On the eve of Tuesday’s presidential debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News declared his goal as the evening’s moderator: “My job is to be as invisible as possible.”
With a pugilistic President Trump relentlessly interrupting his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Wallace repeatedly struggled on Tuesday to keep the proceedings coherent, reduced at times to pleading with the president to pause and allow his opponent to speak.
“Mr. President, I am the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question and then you can answer it,” Mr. Wallace, sounding more headmaster than moderator, instructed Mr. Trump early on. (Mr. Trump, the headstrong pupil, did not accede.)
Known for his sharp interrogations of political figures, Mr. Wallace — at 72 the youngest of the three men onstage — succeeded in keeping Mr. Trump more or less in check during his first go-round as moderator four years ago, when the pundits declared the veteran Fox News anchor a clear winner of the night.
On Tuesday, Mr. Wallace faced harsh reviews as viewers assessed his performance on social media. “Moderate this debate — now,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, demanded on Twitter 15 minutes in, speaking for a large swath of the political class.
In a brute-force style, Mr. Trump flouted the agreed-upon ground rules and refused to allow Mr. Biden his two minutes to respond to questions, leaving Mr. Wallace yelping at one point, “Let him answer!”
Not satisfied with merely speaking over his Democratic opponent, Mr. Trump took aim at the moderator, too, repeatedly scolding Mr. Wallace. “I guess I’m debating you, not him, but that’s OK, I’m not surprised,” Mr. Trump said after one Wallace query he disliked.
The debate had no breaks. But at the midway point, perhaps sensing that Mr. Trump was threatening to steamroll the event, Mr. Wallace did something unusual for a presidential moderator: He effectively called the debate to a temporary halt.
“The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions,” Mr. Wallace said, directly asking Mr. Trump to yield a higher civic ideal. “I’m appealing to you, sir, to do it.”
“And him, too?” the president replied defiantly, nodding at Mr. Biden.
“Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting,” Mr. Wallace replied.
The brief cease-fire did not last.