Donald Trump, Hugh Hewitt, and a Tale of Two Debates

GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump (left) and Jeb Bush participate in the first Republican debate in August. GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump (left) and Jeb Bush participate in the first Republican debate in August. Andrew Harnik/AP

SIMI VAL­LEY, Cali­for­nia—The most im­port­ant per­son at Wed­nes­day night’s Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial de­bate here at the Ron­ald Re­agan Pres­id­en­tial Lib­rary won’t be Don­ald Trump. It will be Hugh He­witt.

The 59-year-old ra­dio host, an es­tab­lish­ment-friendly con­ser­vat­ive and con­sti­tu­tion­al law pro­fess­or with a pen­chant for ask­ing tough ques­tions, has a bit of a his­tory with Trump. He­witt faced cri­ti­cism last month after say­ing on NBC’s Meet The Press that Trump doesn’t have the tem­pera­ment to be pres­id­ent. And earli­er this month, Trump called He­witt “a third-rate ra­dio an­noun­cer” after He­witt’s ques­tion about a spe­cial Ir­a­ni­an mil­it­ary force tripped up the GOP front-run­ner.

But if Trump didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate him ask­ing him about Gen­er­al Solei­mani, just wait un­til He­witt gets to the Ohio-class sub­mar­ine.

That’s a pet top­ic for He­witt, who will join CNN’s Jake Tap­per in ques­tion­ing the can­did­ates at the second GOP de­bate. More pro­fess­or­i­al than po­lar­iz­ing, more col­legi­al than con­front­a­tion­al, He­witt has de­veloped a repu­ta­tion in re­cent years as a tough-but-fair in­ter­view for White House hope­fuls, many of whom enter his arena un­pre­pared to wade in­to the weeds of fed­er­al poli­cy­mak­ing.

Or, in the case of Trump, un­able to dis­tin­guish between the Quds and the Kur­ds.

Trump’s stumble on He­witt’s show—con­flat­ing Ir­a­ni­an spe­cial forces with an eth­nic pop­u­la­tion in north­ern Ir­aq—was blood in the wa­ter for Re­pub­lic­ans who view the real-es­tate mogul as in­tel­lec­tu­ally vap­id and have yearned for his lack of policy know­ledge to be ex­posed. But it also served as a re­mind­er to all of the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates that He­witt, un­like mod­er­at­ors in the 2012 cycle, will not be ask­ing can­did­ates wheth­er they prefer thin-crust or deep-dish pizza.

“I’m look­ing for the next com­mand­er-in-chief to know who Has­san Nas­ral­lah is, and Za­wahiri, and al-Ju­lani, and al-Bagh­dadi,” He­witt said to Trump on his Septem­ber 3 show, lead­ing to a tense ex­change about “gotcha” ques­tion­ing. “Do you know the play­ers without a score­card, yet, Don­ald Trump?”

“No, you know, I’ll tell you hon­estly, I think by the time we get to of­fice, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone,” Trump replied. “I knew you were go­ing to ask me things like this, and there’s no reas­on. … You know, those are like his­tory ques­tions. Do you know this one? Do you know that one?”

Of course, any­one who has listened to He­witt’s show knows his­tory ques­tions—and in-depth dis­cus­sions of geo­pol­it­ics and de­fense policy—are his spe­cialty. The man who loves to ask his guests about Al­ger Hiss and Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book about al-Qaida, The Loom­ing Tower, was ap­pro­pri­ately labeled byBuzzFeed’s McKay Cop­pins as “prob­ably the most likely to ask a de­bate ques­tion that knocks a can­did­ate out of the race”—not be­cause his ques­tions are un­fair but be­cause they of­ten re­veal em­bar­rass­ing cracks in a can­did­ate’s know­ledge.

This is par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous for Trump. The front-run­ner, in months of speeches and in­ter­views, has fas­ti­di­ously avoided dis­cuss­ing policy de­tails. Last week, for ex­ample, he ar­rived at a rally on Cap­it­ol Hill protest­ing the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar deal and began his speech by say­ing Ted Cruz and oth­er speak­ers had “gone through all of the de­tails” already, free­ing him to talk in broad strokes about Pres­id­ent Obama’s in­com­pet­ence and his own his­tory of “won­der­ful” deal-mak­ing.

If He­witt had his way, then, Wed­nes­day’s de­bate would prob­ably sound a lot like his ra­dio show, push­ing can­did­ates to en­gage in de­tailed con­ver­sa­tions about com­plex geo­pol­it­ic­al sub­jects. In oth­er words, it would be the worst-case scen­ario for Trump.

For­tu­nately for the front-run­ner, He­witt isn’t run­ning the show Wed­nes­day night.

The lead mod­er­at­or is Jake Tap­per, CNN’s star an­chor, who has demon­strated an ap­pet­ite for ant­ag­on­ist­ic ques­tion­ing and in­terne­cine ex­changes. (He and He­witt will be joined in ques­tion­ing the can­did­ates by by CNN cor­res­pond­ent Dana Bash.) Tap­per, aware of the tough act CNN is fol­low­ing—last month’s FOX News de­bate was viewed by a stun­ning 24 mil­lion people—is ex­pec­ted to mim­ic his FOX coun­ter­parts by ask­ing ques­tions that eli­cit in­tra-can­did­ate dis­putes rather than policy-ori­ented talk­ing points.

If that’s the case, and Tap­per’s goal is to fa­cil­it­ate con­front­a­tions among the can­did­ates, the de­bate will likely be­come a school­yard brawl—right in Trump’s wheel­house.

If, on the oth­er hand, He­witt’s in­flu­ence turns the de­bate in­to a ref­er­en­dum on the can­did­ates’ know­ledge of policy, Trump could look out of his depth.

This is why He­witt is the per­son to watch Wed­nes­day night. And it’s why the Trump-He­witt rivalry is crit­ic­al to the out­come—not be­cause they sparred on the ra­dio, or traded un­flat­ter­ing as­sess­ments of one an­oth­er, but be­cause they want com­pletely dif­fer­ent things out of the de­bate it­self. And be­cause if one wins, the oth­er loses.

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