CNN won't fact check Donald Trump during the debate. Here's why we shouldn't be worried

Voters who care deeply about facts are already voting for Joe Biden

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 27, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

For tonight's debate, one thing is certain: Donald Trump will lie, the entire time. When he's not deflecting or filibustering, he will be lying. He will make up facts, present his weird fantasies as if they really happened, and probably claim that random people genuflected before him, calling him "sir" with tears in their eyes. With Trump, there are two basic rules: If accusing someone else of something, he's actually confessing to it. With everything else he says, assume the opposite is true. The only exception is when he gets angry and the truth slips out, which is what President Joe Biden no doubt hopes will happen when Trump is pressed about his role in overturning Roe v. Wade. 

So it's understandable that many folks were dismayed to hear that the moderators at CNN, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, will not be fact-checking the debate. "Obviously, if there is some egregious fact that needs to be checked or the record needs to be made clear, Jake and Dana can do that," David Chalian, CNN’s political director, told the Associated Press. "But that’s not their role. They are not here to participate in this debate. They are here to facilitate a debate between Trump and Biden."

Stress levels are already high, so it's no surprise this is making it worse. At her personal blog, Salon contributor Heather "Digby" Parton lamented, "It appears that CNN is simply planning to enable a freak show instead of doing its job as journalists."

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I get why this is upsetting. For those of us who want to see democracy survive, the anxiety about this debate could not be higher. But, as odd as it might seem to say so, it's probably for the best that CNN is going this route. There's not a lot of evidence that taking the time to fact-check Trump will do much to move the needle. For four years, Trump was heavily fact-checked by news organizations which counted over 30,000 lies, an average of 21 a day. It made little difference because the people who care about facts were already opposed to Trump.

Also, if the moderators try to correct Trump's lies, that is all the debate will be about and there won't be any room to discuss the issues, much less Biden's views on the issues. To reach those precious undecided voters who will decide the race, it's better to focus less on facts and more on the big picture: Which man should be trusted with the future of this country?

Bring on the freak show. I want people to be freaked out. They need to stop telling themselves Trump's return wouldn't be "that bad." They need to be terrified, and I trust if he goes hog wild, terrified is how most non-MAGA people will feel. 

The single biggest obstacle for Biden's re-election right now is that so many Americans, especially low-information swing voters, have forgotten who Trump is. The debate could be a critical moment to refocus people on what scares them the most about Trump, which is his larger sociopathic approach to politics, of which lying is only a small part. The man has been convicted of 34 felonies and is facing three more felony trials. That he's a liar is a given. What viewers need to understand is how Trump's lies and crimes affect them. 

In his Wednesday Message Box newsletter, former Barack Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer highlighted a line from a recent Biden campaign ad that summarizes their message about Trump: "This election is between a convicted criminal who is only out for himself and a president who is fighting for your family."

Parton is right that it would be bad if Biden spent too much time during the debate correcting Trump's lies. So hopefully he doesn't do that. Everyone already knows Trump is a liar. There's no need to "prove" it. Biden can simply assert that Trump's statement is a lie, and move onto what really matters: Why he's lying and how it hurts the country. For instance, instead of getting into the weeds of how we know the 2020 election was fair, Biden can focus instead on what the Big Lie led to, which is the January 6 insurrection. The upside of this approach is it's the one that is more likely to cause Trump to flip out. 

Biden understood this well in 2020. In the first presidential debate of that election, Biden declared, "I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar." He also called Trump a "clown." This upset a lot of Beltway journalists at the time. Some accused Biden, heaven forbid, of being angry. It turned out to be the right choice. Politely ignoring Trump's sociopathic behavior is just complicity at this point. But Biden also understood it's the elephant in the room — everyone can see it, no need to prove it's real. Trump's smoldering evil is likely to be that much more self-evident this time around, as he's spent the past four years wallowing in unjustified grievance and self-pity. Biden would be wise to take advantage and not waste too much time trying to "prove" what the audience can see for themselves. 

Trump has been telling his base that the debate will be "three against one," as usual pretending he's some downtrodden victim facing down the so-called elites. He wants nothing more than to get into a fight over facts with the moderators. As I wrote yesterday, Trump's supporters already know that he's a liar — it's what they like about him. He's tricked his base into seeing lies as a weapon to wield against their enemies. If they see him doubling down on his lies when corrected, they will cheer for him, foolishly believing he's sticking it to those liberal nerds, with their irritating insistence that facts matter. Trump does better when he's perceived as a fighter. Even his lies get justified in this narrative as a necessary evil when taking on the "elites." 

What viewers need to see is the reality of Trump, which is that he's a whiny narcissist, who lies for the same reason any sleazy criminal does: so he can serve himself while screwing over everyone else. Ideally, he will get frustrated and angry, so that he releases his already shaky grip on self-composure. For that to happen, there needs to be less focus on traits he's proud of — and he is very proud of his ability to lie with a straight face. It would be better if the discussion highlighted what Trump is afraid people see: A loser. He's proud of being the man who paid hush money to an adult film star. He's ashamed of being the man so sloppy he got caught doing it. I suspect Biden can land repeated blows on Trump's 34 felony convictions and other major court losses. Being reminded of his losses rattles Trump, whose self-esteem is so wrapped up in his self-image as a criminal who gets away with it.  

No doubt it would be better if everyone cared as much about facts as the progressives planning to watch the debate. But if that were the case, we wouldn't have to worry about any of this. A country where more people cared about facts is one where Trump wouldn't have gotten within a 10-mile radius of a presidential debate. The truth people need to see Thursday night is less about the statistics on crime rates or ballot counting, but about temperament. They need to see the true face of Trump: His selfishness, his sociopathic morality, and his erratic behavior. They already know he's a liar. What people need is a reminder of why he lies, and why his behavior is so dangerous. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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