Even though tens of millions of American voters have already made up their minds about who ought to be the next president of the United States, many are still expected to tune into tonight’s final presidential debate between Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.
In the middle of the brouhaha will be NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, only the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate and the first to do so in more than 20 years (ABC News journalist Carole Simpson was the first in 1992).
Welker is also the only nonwhite person to moderate a debate in 2020, a year when race and racial justice have been central issues in political and social spheres.
When the 44-year-old sits across from the presidential candidates on Thursday night, she will be the youngest moderator of the election cycle by “nearly a generation,” notes the Washington Post. But while Welker is unquestionably diligent, professional and poised—just see how she gracefully sidestepped two collapsing fixtures during a live shot from the White House earlier this year—the true test for tonight will be how well she manages an event that devolved into chaos the last time the two candidates met on stage.
The last time Trump and Biden shared a room was for the first debate, on Sep. 29. Unbeknownst to everyone outside his inner circle at the time, Trump had recently been exposed to the coronavirus. He spent much of the debate, moderated by Fox News journalist Christopher Wallace, cutting off Biden in a 90-minute slog that supplied much in the way of rancor (and migraines) but little substance. Because of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis—and his refusal to participate in a virtual event—the second debate between Trump and Biden was replaced with dueling town-halls. Biden came out on top of Trump when it came to ratings, with Today Show host Savannah Guthrie earning widespread praise for the way she challenged Trump when he would evade questions or lie.
Tonight, then, provides the last chance for viewers to get a substantive, “civil” debate—assuming they want that sort of thing. And—for the first time ever—she will have the aid of a “mute” feature, which will automatically silence candidates during the first two minutes of their opponent responding to a direct question from Welker. She will not, however unfortunately, have the option to mute candidates herself.
Welker will probe the candidates on the following five topics: fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership.
Her colleagues believe Welker is more than up for the task. NBC colleague and personal friend Andrea Mitchell told the Post that she considers Welker “tough” and capable of taking the “noise” and criticism that is part-and-parcel of moderating debates.
“It’s a tough challenge, but she is really very smart, very adept,” Mitchell told the paper. “She has no agenda, she does her homework, and I think if anyone can pull this off, it’s Kristen.”
A Philadelphia native, Welker began her career interning at the Today Show and has stayed with the network and its affiliates throughout her career. The lauded journalist was honored just last month with this year’s Outstanding Broadcast Journalist at the Washington Women in Journalism Awards. She told the organization that she considered the most important story of her career to be about the increased maternal mortality rates among Black women, reports Elle.
Not surprisingly, before the cameras have even begun rolling for the Nashville, Tenn., debate, she has found herself the target of Trump’s ire, with Trump calling her a “radical Democrat” at an Arizona rally on Monday. As Vox notes, the remarks came just a couple of days after Trump accused Welker of being “terrible [and] unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters.”
This is, of course, par for the course for Trump, though even he was singing a different tune about the Harvard-educated journalist earlier this year, when Welker, who has covered the White House for NBC since 2011, was added to NBC’s lineup for the weekend edition of the Today Show.
“By the way, congratulations on your new show,” Trump told her during a news conference in Davos, Switzerland in January. “They made a very wise decision.”