NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker is being heavily praised for her professionalism after making her debut as moderator of a presidential debate, the final of which was held Thursday, Oct. 22. Even President Donald Trump — who attacked Welker repeatedly and called her “unfair and terrible” on Twitter just days before — said he was impressed with her.
The vitriol toward Welker continued just hours before the debate. Trump tweeted, “Look at the bias, hatred and rudeness on behalf of 60 Minutes and CBS. Tonight’s anchor, Kristen Welker, is far worse!”
However, Trump changed his tune by that evening. “By the way, so far I respect very much the way you’re handling this, I have to say,” Trump told Welker during the debate.
Welker, 44, is the first Black woman to moderate a presidential debate in nearly 30 years. The last to do so was ABC’s Carole Simpson in 1992, according to The New York Times.
Before she began her questioning, Welker laid out the rules of the debate. She told Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden their mics would be muted at certain points but cautioned they were to avoid cutting each off at all times.
“On behalf of the voters, I’m going to ask you to please speak one at a time. The goal is for you to hear each other and for the American people to hear every word of what you both have to say,” Welker said.
Topics of the debate included the coronavirus pandemic, race, health care, foreign policy (relations with China and North Korea, specifically), taxes, the economy, and more. It took place in Nashville, Tennessee.
When the topic turned to race, Welker asked Trump about his negative characterizations of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Mr. President, you’ve described the Black Lives Matter movement as a symbol of hate. You shared a video of a man chanting ‘white power’ to millions of your supporters. You’ve said that Black professional athletes exercising their First Amendment rights should be fired. What do you say to Americans who say that that kind of language, from a president, is contributing to a climate of hate and racial strife?” Welker asked.
Trump replied that he was first introduced to Black Lives Matter when they were at an unidentified protest “chanting, ‘pigs in a blanket,’ talking about police.”
“That was my first glimpse of Black Lives Matter. I thought it was a terrible thing,” Trump said. “As far as my relationships with all people, I think I have great relationships with all people. I am the least racist person in this room.”
When Welker asked Trump to respond to citizens concerned about many of the divisive and racially charged statements he’s made, he doubled down on his claims.
“I don’t know what to say,” Trump said. “I have criminal justice reform done, and prison reform, and opportunities, I took care of Black colleges and universities. I don’t know what to say. They could say anything. I mean, they could say anything. It makes me sad. I am the least racist person. I can’t even see the audience, because it is so dark, but I don’t care who’s in the audience, I’m the least racist in person in this room.”
Biden gave a sarcastic rebuttal, calling Trump “Abraham Lincoln” after Trump claimed to have done more for Black people than any other American president.
“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history,” Biden quipped. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”
Biden went on to list examples of Trump’s racist actions including calling for the execution of the young Black men accused of raping a white woman in New York City, known at that time as the Central Park Five. Biden offered additional examples like the Muslim ban and telling far-right group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
“Come on, this guy has a dog whistle about as big as the foghorn,” Biden said.
While Welker gave both candidates a chance to respond to the other’s accusations on various topics throughout the evening, she firmly said “We need to move on” if they began to get too long-winded with their rebuttals.
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said Welker made them proud.
“Every single person at NBC News is bursting with pride. Kristen is beloved and admired by all of us and tonight the whole country knows why,” Oppenheim told CNN.
Her fellow journalists also praised Welker’s performance, noting people may not understand how difficult it is to moderate.
“I’m beaming watching Kristen Welker. Such an amazing moment for her and for all who know of her hard work and dedication to journalism. Go girl!” fellow Black female journalist Yamiche Alcindor tweeted.
“The winner of tonight’s debate is none other than @kwelkernbc. This debate felt normal,” tweeted Black CNN journalist Omar Jimenez, who was arrested by Minnesota police while covering the George Floyd protests in May.
MSNBC anchor Brian Williams said, “Somebody owes our colleague Kristen Welker an apology.”
His co-anchor Rachel Maddow agreed. “Yeah, she’s owed an apology by the president, who attacked her over and over and over again heading into this event tonight,” Maddow said.
Fox news anchor Chris Wallace — who moderated the last presidential debate and was heavily criticized for his failure to keep order — said he was “jealous” of Welker’s stellar performance.
“Well, first of all, I’m jealous,” Wallace said on Fox News’ post-debate coverage. “I would have liked to have been able to moderate that debate and to get a real exchange of views instead of hundreds of interruptions.”