Chris Wallace: Trump 'bears the primary responsibility for what happened' during debate

Chris Wallace, like many, didn't see the train wreck of Tuesday night's presidential debate coming.

The "Fox News Sunday" anchor, 72, moderated the first of three debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, which proved to be a daunting task. The chaotic evening was marred by frequent interruptions, forcing Wallace to remind the candidates that they agreed not speak over each other in the debate rules.

It seemed at times, Trump was also sparring with Wallace. At one point, Wallace told Trump: "Mr. President, you're not the moderator."

Wallace appeared on Fox News' "Bill Hemmer Reports" Thursday, revealing he initially thought Trump's interruptions were the sign of a good debate to come.

"My initial reaction was, 'This is great,'" Wallace recalled. " 'Cause so often these debates become parallel news conferences, where one candidate answers the question to him, the other candidate answers the question to him. So when the president started engaging with Biden I thought, 'We're gonna have a real debate here.' It became clearer and clearer, over time, that this was something different, and that the president was determined to try to butt in and throw Joe Biden off."

Citing the president's number of interruptions, Wallace placed the majority of the blame on Trump's shoulders. "He bears the primary responsibility for what happened on Tuesday night," Wallace said. 

"It was only 45 minutes in that I realized what just a total mess and disservice this was to the country and to try to stop it," he continued. "Do I wish I had stepped in earlier? Yes, but, as I say, hindsight is 20/20."

After Wallace failed to maintain order of the two candidates, many spectators begged the question: Why not cut the microphones? The Commission on Presidential Debates said Wednesday that "additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates."

But Wallace feels cutting off mics would not have been the solution for Tuesday's catastrophe, noting Thursday that with just feet between the candidates, Trump would've presumably been picked up on Biden's mic and he "still would've been disrupting and distracting Biden." 

"Secondly, we're talking about the president of the United States and the Democratic nominee," Wallace said, bringing up the idea of a button that would allow moderators to mute. "Boy, I don't want to be in the position of saying, I'm gonna interpose myself between the president and the public and say, 'You can't hear what he has to say now.'"

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In his first interview following the insult-laden debate, Wallace told the New York Times Wednesday that he "never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did."

“Generally speaking, I did as well as I could, so I don’t have any second thoughts there,” Wallace said. "I’m just disappointed with the results. For me, but much more importantly, I’m disappointed for the country, because it could have been a much more useful evening than it turned out to be."

Wallace, who also moderated the final 2016 presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, added: "I’m a pro. I’ve never been through anything like this."

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Chris Wallace of Fox News moderates the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Sept. 29 in Cleveland.

Wallace was heavily criticized for losing control of the debate almost immediately as Trump constantly interrupted Biden and Wallace, even after the moderator repeatedly pleaded with the candidates to civilly discuss key issues.

In hindsight, Wallace said he agreed with his critics, admitting, "I don’t know that I ever really did" seize control of the debate. But the veteran anchor said he didn't have "advance warning" of Trump’s game plan.

"I’ve read some of the reviews, I know people think, Well, gee, I didn’t jump in soon enough," Wallace told the Times Wednesday. "I guess I didn’t realize – and there was no way you could – that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.”

During the debate, Wallace told the candidates, "I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruption." Directly to Trump, Wallace added, "I'm appealing to you sir to do that." 

Wallace told the Times that he felt "desperation" at that exact moment. 

"As somebody who has said from the very beginning that I wanted to be as invisible as possible… (You’re reluctant) to rise to the point at which you begin to interject more and more," Wallace said Wednesday. "First to say, 'Please don’t interrupt,' then 'Please obey the rules,' and third, 'This isn’t serving the country well.' Those are all tough steps at real time, at that moment, on that stage."

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Read full transcriptfrom first presidential debate between Joe Biden, Donald Trump

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP) ORG XMIT: OHJE305

Though the commission thanked Wallace Wednesday for his "professionalism and skill," Wallace admitted that he doesn't "feel much like celebrating."

"I'm just sad with the way last night turned out," he added. 

The next scheduled debate between Trump and Biden is an Oct. 15 town-meeting format in Miami that will be moderated by C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully.

As for any advice for Scully, Wallace warned: "If either man goes down this road, I hope you’ll be quicker to realize what’s going on than I was."

Contributing: Bill Keveney, Rasha Ali

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