrupt Chris Wallace was last night," Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative radio host and author, said in a tweet on Wednesday. "Subtle but perfect partner for Biden. Every time (Trump) had Biden on ropes and about to self-destruct, Wallace either rudely interrupted Trump, or demanded topic be changed. Disgraceful."

Others criticized Wallace's inability to control Trump and stop the president's interruptions. Near the end of the debate, he called the president out for not abiding by the two-minute response rule throughout the debate, which his campaign agreed to follow.

"Why don't you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule, OK sir?" Wallace asked.

Miller, the Kentucky high school teacher, said he isn't sure any moderator would have fared better but that Wallace failed as a journalist to ask important follow-up questions during the exchange, such as when Trump said the Proud Boys, which is classified as a hate group, should "stand by" in the face of civil unrest in U.S. cities.

Salvaging these forums in the future as an important venue for Americans to learn about White House candidates, Miller said.

Fixing the debate must start with addressing Trump's continuous interruptions, he said, and that at the very least the organizers must give the moderator the power to mute a candidate or TV director the instructions to switch the camera off one candidate when the other is speaking.

"When you've got a bull in a China shop the question isn't how do you redesign the China shop," Miller said. "The question is how did the bull get in here in the first place and what can we do to make sure he doesn't destroy it the next time?"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Debate: New tools under review for Trump-Biden face-offs after chaos