It was unavoidable from the moment that NBC News agreed to host the third Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night that it would be a conduit for misinformation. Any political debate involves some falsehoods, it’s safe to assume, but a debate featuring candidates vying for an electorate deeply committed to supporting Donald Trump almost certainly is going to amplify nonsense.
2024 presidential election
End of carousel
NBC’s position was not helped by its partners. There was radio host Hugh Hewitt, a Washington Post opinion contributor but who introduced himself as representing Salem Radio — part of a media conglomerate that is responsible at least in part for a galaxy of misinformation, including the dishonest and debunked election-fraud film “2000 Mules.” NBC’s streaming partner was Rumble, an online platform that celebrates its lax content guidelines and therefore plays host to extremist broadcasts.
And then the candidates started talking.
Misinformation piped from right-wing media showed up in the first sentences offered by a candidate, specifically, the opening statement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He was asked why he was a better candidate than Trump (who leads him and everyone else who appeared on the debate stage by a wide margin). DeSantis then launched into a prepared speech about the “trouble” the country was in, thanks to uncaring “elites.”
“They don’t care that your family is less secure because of the open border that’s allowed drugs and even terrorists to come into this country,” DeSantis said. “Well, I care.”
Both of those assertions are dubious. The idea that the border’s porousness was a contributor to the influx of the dangerous drug fentanyl came up repeatedly, although Hewitt later correctly noted that most fentanyl smuggling occurs at existing border checkpoints, and that the drug often is brought in by U.S. citizens. It’s been a mantra on the right for over a year now that President Biden’s border policies are responsible for the increase, although the increase began under Trump. It’s just politically irresistible to tie together the increase of drug overdoses and the increase in people coming to the United States to seek asylum.
DeSantis’s claim about terrorists, though, was a popular one. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley raised it, too, as did business executive Vivek Ramaswamy.
This happens to be an increasingly common line on Fox News at the moment, that terrorists are filing across the U.S.-Mexico border. The idea of foreign terrorists infiltrating the United States gained new saliency with the Hamas attacks in Israel early last month; the idea that similar dangerous actors are headed here, via the unprotected Rio Grande, is again too hard for Biden critics to resist.
The claim depends on counts of the number of people apprehended at the border who are on the federal government’s terrorism watch list — a list that has been criticized by civil libertarians as being both too broad (looping in people only loosely tied to terrorism suspects or people who share those peoples’ names) and too narrow (missing people whom the government might understandably want to monitor). Dozens of people on the terrorism watch list came to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, for example, an indicator of the breadth of the document.
Reporting (including by NBC) indicates that there has been an increase in the number of people on the watch list who have had contact with authorities at the border this year. But, as one government official noted to NBC, this is “consistent with the overall increase in migrants crossing the border and the rising number of migrants coming from areas of conflict.”
As of July, 216 people on the watch list had been stopped at the border. That’s up from 165 in fiscal 2022, which ended on Sept. 30, 2022.
“The number of border crossers on the watchlist was higher in fiscal year 2019, at 280,” NBC’s Julia Ainsley reports.
This was a central part of Trump’s rhetoric about building the wall at the time, that there were all these terrorists pouring into the country. Reports from his own State Department, though, noted that there was no known infiltration of terrorists into the United States by way of Mexico. The most recent such report, released last year, asserts that the “southern border remains vulnerable to terrorist transit, but to date there have been no confirmed cases of a successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil by a terrorist who gained entry to the United States through Mexico.”
In other words, it is true that a terrorist could come across the border into the United States. Claims that terrorists have done so, though, depend on those watch-list numbers which, like the amount of fentanyl seized, are a measure of people stopped at the border, not ones allowed into the United States. And if someone planning to attack the United States crosses into the country legally with a visa (as has happened), that has nothing to do with the border’s porousness.
On Wednesday night, though, none of that context was presented to those watching the debates. They just heard “terrorists are coming over the border.”
They heard a lot of other stuff, too. Ramaswamy, in particular, was a conduit of unchecked nonsense, seemingly in keeping with his campaign’s plan to be “unhinged” during the event. Ramaswamy said that the investigation into links between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign was “Hillary Clinton made-up disinformation,” which it wasn’t. He said the media “rigged the 2020 election,” which it didn’t — and even that the media had rigged the 2016 election, which is a new one. He elevated the long-debunked assertion that the Justice Department had referred to parents protesting at school board meetings as terrorists, which it didn’t. He hyped the idea that Biden is somehow a puppet being controlled by others, a common refrain on the fringe right. (In case you were uncertain, there’s no evidence of this one, either.)
Ramaswamy also claimed that Biden’s son Hunter “got a $5 million bribe from Ukraine” which, he ridiculously claimed, is why the United States is now aiding Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders. The bribe thing is based on an unsubstantiated allegation made by congressional Republicans, an allegation that has more evidence against it than for it.
CNN’s Dana Bash pressed Ramaswamy on this particular claim after the debate. He was unable to offer any evidence beyond the equivalent of “Republican legislators said it.”
“I think that what I am doing in this race is speaking truth,” Ramaswamy told Bash. He may think that, but he’s not.
We are in a new era in American politics and media in which there is both an unfettered willingness by candidates to make indefensible claims that play well with their voting base and in which there is limited ability on the part of good-faith actors to moderate or contextualize the comments as they are presented. (NBC did offer a QR code allowing viewers to see debate fact checks, but the odds that any significant portion of the audience did so are low.) Donald Trump ran in 2016 by elevating fringe-right claims that his more-traditional opponents viewed as anathema. In 2024, that sort of elevation is the norm.
Meaning that NBC’s service as a conduit for those claims on Wednesday was inevitable from the moment it agreed to host the debate.