Dana Bash and Jake Tapper Let Candidates Be the ‘Stars of the Show’

The microphones were muted. So were the moderators.

Despite all the CNN logos filling viewers’ screens, and the nonstop hype that the network had piled onto Thursday’s prime time debate between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, the anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash mostly receded into the background as they moderated.

There were virtually no real-time fact-checks of Mr. Trump’s numerous baseless assertions. At tense moments, the moderators deferred to the candidates to directly address each other’s claims. And the concerns that Mr. Trump might pick a showstopping fight with his CNN interlocutors proved unfounded.

Mr. Tapper’s name was mentioned only twice in the course of 90 minutes. Ms. Bash’s name was not uttered once.

CNN had made clear ahead of time that its moderators would act as facilitators, not participants. Its chairman, Mark Thompson, called Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump “the stars of the show.” On that front, the network succeeded.

Whether viewers agreed with that approach may depend on their partisan leanings, and some Biden supporters were quick to grumble that the moderators let too many falsehoods go unchallenged.

But the unusual format of this debate — the first in decades to be fully controlled by a single television network — had been fully negotiated and agreed to by both campaigns.

While Mr. Trump has a record of steamrolling debate proceedings and jeering moderators, on Thursday he evinced a newfound discipline, rarely interrupting his opponent or either of the CNN hosts. The result was an evening notably free of the cross-talk or chaotic moments that may have compelled the moderators to interject.

It was a technical aspect of the broadcast that seemed to have more of an effect than any of the questions or follow-ups that the moderators posed.

The decision to mute the candidates’ microphones when it was not their turn to speak was insisted on by senior Biden aides, who had complained about Mr. Trump’s refusal to follow the ground rules during the first unruly debate between the two in 2020.

But on Thursday, the muting capability seemed to better suit Mr. Trump’s televisual skill set. His bombast, often free of facts and context, was a stark contrast to Mr. Biden’s often rambling and unsteady responses. Mr. Trump was better at packaging sound bites into the time allotted.

And while the moderators declined to grill Mr. Trump on some of his more outlandish falsehoods, Mr. Biden often let those opportunities slip by, too. When Mr. Trump baselessly suggested that Mr. Biden had encouraged Vladimir V. Putin’s military attacks, it was up to the current president to reject the assertion. He simply called it “malarkey.”

Follow-ups did occur, notably when Ms. Bash pressed Mr. Trump three times to state whether he would accept the results of the November election. Three times, Mr. Trump declined to directly answer the question.

And Mr. Tapper at one point found himself urging Mr. Trump to make even a halfhearted attempt to answer the question that the anchor had just posed.

“So President Trump, you have 67 seconds left,” Mr. Tapper said dryly, after Mr. Trump went off on a tangent about China and used the phrase “Manchurian candidate” to describe Mr. Biden. “The question was, ‘What are you going to do to help Americans in the throes of addiction right now who are struggling to get the treatment they need?’”

Early on in the night, there was a moment when Mr. Trump seemed tempted to run afoul of the rules. Clearly irked, he tried to tack on a riposte to a Biden answer about abortion, but his microphone was muted and viewers at home could not hear him. The camera flipped to Mr. Tapper, who moved forward with his next question.

By the time Mr. Trump reappeared, he had done something that many of his regular viewers may not be accustomed to: He had fallen silent.

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