During a mid-September town hall event in New Hampshire, presidential candidate Donald Trump fielded questions from would-be concerned citizens, the first of which came from a man who essentially cut to the heart of Trump's fear-based campaign: "We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. ... When can we get rid of them?" This supporter and his query, filled with an almost satirical, Stephen Colbert-esque level of ridiculousness, were seen by some in the conservative media as a potential plant used as bait in order to make Trump appear stupid. But when Hugh Hewitt jumped on the Trump conspiracy theory bandwagon, it made me stop to question something.
If the conservative commentator and radio talk show host — who will be a moderator for Tuesday's Republican presidential debate — can't be trusted to call Trump to task for his comments on Muslims, can he be trusted to fairly assess the debate in the interest of all voters?
During the supporter's question, which received both a chuckle and genuine response from the candidate ("we're going to be looking into it," Trump said), the man also asserted that President Obama was a Muslim and again called into question the accuracy of the president's birth certificate. Given that Trump was the self-appointed leader of the birther movement and his more recent, increasingly heinous remarks on Muslims, it doesn't come as a major surprise that Trump not only entertained but answered the question in a serious way.
But Hewitt, who had previously been more critical of Trump than many of his talk show counterparts, was nevertheless quick to come to the candidate's defense. While on an episode of Fox News' Hannity, Hewitt said of the incident:
I think that was a made-up controversy. I'm not even sure that guy is for real and wasn't a plant. [It was] totally a fake controversy designed to embarrass Donald Trump.
So what does Hewitt's defense of Trump's remarks mean for the Dec. 15 debate? Although the radio talk show host moderated the second GOP debate, it will be his first time moderating a presidential debate since Trump told an audience full of people that he planned to "look into" solving the "Muslim problem." By calling the question a "fake controversy," Hewitt removed any accountability Trump had when giving his answer. A supposedly fake question, in essence, can only illicit a fake response.
But Trump has expanded on this response in the meantime — he's called for a closer, warrant-less surveillance of mosques, that all Muslim-Americans be registered in a database and forced to wear identification markers (yeah, that's Hitler you're thinking of), and that U.S. borders should be completely closed to any Muslim entering the country.
These points are bound to come up during the next Republican presidential debate, and Hewitt should not and cannot shrug them off like he did previously. Plant or not, the way that Trump answered that question should have been enough. It will now be up to Hewitt, with full knowledge of the many other deplorable things Trump has said regarding Muslims, to return to form and contribute to the debate in a meaningful way.