CNN Debate Hosts Tapper and Bash’s Long History of Being MAGA Targets

Jim Watson/Getty Images
Jim Watson/Getty Images

Unless Donald Trump decides to back out at the last minute because President Joe Biden didn’t agree to be tested for some mystery performance enhancers, CNN will host the first 2024 presidential debate on Thursday night.

The event will be moderated by longtime CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. The debate is also extremely early, historically speaking, taking place before either candidate has been officially nominated by their respective parties.

Tapper, who anchors the weekday news show The Lead and co-anchors the Sunday talk show State of the Union, joined CNN in 2012. Before his award-winning career at the cable news juggernaut, Tapper was a White House correspondent for ABC News and a frequent guest host of the network’s Sunday show This Week. He’s also a prolific novelist and cartoonist.

Bash is a CNN lifer of more than 30 years, having risen through the ranks to host Inside Politics and share anchoring duties on State of the Union. She started as a producer before appearing on-air and went on to host multiple programs and anchor the channel’s special election coverage.

The format and rules of the debate, which both campaigns have agreed to, will put quite a bit of focus on the two moderators. The guidance will also provide ample opportunity for Trump and his allies to complain that the odds are stacked in Biden’s favor.

According to the network, the candidates will appear at a uniform podium, no props or pre-written notes are allowed, and microphones will be muted unless it is the candidate's turn to speak. During the 2020 debates between these two same contenders, Trump drew widespread criticism for his constant interruptions and steamrolling of the moderators.

With the election being a retread of 2020 and polls showing a dead heat at the moment, much of the attention will not only be on the candidates’ performance in this debate but also how Bash and Tapper—two figures who’ve often been the target of MAGA world—will fare in handling the showdown.


Tapper and Bash are old hands at moderating debates involving Trump.

During Trump’s first run for the White House, the duo moderated a pair of Republican primary debates in September 2015. The first forum was an “undercard” debate which featured also-ran candidates who didn’t meet the polling criteria to make the main stage. Immediately following the preliminary bout, the top ten candidates hit the main stage—including Trump. That primetime debate averaged over 23 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in CNN history.

Tapper and Bash joined up again in March 2016 for another GOP face-off. This time around, the Republican field had been whittled down to Trump, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The debate was described at the time as a “civil get-together” that drew “acclaim for its substance,” especially compared to the primary’s previous insult-heavy throwdowns. The muted performance from Trump that night, however, may have also led to lower ratings: CNN drew 30 percent fewer viewers than Fox News’ GOP debate a week earlier.

During the 2020 Democratic primaries, Tapper and Bash, along with then-CNN anchor Don Lemon, moderated a two-night series of debates featuring 20 hopefuls looking to challenge Trump. This time around, the lower-polling candidates were mixed in with the more prominent contenders rather than going with the “undercard” format, giving longshot aspirants like Julian Castro opportunities to take a swing at Biden on the national stage. The event also gave us the memorable moment of New Age author Marianne Williamson warning about the ”dark psychic force” and “collectivized hatred” and racism.

This Thursday’s debate won’t even be the first one Bash and Tapper have moderated this year.

The pair hosted what turned out to be an utterly inconsequential one-on-one between GOP pretenders Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley in January. Trump cited his overwhelming poll advantage as a reason to skip every primary debate this season. In fact, while Haley and DeSantis took to the CNN stage, Trump counterprogrammed that night with a Fox News town hall that inevitably beat the debate in the TV ratings. In the end, the two remaining Trump foes in the primary would soon drop out of the race.


A key reason that Trump’s showdown with Biden won’t be the only battle to watch Thursday night: Both of the veteran CNN anchors have a history of calling out Trump’s bigoted rhetoric and falsehoods over the years.

Tapper, of course, has been far more outspoken than his State of the Union co-host when it comes to Trump. And he has not been shy about using strong language to make his feelings known.

After the first 2020 Biden-Trump debate—infamously marked by the ex-president’s endless interruptions and juvenile insults—Tapper sighed about the unhinged spectacle. “That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck. That was the worst debate I have ever seen,” he declared on-air, adding it was a “disgrace” solely because of Trump. Bash, meanwhile, said the debate was a “shitshow”—uncharacteristically crass language for her—and a “bad reality TV show.”

After Trump’s 2020 loss, Tapper repeatedly dragged the outgoing president’s “embarrassing” legal efforts to overturn Biden’s victory and his claims that the election was “rigged” and “stolen.” He expressed sympathy for MAGA voters who were “outraged because they’re being told things that aren’t true” by Trump.

Following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, Tapper’s criticism of the ex-president grew even more pointed.

“He did try to kill democracy once, and he’s going to try to do it again,” he said in December 2021, reacting to evidence uncovered by the Jan. 6 House committee. “But this time with a little help from his friends.”

After Trump finally left the White House, Bash noted that while Trump “didn’t start any new wars abroad,” he “completely incited battle after battle and even, I would say, war domestically.”

Tapper went even further in condemning Trump late last year for seemingly invoking Nazi-style rhetoric while railing against immigrants “poisoning the blood” of the United States.

“If you were to open up a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, you would find the Nazi leader describing the mixing of non-Germans with Germans as poisoning. The Jew, Hitler wrote, ‘poisons the blood of others,’” Tapper said last December. “Donald Trump’s language mirrors this directly.”


While Bash has been more than willing to criticize Trump when warranted, she’s also come under criticism—largely from the left—over her tendency to give the former president the benefit of the doubt when he went for a kinder, gentler “tone.”

After Trump spent the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic publicly dismissing the threat of a virus that would essentially shut down the world for the next year-plus, Bash appeared impressed when he finally seemed to acknowledge a problem. Proclaiming that he’d become the “leader” that America needed at that moment, she remarked that it was an “important thing to note and to applaud from an American standpoint and from a human standpoint.”

She later praised Trump’s “very different tone” shortly after the Jan. 6 attack, noting that a pre-taped video he released (more than a day after a MAGA mob stormed the Capitol), in which he took credit for stopping the insurrection, was the “first time he accepted reality.” Trump, meanwhile, has literally laughed to his advisers about how easy it is to game the media with his “new tone.”


Perhaps in a way to reset expectations after spending the past few weeks portraying Biden as a zombified corpse who can barely move or talk, MAGA media and Team Trump have pivoted to attacking both of the CNN moderators. (They’ve also argued that Biden needs to be tested for “performance-enhancing drugs” ahead of Thursday night to ensure he’s not “jacked up” on some mystery wonder drug.)

The broadsides kicked into overdrive early this week when CNN anchor Kasie Hunt was forced to kick Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt off the air for repeatedly taking potshots at Tapper and Bash during an interview.

In the aftermath, Trump and his right-wing media allies have fumed in sync that the debate will be “three-on-one” and that “Fake Tapper” will clearly be in the tank for Biden. Meanwhile, the MAGAverse has quickly disseminated a list of talking points that revolve around Tapper and Bash’s past criticisms of Trump. Topping that list is Tapper’s accurate description of Trump’s “poisoning the blood of our country” remarks.

Since Leavitt was dumped by Hunt, Fox News has mentioned how Tapper compared Trump to Hitler at least 27 times on its air, according to media monitoring service TVEyes. Fox News host and Trump confidant Sean Hannity even brought on Leavitt to specifically whine about Tapper—and how CNN ditched her on-air.

“He can lie about President Trump and say his presidency was an American nightmare, and push the Hunter Biden scandal in an effort to help Joe Biden's campaign and compare President Trump to Hitler, which is disgusting and egregious,” she groused on Monday night. “But when I breach the subject on the network, they cut me off!”


The former president’s allies have argued that Thursday’s debate will be “rigged” by the CNN pair and that it now may be in Trump’s best interests to avoid it altogether.

“This Thursday debate is totally, 100 percent rigged,” ex-Trump strategist and future prison inmate Steve Bannon grumbled on Tuesday. “It's a channel and a network that has no self-confidence in what they do. This thing is totally rigged.”

Bannon later claimed the debate “should not” take place. “CNN has no respect for the Trump campaign, for President Trump, for MAGA, for the American people, and certainly not for the institution of a fair debate of what they did to the press secretary today,” he stated.

Fox News host Jesse Watters took it even further on Tuesday night, referencing former DNC chief Donna Brazille tipping off Hillary Clinton about a CNN debate question in 2016: “Hillary is giving Biden the answers, and CNN is probably giving Biden the questions. Remember, it's the same network that leaked her questions the last time,” the Trump-boosting Fox Newser exclaimed. “How do you trust a network that's been calling Trump Hitler to play fair? You can't. And if there's any time to play dirty, it's now because Biden's losing to Trump in every swing state.”


CNN has reacted to the MAGA caterwauling by praising Tapper and Bash and full-throatedly backing the moderators ahead of Thursday’s cage match.

“Jake Tapper and Dana Bash are well-respected veteran journalists who have covered politics for more than five decades combined,” a network spokesperson said Monday. “They have extensive experience moderating major political debates, including CNN’s Republican Presidential Primary Debate this cycle. There are no two people better equipped to co-moderate a substantial and fact-based discussion.”

At the same time, however, the Biden campaign is miffed that CNN political director David Calian has asserted that the hosts will not interrupt the truth-averse Trump with fact checks. The debate is “not the ideal arena for live fact-checking,” the CNN exec said. Chalian later told the AP that unless there is an “egregious” falsehood that “needs to be checked,” the moderators are “not here to participate in this debate.”

In the end, any pushback against Trump’s BS will be solely up to Biden. The president won’t be able to rely on Bash and Tapper to intervene—no matter how experienced they are in dealing with Trump.

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