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.